Many writers question whether they should take advantage of witnessed pain by incorporating their family or friends’ stories into their writing. Helen Garner is famous for it in ‘The Spare Room’. Lee Kofman has just released a glaringly honest account of her personal relationships in ‘The Dangerous Bride‘. I’ve been facing this dilemma recently with my own work, even though in my case I write fiction.
For my family, it’s a time rife with guilt, helplessness, yet humour. Guilt because we’re wondering if we’ve given up too early, helplessness because we simply don’t know what else could be done, humour because it’s the only way to cope.
Today, my father and I are transferring Mum, my step-mother, to a hospice. She won’t be coming back home. She has dementia. This is my father’s third marriage (my natural mother and first step-mother both died of cancer.) Current Mum has survived cancer too, only to succumb to this insidious disease.
The hospice is as nice as any modern, fresh, spacious and clean hospice can be, but it’s not home. Mum stalls outside her room. ‘No. No.’ It’s not hers. She doesn’t want it. Dad points to the picture of a collie dog on her door. Mum used to have a collie, Jordan. There’s a hint of recognition. Kathy, the hospice manager encourages Mum to come inside and look out the window — there’s a koala statue just outside, in the garden. Child-like, Mum shuffles in, coos at the window, then walks back out to the corridor.
While Dad retrieves her clothes and belongings from the car, I lead Mum outside to a grassy fenced-in garden. I’m grateful she’s distracted by the chicken and kangaroo statues. But her attention span is short and, tired of exploring, she wanders back inside to roam the corridors, eyes wide and mouth constantly working. ‘Where’s Dad?’ she asks. She no longer recognises that she has a husband.
We sit at a dining table with Kathy. Two other elderly residents sit across from us in the lounge, one inert in a recliner the other shifting her eyes between the television and us newcomers. There are plastic placemats with pictures of animals and birds. I move one with horses in front of Mum. In broken dialogue she manages to convey she used to ride horses on the sheep station where she grew up. Dad and I joke that I may be causing an upset if the residents come to dinner and find their placemats have been shifted.
We drink instant coffee while Kathy explains the admission procedure. She assures us that Mum will settle in after a week. It’s heart-breaking watching Mum stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down, pick at things, wander the halls, ask to go home, stand up, sit down, grimace, wander the corridors again, ask to go home, try to open doors too heavy for her. Her mouth still works, her hands wring each other. Her expression is one of confusion and … panic? It’s hard to know what her damaged brain is processing.
Kathy is softly spoken. She offers us sympathy. ‘It’s a difficult time for you all. You’ll be feeling a lot of emotions, including guilt. Be kind to yourselves.’ At this point, I grit my teeth, force my face to freeze and picture my heart as a small, solid, steel box. Don’t be nice to us or I’ll cry. I swallow and ask about the DNR form she mentioned earlier. Practical. Be practical. Be strong.
The discussion dwindles to awkward glances of ‘do we leave now?’ We sneak away so as not to panic Mum. We’re heavy with a fusion of relief, self-loathing and sadness mixed with a clutching hope that we are doing the right thing. And if we are, why do we feel like cowards?
What does a writer do with this emotional miasma? I’m doing it ‘write’ now. I’ve known this day was coming: years, when it was an early prognosis with a distant, inevitable end; months, when the insidious symptoms were too obvious to ignore; weeks, when I kept hoping for a reprieve from this horrible looming moment.
I experienced first-hand some of the cliches of Mum’s disease — the trembling hands and body, the half-formed sentences, the child-like tantrums and sudden joys at delusional imaginings. But from my father, I heard of more awkwardly embarrassing moments like pants being dropped in supermarkets, or unsettling yelling matches with ‘the people in the mirror’. I’m thankful I didn’t witness that; it would have touched some deep element of fear in me — is she seeing people from the ‘other side’? Or is it a basic symptom of brain malfunction? Either way, it’s confronting and terrifying.
So I observed, I stored away details, I derailed my emotions by incorporating them into the written word of my manuscript (an older YA fiction novel currently under submission). In the final stages of writing, it stunned me to know that life had handed me the missing pieces — the bits that coalesced the story, that solidified the characters and their relationships like an egg binds the ingredients of a cake, like the surface tension of a drop of water retains the liquid in one, whole, complete form. It was up to me to be brave enough to incorporate this ugly gift.
So I’m here now, with Dad, facing what we fear. And while I feel like a twig, offering miniscule support, my father is somehow surviving this constant tide of unfair crap life has handed him. And I see him as a sack of steel bearings: on the outside, he’s soft, malleable, worn down, world weary. On the inside, he’s intensely resilient, smiling for those of us that need it, placing one foot in front of the other to push through the shit life is throwing at him. Again. And Again.
And it’s only now I realise that this one day I’ve been dreading, the day I thought was the end, is only the beginning. For, like Noah Calhoun in The Notebook, my father will now have to sustain visits with a woman he loves dearly, a woman who will break his heart a little more each day, a woman who will swim in and out of reality and eventually lose whatever recognition she has of him.
Capitalising on Pain
And so it is for the teenage protagonist in my book: I gave Lauren’s mother dementia too. That’s a powerful, yet scary thing to say. While it’s not the core of the story, on one hand I feel like I’ve capitalised on my parent’s misfortune; on the other, I feel like I’m honouring their lives by sharing the deep ache of their lives.
Yes, there’s a risk that I may upset some family members by exploiting this horrible situation, but like many writers before me, I take a breath and move forward with unease. I steel myself by recognising that it’s a necessary step to making my writing resonate, and to perhaps showing other people who are suffering similar family tragedies that they’re not alone. That it’s okay to be frightened, to sometimes drop the ball, to ask for help, to learn and not fear the moment at hand. To know that you will survive and grow stronger than you think you are.
Otherwise, what’s the point of all this pain?