By the fall of 2010, my mother had been sick for a year and a half, already outliving the parameters of her terminal diagnosis. I had been living with my parents for a year by then, and my days were overflowing with her illness, creating a heartbreaking, beautiful, heightened, stressful and joyful existence, if an insular one. To cope and try to make sense of things, I attempted to write about it, but it wasn’t really working. This was the most important thing I’d ever experienced in my life, and I felt it should be my next book. But nothing was taking shape. Aside from a few inspired blog posts, I was failing miserably.
That October, in spite of myself, I decided to go to a literary festival in Portland, as my friend Sarah was in town and we had attended it together for two years running. She was always jazzed by it, feeding off the creative buzz, the possibility of publishing, listening to writers read. I wanted to be similarly enthused, and in moments I was, but the year before I had spent much of the conference feeling like a fraud and hating myself for the fact that my memoir hadn’t sold. It had gone out in 2008, “the worst time in the history of publishing,” which was part of the problem. Then there was the fact that many editors hadn’t been clear on “the arc of the the writer’s redemption,” by which they meant my arc, my redemption.
Don’t fret if you’ve never heard of this arc; it’s not a thing that exists in real life. It exists on the page or the screen, and in memoir, it is supposed to be the narrative journey that your protagonist takes (in this case, me) from the point where you introduce he/she/me to readers to the place in time where the book reaches its end. Because life is fluid and weird and fucked-up, it can be very difficult to pinpoint these exact moments in time, while simultaneously trying to explain what it is he/she/me has learned from point A to point B.
My arc went something like this: my sister had cancer, I helped take care of her, she survived when she shouldn’t have, and, in the aftermath of her remission, she fell in love while I fell into the deepest depression of my life and our relationship came almost completely undone.
I did my best to capture these events in the book, but as time passed, I realized that the editors had a point. It was two years later, and I was still struggling to figure out what it all meant. Now, too, my mother was dying, which ripped any semblance of an arc into indecipherable bits.
When Sarah arrived, she was hyped up, talking a mile a minute about her writing, her book plans, her new job, and her move from the East to the West coast. Everything was new for her that day, everything was possible. Her life was moving fast, and I don’t think she took a breath all afternoon. Mine felt all the more stuck in neutral for her enthusiasm. She had two books to her credit, with plans to write two more while working forty hours a week, while teaching some online classes as well. I was jealous not only of her enthusiasm, but her optimism and energy; for me, getting up before 10 had lately become a serious challenge.
Sarah asked about my mom as she always did, but when I’d answer, she seemed perpetually distracted, unable to focus. As we wandered between small press booths and Northwest souvenir kitsch, I tried to remember why, given the state of my life and writing, I had even bothered to come. The answer seemed simple: I had come to hang out with Sarah, a friend with whom I’d always felt an easy and comfortable bond—but not today. It was disappointing to feel disconnected from someone I had known for years, but this was part of what was happening to me as my mother’s illness wore on. The gap felt so wide on some days that I couldn’t remember what my life had been like before she was sick—what I did, what I talked about, what was important.
I had also come to the festival with the naive hope of having another Ethan Canin Experience. He had redeemed the event for me the year before, saved me from bludgeoning myself to death with the nearest book. He is one of my favorite writers, and if you haven’t read Emperor of the Air, stop reading this and go read that. Sarah and I had stumbled into his panel appearance and accosted him after he spoke. I gave him the Cliff’s Notes version of my story—my difficult graduate school experience, the failed memoir, all the freaking cancer—and he told me that sometimes, in order to write, you have to be told no, you have to be fighting against something. Then he asked for our cards and said: “Abby Mims. Now that’s a writer’s name. You have to be a writer.” A few days later, I sent him some links to things I had written about my mom. He responded, saying, “Beautiful. You should really keep doing this writing thing, because you’re very good at it.” I walked on air for at least a week.
Now, I took a deep breath and attempted to regroup, trying to function like a normal member of society, instigating conversations with Sarah that didn’t involve cancer, death or dying. I brought up authors we both loved, great places in Portland to get cupcakes, the Northwest rain. This helped. What also helped was seeing Steve Almond speak on a panel about humor in writing. Watching him rant and laugh made me feel almost human again. Afterwards, we went back to walking the main convention floor, where she stopped to chat with the local writers and publishers she knew. She knew a lot of them, and always made a point to introduce me as they talked, mentioned that I was a writer too.
“Oh,” they would say politely, “what do you write?” And I would mumble something about short stories and essays. Once I think I mimed typing in the air in front of me before I fell silent. Another year had passed without anything to show for my time. I was all the more clear that I was falling catastrophically behind, six years out of graduate school and not a trace of a book to my name. It was dawning on me as a writer, there is no tiny, smiling Ethan Canin to hold in your pocket at times like these—there is only your own vague sense of purpose and the hope that what you are experiencing will somehow eventually show up on the page.
