Writing those “Hard Stories”

by Memoir Mentor on October 8, 2009

Some stories are so hard to write. They hang over our heads like dark clouds, sometimes stifling our ability to write anything else. We don’t want to “go there,” revisit those memories, bring those raw, painful emotions back again. And yet sometimes putting those memories and feelings on paper is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Somehow it helps expunge some of the pain from our head and heart, like sharing our experience with a sympathetic friend. In sharing, we lighten the load. It’s on paper. We no longer have to shoulder all the weight ourselves. It’s somehow all less horrible when we can talk about what we’ve gone through, like waking up from a painful, dark dream with the morning sun shining on our faces.

Several of my students have written hard stories recently: A man wrote about the day his beloved son died; two women told about the sad, irreversible decline of cherished spouses of many decades; a woman wrote about her husband becoming swallowed by Alzheimers. This is why they’ve come to my class, I think, when they read their stories to all of us.  These are the stories that must be told. It will aid in their healing process. And I find it’s healing for those of us who read and hear those stories, for we have some of our own, and it comforts and strengthens us to know that others have walked our path and know our pain and survived to tell the story we, too, must tell. I’m hoping these brave students will free others to write their hard stories, maybe showing them how they can “go there.”

I so appreciate Betty Nelson, one of my brave ones, who consented to share her poignant story with you. She has a lot to teach us, as you’ll see.

by Betty Nelson

I sit in my easy chair looking at my husband, Harry, asleep in his lounger across from me. His eyes are closed and his chin is resting on his chest. The afternoon sun emphasizes the deep lines of his face. Every so often his hands twitch slightly. He sleeps a lot during the day lately. I guess when you’re 93 you have the right to do that. The five o’clock news is blaring away on the television. It has to blare so Harry can hear it even though he wears hearing aids. He has spent too many years around aircraft.

Michael Jackson’s death is the big story tonight, but neither of us is paying any attention to it. I turn down the volume and realize there are tears in my eyes. I am watching my husband sleeping and have a feeling he is gradually fading away. He has lost five inches in height. His clothes hang loosely on his body. Our son comes over on Sundays to put out the heavy trash barrels he used to put out. He is becoming less aware of things going on around him. Pain and loss of hearing are cutting out so much of his world

Betty and HarryNothing I do seems to help much. “Your vitals are fine, and your diabetes is well controlled. Your kidney is stable,” Dr. Munsing assures him. “I hope I’m in as good shape if I even make it to 93. We’ll check you again in three months. Stay on your diet, drink lots of water and walk as much as you can.”

So that’s it. Accept it. But I live with him. I try to fight it. “You’re shuffling,” I tell him. “Pick up your feet.” “Stand up straight, you’re bending over.”

“I’m trying, ” he answers.

The neuropathy in his hands makes it difficult for him to hold anything. To control the intense pain, the doctor cut some nerves. Now his hands are numb. It embarrasses him when he drops a fork or knocks a glass over. He is an engineer and a perfectionist. He used to make silver jewelry, but he can no longer hold onto the tools. He had such beautiful handwriting. Now it is a scribble and that bothers him. I have to button his buttons, put in his hearing aids, and do the daily finger pricks for his diabetes tests. He always says, “Thank you, Hon. You’re so good to me.”

“You need to exercise more,” I tell him, when he has trouble leaning over to put on his shoes and socks. So he buys a walker and a stationary bike.

I can hear him peddling away on the bike now and then in his office, and I watch him push the walker up to the corner, sit there for a few minutes, and then slowly push it back. “I’ll do a little more each day,” he assures me, and sometimes he does. “I want to be able to walk the dogs again.” His voice is gradually getting fainter and a little gravelly. Sometimes it is difficult to make out what he says. “It’s this lack of breath that really bothers me,” he tells me, “and this miserable pain in my back.”

“Do you want a pain pill?” I ask.

“No, it makes me sleepy,” he says.

“Be sure to bring that up again when you see the doctor,” I remind him

On the wall above him framed in a wooden box are his medals from World War II and his Amy Air Corps insignia. There is a small American flag and a round shoulder patch with a star streaking across a blue sky, the insignia of the Fifth Army Air Corps. It represents over four years of his life. Below the box hangs Harry’s picture in Army khakis. There is a pipe in his mouth. He’s smiling and he looks fit and relaxed. Did I think he would always look like that, I ask myself. We all age. But I still see him that way in my heart.

I am frightened. I have made an early appointment with his doctor. Harry has lost 14 pounds in two months, and he is barely sampling his food. Perhaps he has gotten tired of his restricted diet. I worry that the lymphoma has returned. It has been over nine years since he was operated on, had chemo. and went into remission.

He fell twice recently. The second time he couldn’t get up. I called 911 at 11 p.m. over his protests. He wasn’t hurt. The young firemen got him to his feet and prepared to take him in to bed, but he insisted they just get him to his walker.

At his regular dental appointment, x-rays reveal he has an abscessed tooth. It’s not hurting yet, but it means a root canal. “Not until he has seen the doctor,” I tell the dentist. She is a new, young dentist. After 30 years, our regular dentist retired. Really bad timing.

