Remembering Gene Hensley, a Writer Who Inspired Us All

by Memoir Mentor on December 16, 2010

She walked into my class about eight years ago, Gene and her daughter, Mia. Gene was in her mid-eighties then, and she wanted to enroll in one of my memoir writing classes. “I think she belongs in your advanced class,” Mia said. “She’s pretty good.” Little did I know just how good. When she read her first story in class several weeks later, I could have jumped for joy, for clearly Gene had a gift for writing, something I’ve run across less than a dozen times in all my years of teaching. Some students are good writers, in the way that some pianists are good musicians because they’ve spent years taking lessons and practicing. But there are always a few that have that certain spark, that gift that makes them stand out in a crowd of other talented people.

Gene’s writing was like that, and she quickly became a star in class, a role model who showed others how stories should be told. And we all learned a lot from Gene over the years. Every time she stood to read her stories in class, we knew we were in for something special. We hung on her every word, and afterward we analyzed what she did to make her stories resonate so much with us. It had something to do with honesty…she didn’t shirk from telling it like it was. She didn’t shy away from admitting her own weaknesses and past mistakes. Consequently, her stories felt real and powerful, often grabbing us in the gut. I posted one of those gut-grabbing stories on my blog earlier. It can be found HERE.

Gene was also a keen observer of people and understood the subtleties of human nature. When you spoke to her, she looked you directly in the eye with those clear blue eyes of hers. I always felt like she was listening with all her heart, that she could see right into my soul. Gene brought that trait to her writing, infusing her stories with tiny details that individualized and brought to life the people in her stories.

And Gene, like all good writers, was a master of language. But she worked at it. She struggled for the right word that would convey the tone she was looking for. She searched for the right verb, the right noun, the right arrangement of words to create the right affect. I never had the feeling she just dashed something off, figuring it would be OK, as is. No, she always wanted perfection.

Gene regretted she didn’t have more education, and much of her writing skill was self-taught. Early in her marriage when she still had children at home, she rose at 5:30 a.m. and wrote for an hour before awakening her husband and children for breakfast. She continued this habit for years, despite her husband’s belittling taunts about writing being a waste of time. Her daughter said recently, “I really didn’t think anything about Mom getting up early to write. It was just something she did.”

After attending my class for several years, Gene received a bombshell. Her doctor diagnosed her with congestive heart failure and gave her six months to live. I remember her coming to class and reporting the news to us. Within a short time she wrote a heartfelt, inspiring story about what it feels like to learn you only have a short time to live. What happened then was amazing, generating a response Gene never could have imagined.

You see, Gene never considered herself a WRITER because she had never officially published anything. When her hospice worker, MaryLo Yetkee (also a writer) read some of Gene’s stories and heard about her lifelong desire to be published, she contacted the Dream Foundation, an organization that grants the wishes of terminally ill adults. The Foundation took the reins and contacted Beliefnet.com, who published Gene’s story on its website. From there, other organizations (asamanthinketh.net, insightsoftheday.com), picked up her story. Dream Foundation later informed Gene that her story generated more email responses than any they had published (at last count more than 2500). Eventually, even Time magazine referenced Gene’s story and her wish to be published in an article appearing in October 2006 called “A Dream Before Dying.” (You can read Gene’s story in its entirety HERE.)

As it turned out, Gene got more than her diagnosed six months. She lived for another five and a half years, finally passing away on November 27, at the age of 94. Gene lived with Mia and her family during all that time, and even before her diagnosis. They remodeled their home to create a second-floor suite for Gene with a kitchen, bedroom, and office area and installed a motorized chair that transported Gene up and down the stairway. I’ve always believed Gene’s life was extended because of the devoted care of her family.

In the years after her diagnosis, she came to class when she could, in a wheelchair and toting an oxygen tank. Mia drove her both ways, helping her out of the car and pushing her wheelchair into the classroom. When she was up to it, Gene continued to write stories that always inspired us and taught us something. In Gene’s last months, Mia arranged with a local publisher to compile all of Gene’s stories into a book that will be available for family members at Gene’s memorial service in January.

I visited Gene a couple of weeks before she passed away. Her attention span had diminished since I’d last seen her. She had difficulty following the conversation that was going on around her and finding the right words when she tried to speak. However, when I told her I was leaving, she took my hand, looked deeply in my eyes in that old way of hers, and said, “I’m so damned glad you came to see me.” I burst into laughter, shocked at these startling, frank words coming from this frail, genteel, little lady. I shouldn’t have been surprised: Gene’s words always had a way of getting to me.