Writing about Adversity: Don’t Be Adverse to It

by Memoir Mentor on February 13, 2011

We all have those hard stories we have to face–writing about lost jobs, broken marriages, wayward children, the death of loved ones, serious illnesses, terrible mistakes that still haunt us. It’s not easy to write such stories because we’re forced to re-visit those painful times and describe them in detail. Why bring back all those raw emotions when we don’t have to? Well they’re part of our lives–a significant part of our lives. Should we just ignore these events, or gloss over them? Often they reveal more about who we are than the happy experiences that are so much easier to write. In telling these hard stories, we frequently reveal a great deal about our character and have an opportunity to honor the people who help us  get through our dark days.

I once ran across a letter written by a relative that described the last days of my great-grandfather’s heroic struggle with cancer. The letter included something that meant a great deal to me. It said, “These have been dark days with Bill. I don’t know how much longer he’ll survive. We couldn’t have gotten through this time without Ethel’s strength and help. She’s been a godsend.” Bill was my great-grandfather and Ethel was my grandmother. She died when I was seventeen, so I never knew her very well. I love knowing that she was generous and strong in the face of adversity.

The following story, written by my student Bob Stumpf, was a difficult one to write. Bob told me that he knew he needed to write the story because he wanted to have a written record of those dark days. The story was well received when he read it in class. People told him they were glad to know these things about him. As you read this story, take special note of its ending. Bob says the ending came to him out of the blue. He had never intended to end his story as he did. I see some inspiration at work here.

Taking Care of Bob
by Bob Stumpf

“Are you nervous about tomorrow?” asked Judy, while I was getting into bed.

“Very,” I answered. “I know I will get a nurse who doesn’t know how to insert the needle into my veins. I hate it when it takes them three tries.”

“Don’t worry,” Judy answered. “I will ask when we go in if we can get a supervisor to hook you up. I am sure if I’m polite, she will understand.”
“Will you?” I asked hopefully.

“Now just take your Tylenol and try and go to sleep. You had a long day. It‘s already eight-thirty.”

The next morning Judy drove me to the nearby clinic. As we entered the waiting room, she immediately asked to see the head nurse. “My husband has had two bad experiences when the nurse couldn’t find a vein. Would you be willing to administer the chemo-therapy?” Judy asked politely.

“Just sit in the chair around the corner and I will be right with you,” she replied.

Fortunately, Judy picked the right nurse and I experienced a minimum of pain. It wasn’t long before I felt the cold fluids entering my body. Judy found a heavy blanket to cover me so I could begin the eight-hour injection of poisons to kill my cancer.

It was the fall of 2008, and I was being treated for Lymphoma. For the first time in my adult life, I was helpless. I had lost most of my hair and over 30 pounds. To make matters worse, I was very weak. One day a toilet started leaking and there was water all over the bathroom floor. Normally I would get my tools and fix the problem myself. But all I could do was watch Judy call a handyman who fixed it for us. Curt, our trusty handyman, came many times to fix things that broke while I was sick. It really frustrated me to pay for work that I could ordinarily do myself.

Each morning, Judy lay out my clothes, making sure the safety pins used to make them smaller were inserted correctly. Fortunately, I was able to stand in the shower and bathe myself, but that took most of my energy for the day. After I dressed in the morning, Judy made me breakfast, a half-portion of oatmeal, prunes, and a glass of milk. I could sit up for a few minutes, then after a few bites, I had to lie on the nearby couch in our family room. After resting, I would try to resume eating. Then I slowly swallowed the ten pills I was taking. Two of the pills were for nausea, one for anxiety, one for lymphoma, one to prevent uric acid build up, a couple of pills to regulate my bowels, some vitamins, and an iron pill to build red blood cells. The most interesting pill was Marinol to increase my appetite. Marino, it seems, was actually marijuana. I could now impress my friends that I was legitimately taking pot.

Then I spent the rest of the morning lying on the couch covered by a quilt to keep me warm. I was too tired to read much, so I resorted to daytime TV. Often I watched congressional hearings about the auto company bailouts. Most of the time I watched old television reruns. ”Perry Mason” and “Matlock” were my favorites.

Mid-morning, Judy gave me my required snack food, usually salted peanuts or almonds, along with a small bag of potato chips. My sodium count was very low so I needed to ingest as much salt as I could stand. Then I would resume daytime television. I even remember some commercials. Some kept telling me to get off my lazy behind, get some training, and get a job.

When it was time for lunch, Judy fixed me macaroni and cheese, with pudding and Jell-O for dessert. After lunch, she drove me to the clinic for a shot to boost my immune system. We discovered if we came into the clinic around 1:00 PM we would get Kathleen. This was important to me, as Kathleen could give a painless shot. On weekends I had to take whoever was on duty. Sometimes I was lucky and barely felt anything; other times, I had to bear some pain. Then on the way home, Judy often stopped at McDonalds to get me a milkshake or hot fudge sundae.

When I got home I would lie on top of our bed for a long nap…that is until Judy came in and announced, “It’s time for your afternoon snack. What will it be, a Hershey or Snickers bar?”

“Do I have to,” I would answer.

“Remember what the doctor said, ‘You must eat, eat, and eat.’”

After my snack I returned to the family room and for more television. I discovered I liked to see Judge Judy, and even Dr. Phil. Then it was time for the news.

When dinner came, Judy placed roast beef and potatoes before me. Since we are both near vegetarians, this was an odd dinner for me. But I needed red meat to help generate red blood cells that were being destroyed by the chemo-therapy. Even though I was supposed to eat it all, I could only get down a few bites. After dinner, Judy played a movie that we both liked. We watched many of the old classics, like The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock. Then it was time for bed again.

Some days were different, particularly when I got a visitor. On those days, I moved into the living room into the recliner by the corner window. This way I could see the visitor drive up. One thing I learned was how many of my friends would take time off to visit me. Almost the entire faculty visited me from my department at Cal Poly where I taught for 40 years. Many of them came three or four times. They brought me news, gossip actually, about my colleagues.

Since I had attended the same church for over 30 years, I found that many of the members took off from work just to visit me. Most brought presents such as snack foods. Not all of their choices were to my liking, but Judy sometimes helped out by eating them for me. But since she was often on a diet, she would call my youngest son, Ben, to visit and take the food away. I had enough chocolate-covered cherries to last a lifetime.

Other friends brought me CDs of presidential speeches and books about my favorite president, Harry Truman. What I found the most difficult were the books about surviving cancer. I actually never read any of those.

The most memorable event was a total surprise. One Sunday December evening, Judy asked me to wear better clothes than average. As I was just finishing dinner, the door bell rang and she asked me to answer it. There, standing on the porch were about 20 friends from church singing Christmas carols. Judy even had a special Santa Claus hat for me to wear, which she quickly put on my head to cover my baldness from the chemo-therapy. About an hour later, the door bell rang again, but she answered it as she wasn’t expecting anyone. To her surprise, a second group of carolers had arrived. I was touched that so many people would take the time to visit a shut-in like me.

We missed our tradition of going out to eat at a special restaurant for our anniversary. But Judy never complained. Fortunately, after a year passed, I was able to do better. Not only did I buy Judy a corsage, but I made reservations for her favorite restaurant in Pico Rivera that we used to go to when we were first married. When it was time to leave, Judy said, “Isn’t time to go?”

We have plenty of time,” I answered. When I saw some lights through the front window, I told her, “Why don’t you come outside for a moment to see something?”

Bob and Judy going on their "limo date."

I will never forget her expression when she saw a stretch-limousine stop beside the house and a uniformed chauffeur open the door for her to enter.