“You worry about me too much,” Harry tells me. “It’s bad for your blood pressure.”

“I worry because I love you,” I answer.

I look in the mirror and tell myself you’re not looking so great either. My face is pale as a shroud and wrinkled as a crepe dress. My thick brown curls are now thinning, flat, and white as a polar bear’ s pelt. Still every night Harry leans over to kiss me at bed time and he always says “Your so beautiful” in a voice filled with love and conviction. No one else ever called me beautiful. When I was young, I was often called cute and sometimes even pretty, but my husband is the only one to tell me I am beautiful. When I gently question his eyesight he says, “You are beautiful to me.” That often brings tears to my eyes too, especially after a really rough day when I have lost it and yelled at him.

As usual, our collie Maggie is lying beside Harry’s chair. Then Tipper, the stray cat that adopted us, jumps into his lap waking him up. He rubs Tipper’s head and Tipper contentedly purrs. “Guess I dozed off,” Harry says, smiling at me sheepishly. He flexes his fingers and prepares to push himself up from the chair. Tipper stretches and jumps down.

The buzz of the oven timer startles me. I hurry to take the meatloaf out of the oven. The smell of beef and spices escapes into the kitchen. It’s time for dinner. I get down the dishes and Harry carefully puts them on the table while I prepare a salad. Tonight we have mashed potatoes, a special treat. They’re a potassium no no, but I have leached them in the fridge for 48 hours. That helps. There are so many foods that are off limits between his diabetes, and his single “iffy” kidney. Then there is my cholesterol challenge. Perhaps it is just monotony that is spoiling his appetite. He likes meatloaf, so I hope he will eat well tonight.

Maggie is following him around. He has to be careful not to trip over her. She nudges his hand. She wants him to pet her.

The highlight of his week is when our son or a daughter or sometimes a grandchild stops by to visit. Harry is proud of all of our family. He cares about them deeply. It means a lot to him to hear what is happening in their lives. Chuck is finishing up his Masters and Bonnie has just become a docent in Temecula. Cathy is still doing search and rescue. The others are well and busy. A phone call from any of them always perks him up. I discovered he could hear them over the phone if I put it on conference.

Harry misses our horses, the excitement and camaraderie of shows, the thrill of ribboning, and especially being able to climb on and ride. They gave him so much pleasure. President Reagan once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” It worked for Harry. Now we have to be content with pictures and our memories.

Harry’s mind is sharp. He takes care of our finances. We make all major decisions together. His morning kiss starts my day. It is hard to realize we will soon be married for 65 years. On our fiftieth anniversary our children gave us a wonderful party and we took a memorable trip to Turkey. Now traveling is not an option.

There have been rough spots over the years, and we have always worked them through. Now we live one day at a time. We go to sleep holding hands. There are no. guarantees about tomorrow, but today we still have each other.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Morris October 8, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Poignant and beautifully written. A realistic and hard look at the end of a long life and yet it is not depressing but inspiring. It should be published somewhere in the print media.

2 Sally Ramer October 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm

This is such a beautiful, poignant piece that you wrote for and about your beloved husband, Harry. I heard you read it in class yesterday, and although it made me cry, I found it so positive, somehow. You are giving Harry a wonderful gift while he can still enjoy it: an amazing tribute to him for the lifelong love and support he’s given you and your family. You are there for him right now with such courage, generosity and optimism, cherishing not only all the years you’ve spent together, but also these very precious moments you still have with each other.

3 Linda Missouri October 9, 2009 at 12:32 am

Dear Betty and Harry, In the details you share in your story, ACCEPTANCE, I feel the preciousness of each breath of life. You inspire me to see, feel and taste each moment. You let us see both Harry’s and your strengths and also the limits that this stage of life places on your desires. I remember the two of you sitting front row center in Dawn’s class, and when one or you signed up to read your story to us, I delighted in knowing more about your lives. Thank you, Betty, for writing this loving story. YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. Congratulations on 65 years of paying attention to each other. Love, Linda

4 Alice Gordon Royer November 25, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Betty—our dear writing sister. Thank you for sharing your beautiful insight about those last few days with Harry. I too, remember the two of you in the front row, center. And the great scrap book he made about his years in the military. (That inspired me to make one of our recent wedding.) Such scrapbooks are a great deal of work, and I have never seen one like his before or since! I am sure you and all the family members will enjoy it for many years to come. I have not been married for the many years you two had together, but I know the pleasure of being married to the best partner choice God has for me (like you two were for one another). My first marriage lasted 35 years before I lost my husband so I do know some of the grief you now have. But, under no circumstances would I claim to “know how you feel” as grief is such a personal thing. Thank you for reminding all of us to cherish each day–even each moment–we have with those we love. God bless you now as you pass through the throngs of grief. I will be praying for it to go as easy on you as possible. You are not only a beautiful lady to Harry, but a fine lady to have shared so much with all of us, your writing friends. Fondly, Alice Gordon Royer

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