A Safe Space for Stories

Not long ago I spent two hours in a cozy recording studio with my long-time friend Anne Hallward talking about goodbyes. Anne is the host of Safe Space Radio, a public radio show dedicated to improving public health by giving voice to subjects that can be hard to talk about. The show for which we recorded will be broadcast on NPR stations and is about saying goodbye to people we love who are dying or have already died.

As the host of the show, Anne began by sitting quietly, closing her eyes, and centering herself in silence before a long conversation in which there would be no rush, so no sense of scarcity around her attention or time. I watched as she made a conscious transition into a place of compassion, tenderness, patience and deep listening.

“Tell me about saying goodbye to your son,” she began. At first, as I answered each of her questions with some stiffness and concern about how I would sound, I worried my words would not make sense. Then I started to relax as I realized she was giving me all the time I needed to explain such a complicated, nuanced topic as navigating terminal illness in a child. As I spoke, her expression seemed to offer only quiet, loving interest in my thoughts.

This kind of experience is all too rare in our busy, rushing society, when most people have somewhere to go and some pressing event on their calendar just after their time with you. Anne is one of the busiest people I know. When she arrived at the studio, she apologized for being rushed as she had just returned from a morning of recording in Boston. And I knew after our time together she would be rushing home to spend rare time with her family. But because of her generosity as a listener, the way she beamed all her loving attention toward me with every question she asked, as we sat together in the warm quiet of the studio, it was as if the rest of the world disappeared while I talked about saying goodbye to my son.

Anne’s attention allowed me to return to a time that had a deep impact on who I am as a person, to a topic that is tender and rich with emotion. It is a time I have mostly been able to leave behind in my current life, a time I don’t choose to return to often because I no longer need to. But being invited back there by someone who offered so much interest and kind curiosity allowed me to revisit one of the things that gives my life so much meaning. I was able to return to moments of tenderness, love and heart-rending pain.

I spoke of the time I cried with my six-year-old son, when I was so overcome with sadness over the growing clarity that he was dying that I could no longer hold back my tears, and he held my head in his skinny arms as the tears rolled down my cheeks. As I cried that day, the thoughts shouted in my head: Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’ll never make it if you die. But I didn’t want him to lose hope, so instead I had to change the words before they left my mouth: “I just love you so much. I hate to see you suffer. I want you to get well.”

As I told Anne this story, I felt tears rising to my eyes and the quavering in my voice betray my loss of composure. Anne’s eyes too were shining with tears. I hadn’t wanted to cry, but in that moment when I looked past the microphones across the table at Anne, when I worried about recording such sadness, it was good to know I was heard. It was good to know my heart still remembered how much I lost back then.

We continued after a quiet pause. And I moved back into examining the topic at hand with more detachment. After the interview, as I drove home, what stayed with me was not the views and ideas we’d discussed about death and departures. What stayed with me was the softness of my heart, opened by the simple but precious act of asking and listening. This softness, this sense of opening and depth does not come to us without making a place for it, without invitation and welcome. Anne’s invitation was her gift to me. My acceptance of the invitation was my gift to myself.

Most of us don’t often have the opportunity to be invited to speak in this way. Most people in our lives don’t have the time or attention to give us this kind of opening. This is why I think writing to heal can be so important.

When we write for healing, we, like a good listener, first center ourselves in silence, summoning attention and a deep sense of compassion. When we begin to write, we may feel awkward, stiff, but we keep going, our kinder wiser self patiently waiting while we bumble our way into our stories. When we make time to pick up the pen and ask ourselves about those topics that are tender or raw or generally hidden under the busy-ness of our daily lives, and we then listen with patience and kindness to whatever comes out onto the page, we are giving ourselves a gift. We are letting ourselves touch into places that matter to us. It might feel like there’s no room in the larger, outside world to talk about these topics, so if we don’t ask ourselves about them, if we don’t invite our own musings, they may never come into the light.

No matter what I write when I sit down to ponder on the page, whether it’s an attempt at a poem or paragraphs of complaining, I always feel at least a little bit unburdened by the process. I feel I know myself just a tiny bit better. And sometimes I’m lucky. I can find my way into something sweeter, deeper, more vulnerable in the writing that leaves me especially aware of what really matters to me, that lets me touch into this soft heart. When I make space to write, I am telling some part of myself that otherwise would be neglected, left in the dark, You are important. I care about what you are going through. I am listening. You are not alone.

I don’t know exactly why or how this works, but I am glad it does because doing it over and over has helped me see that my life matters, that the stories I carry are worthy of telling. To know that I am heard, even if only by an audience of one, helps me heal. And by inviting me to speak, Anne, and others like her, remind us how important it is to tell our stories.

To make room for your stories, join me for Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your life, a Live online 5-week Zoom series starting July 23rd, 2020.

Still Grieving Sometimes

Monday I felt at sixes and sevens all day. I tried everything. I changed the sheets, did the laundry, cancelled a credit card, dusted the bedroom, cleared some clutter. I even glanced in the fridge for food that should go. I found left-over rice, hard like Styrofoam, grains of white stuck to the sides of the glass container, and threw it in the trash. I emptied the dishwasher, watered the garden and called a friend to complain. And still I could not shake the feeling of things being not right, like something inside felt crooked, jagged, not settled.

When my fiancé sat down and held me close at the end of the day, I still felt cranky and prickly. I couldn’t put my finger on it. “I should be happy. My life is awesome. Why do I feel so crummy today? I’m such a baby,” I told him.

“You’re not a baby. You’re just having a hard day.”

