Years ago, I read an essay by Adela Rogers St. Johns in which she told about the anguish she felt on learning of the death of her beloved son, and how that emotion eventually found its way into a short story. At the time, I found that callous, but I’ve since learned that personal memories can be put in a special place where they can’t be tarnished, but the emotions that went with them remain in the depths of a fiction author’s well. Knowing that, I suppose one day I’ll draw up some recent painful emotions and express them in a story. But not yet. Right now they’re too raw.
The last few months have been tough for me and my family. First my daughter-in-law was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. She and my older son were high school sweethearts, so she had been a member of my family since she was seventeen. While the family was still reeling from her diagnosis and she was deciding whether to fight or to accept a prognosis of a quick death, I learned that the illness I’d had around the first of the year wasn’t a virus after all, but something a lot more serious. That news was followed by several weeks of wrangling with my insurance company before I could have surgery. The horror stories about how people die because insurance companies deny treatment are all too true. I alternated between talks with my daughter-in-law about the choices she faced, and Kafkaesque conversations with insurance company employees.
My daughter-in-law decided to fight the odds and traveled to Philadelphia to one of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. I finally managed to get “dis-enrolled” from my insurance company so I could get the surgery I needed. My oldest granddaughter moved into a room in the hospital to be with her mother around the clock, my younger son came to stay with me during my hospital stay and post-op time. We stayed in touch with the rest of the family, downplaying my situation because my older son and his children already had all the worry they could handle. My surgery went well, and I’m on the mend.
My daughter-in-law got wonderful treatment in the Philadelphia hospital, but after two months she was flown home to North Carolina and died in a hospice three days later. The entire family except me and my younger son were with her when she died. That son left today to fly home and resume his life in New York. The other son and his children in North Carolina are doing all the sorrowful things families do when one of them is suddenly gone. We continue to be in touch by phone and email, but it still seems unreal that my daughter-in-law is truly, permanently, definitely gone.
I suppose in time, like Adela Rogers St. Johns, I’ll put all the fear and confusion and sadness of the last weeks into a fictional character. But I think it will be a long time before I’ll be able to separate the personal from the prose. In the meantime, I focus on the blessings of caring nurses and doctors, a strong family, and a conviction that all bodies die, but life does not.