Then, we ran into a jerk I dated whom we both knew, who once called memoir “so-much navel gazing.” I couldn’t even muster a smile. Sarah chatted with him while I stood silent next to his roommate. Attempting conversation, said roommate asked about my pug.
“He died,” I said. And he had, a few months after my mother’s diagnosis. The day was becoming a waking nightmare. “I think I’m about done,” I said to Sarah when we broke away from them. I felt like I wasn’t quite in my body anymore, that I was hovering just above it, watching from a few feet in the air.
“Really?” she said. “Well, I’ll just to do one more quick lap.”
I said okay and followed her to the main floor. She stopped at a booth manned by three very nice looking women in their twenties, the quintessential natural Portland types. They were there representing some kind of grant program. “Do you want to spin the Wheel of Conversation?” they chirped.
“Of course!” said Sarah.
I took a step back, pretended to browse some vintage postcards. I did not want to spin the Wheel of Conversation. I wanted to curl up on the industrial carpet and sleep for a week. I was close enough to hear the question she landed on: “What’s the best thing you’ve seen this week?” I don’t remember what her answer was, just that it was animated and detailed. I realized I couldn’t take it anymore, that I had to get out of there.
Sarah was on her way to the next booth, and in trying to catch up with her, I caught the eye of one of the Wheel Girls. “Do you want to spin the Wheel of Conversation?” she chirped. I don’t know why I said yes. I think it came down to a desire to please coupled with how earnest and kind she looked. I spun and got this question: “Who are your people?”
I was stunned, at a total loss. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more inarticulate in my life. “My people?” I said. “My sister had cancer and now my mom has cancer and I’m trying to write about it, but, well, my book didn’t sell –” I lost my train of thought. I stared at them, willing words.
They blinked, straightened in their chairs, waited for more. Awkward seconds passed. The blond in the middle said, “Well, it sounds like your people are writers. Or maybe people with cancer?”
“Sure,” I whispered.
“Well,” she said, “we’re taking submissions for the next issue of our magazine, and the theme is ‘Fail.’ I mean, not all failure is bad, right? And it sounds like you might have some interesting things to say about the topic.”
I took the magazine, my eyes already blurred. I caught up with Sarah, gave her a quick hug and bolted towards the exit. I lost it on the way to the elevator, then sat in my car sobbing and hyperventilating, the sadness and frustration I had been repressing for months spilling out. Then I cried all the way back to my parent’s house.
When I came through the front door, my stepfather was making dinner and my mother was sitting in her wheelchair at the edge of the kitchen island, trying unsuccessfully to watch him without correcting his cooking technique. I had tried to compose myself before going inside—not that I’ve ever been able to hide my feelings from my mom. I didn’t like her to see me upset about the current situation. She felt guilty enough that I was helping take care of her.
“How was the literary thing?” she said.
“Horrid, terrible,” I said, and then started to cry again. I told them how far behind I felt, how utterly lost. They listened as they always do; they said they were so sorry.
“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I mean, at this point, it just feels like the universe is fucking with me. Who are my people? Jesus Christ.”
They were both quiet for a few minutes, as was I. “Your people are people who have lost someone,” my mother said, sighing. “I’m afraid that’s just the truth.”
It’s not always easy to have a mother so wise, but there it is. I had a particularly crystallized moment when I found out she had a brain tumor, but didn’t yet know it was terminal. I started to count the people I knew, close friends and recent acquaintances, all about my age (36), who had lost their mothers: Dennis, Lisa, Al, Diana, Katie, Corey, Krissy, Jeff, and Cheryl, and the list just kept growing. I knew then she was going to die.
“But the rest of them, don’t they understand?” I said. “I’m doing really important work here. It’s just not anything they can see. There is no husband, no family, no book, no career.” I lost it again, and my mom held out her good hand to me. I hugged her for a very long time.
“There is no husband, no family, no book and no career yet,” she said into my hair. “There are none of these things yet.”
And this, it would seem, is the arc of my redemption—or a piece of it, anyway—as it might appear on the page. It was then I understood that living through my mom’s illness was changing who I was on a cellular level, blowing me apart and putting me back together so profoundly that of course I hadn’t yet been able to put it down in writing. I had no choice but to wait until the words came, until my mind could assemble the facts into some kind of palpable story. I had to let go of everything else, including the idea that even if there ever was a tiny, smiling Ethan Canin for me to carry around, it would really help anything, anyway. A writer’s faith is an almost entirely internal mechanism. However, I am lucky enough to have my mother’s voice with me when doubt creeps in, as it inevitably does from time to time.
None of these things yet.