And then I remembered: the date. June 22nd. As the reason I couldn’t get comfortable in my skin dawned on me, the tears began to seep through. “Tomorrow is Chan’s birthday,” I said.

And then I recognized that this feeling of being unsettled, not right, irritable, was nothing more than sadness. Heartbreak covered over with a thin veil of unconscious denial.

Of course there was denial. Why would I want to remember what tomorrow would be? Why would I want to remember such pain?

But the truth I have to face up to again, year after year, is that my beloved little boy died. Fourteen years now. He would have been twenty-two this year, but I never bother thinking about that. I never try to picture him just a little younger than his handsome, quiet, complicated big brother, a little older than his skate-boarding, skiing, mountain-climbing little brother. I don’t try to see them laughing together as men as they always did when they were little boys.

That night when I found myself crying about the boy I’d lost, I found myself grieving not so much for when he died, as for the life we’d all had together in that little town on the banks of the Mekong River. As the memories of mothering my young family kept floating up to feed my sadness, I felt a sense of the richness and depth of that life, where we lived among dozens of family members, where we were so tightly held in the fabric of that small community, where we walked down the street each day to visit the boys’ great-grandmother and aunt and uncle and cousins a few blocks away.

As we walked by each house, people sat in front usually on a wide bamboo bench in the shade of their doorways, two or three generations together, a toddler playing with an aunt or grandmother, an adolescent boy massaging an old uncle’s tired shoulders, a feisty grandmother sweeping the dust from her doorway, teasing the neighbors with her snappy remarks. All of them were people my then husband had known his whole life. Some were cousins or aunts or uncles, some only neighbors, but all of them shared our joy in the life of our young family. They laughed and called out to the boys, commented on how tall or handsome they were getting. They invited us to stop for a bite to eat or a chat.

Children are all that matters there. The center of everyone’s universe, the children.

In the morning when my mother-in-law entered the yard each day shortly after dawn, she called out to the three boys that lay cuddled in bed with us, “Codte, Chan, Tahn,” Ma mei! Ma sai baht! “Come, it’s time to offer food to the monks.” And off they’d rush to wash their faces and brush their teeth before Cody led the two littler ones running down the lane to their grandmother’s house.

Each night at dinner, family and friends gathered around the bamboo tray of dishes seated on grass mats on the verandah floor with family and friends. The children climbed from lap to lap being hand-fed balls of sticky rice topped with the best morsels of nourishing food by the grown-ups. Afterward, while two or three adults cleaned up, the rest would play with the children, horsey rides on hands and knees, children laughing and tumbling off strong farmer backs, running squealing to statue quiet during hide and seek when the big men pretended they thought they couldn’t be seen in plain sight or failed repeatedly at finding them, and the children laughed and laughed at the adult’s clownish stupidity.

At bedtime, the children chased one another around the bed, under the mosquito net, laughing and shrieking as their daddy tried to catch them while they pummeled him with pillows. And when they finally settled in around him for story time, the laughter from their lips was like rain on the desert of my lonely childhood soul, listening as he made up silly stories for them to dissolve into fits of delight night after night.

All that mattered there were the children.

So I cried and cried that Monday night, remembering the life we had before Chan died, before we moved to the US, leaving the family we loved behind, before the divorce, before my boys grew up, sometimes sad and quiet, sometimes silly and sweet. Before this life.

I know this life I have now is good. I know boys are supposed to grow up. I know mothers are supposed to move into the next stage. I love my life. I am lucky. It is good. And I only miss Chan sometimes.

When I met with the group I teach each Monday night, Women Writing to Heal, it was good to have a place to talk about this. It was good to know that these women, all of them grieving losses of their own, would understand. So I shared with them my sadness, and they nodded knowingly. It was good for them to see that even so many years later, when the grief bubbles up, there’s nothing we can do but receive it, let it move us, cry.

At the end of Monday’s class, when it was time to offer them a writing prompt, I asked: What would your beloved say to you about your own grief?

I wrote:
Oh Mama, I know our family changed. It changed when I died. But it would have changed. That’s what happens. Children grow up. There’s no way around it. Cody and Tahn love you. They will be OK. They have a good daddy and you and a good family all around. There was nothing you could have done to save me. I was sick. I was only meant to be around for a little while. They learned a lot just like you learned a lot. It’s OK.

And you’ve done an amazing job. You’ve healed so much.

It’s Ok for you to be happy mama. It’s OK for you to move on. Embrace your new life.

I think you’re right not to waste time and tears wondering what I would be like if I’d lived to 22. I didn’t. I lived to six-and-a-half and that was enough. That was a good life. That was a beautiful life. Of course you miss it. Of course you miss me. You are human. It’s Ok to be sad today and tomorrow if you need to. But it’s also OK to be happy.

I love you. You were such a good mom to me. You can always be proud of that. You always have me with you. I’m always in your heart. You can call on me whenever you need me. I’m not really gone. Because you loved me that much. And, of course, I loved you with a fierceness that time could never defeat. That is still inside you. Don’t ever forget how much I loved you. Don’t ever let time erase from your heart the memory of how much I loved you. Why do you think I showed it so well? Why do you think I worked so hard to show you all the time?
You can’t forget that, mom. I love you still.

Catharine H. Murray, Author Now You See the Sky, Akashic Books, 2018

June 23, 2020

On July 23rd, I will be teaching another 5-week Series of

Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life.

This Zoom class will meet each Thursday morning from 10 – 11:30 AM for 5 weeks.

No experience necessary.

Click here for more information and to register.