My wife, Mary Ann, sits in the chair next to me. Molly, our Welsh Terrier, lies beside me on the couch, her front paws hanging slightly over the edge of the beige cushion, her back ones daintily crossed behind her. A table lamp casts a glow on Mary Ann’s smooth, soft face and highlights her light brown hair. We are watching (undoubtedly for the tenth time) a rerun of Everyone Loves Raymond. It’s the first moment of normalcy in the last four and a half months. Then, I glance at her walker, the portable table, the flowered box holding a mass of medication, and the moment is gone. I’m back at the hospital.
A nurse is dragging me away from the doorway of my wife’s frenzied, white coat-filled room. She says, “I’m the supervising nurse. The doctor has been trying to resuscitate your wife for some time now. He’ll probably be out in a few minutes to talk to you. I wanted you to be prepared.”
The laughter from Raymond’s audience and a question from Mary Ann bring me back.
“What’s wrong, honey?” she asks.
I give my usual response. “Nothing.”
She continues to lovingly prod.
I continue to polly-parrot my reply.
After a few minutes, I blurt out the most insensitive thing I could say after all she has been through, “You have no idea what it was like those 24 minutes you were dead.”
Not hurt, but compassion wells in her eyes. “It could help if you talk about,” she says.
I don’t respond.
“If you can’t talk about it, maybe you should write about it.”
“That’s a good idea,” I tell her, knowing that I can’t; it’s too fresh.
You should wait to write about that; it’s too soon. It’s advice I’ve both given and received, and I’ve always adhered to the principle peremptorily. But lately, I’ve been giving it a little thought. Why not write about an overwhelming experience, a life changing encounter or incident while you’re able to remember it clearly?
The answer, in a quick analogy, could be the same reason you have to stand back from a painting to appreciate the work of art. If you stand too close, you don’t see the whole picture. Another, slightly more apropos parallel for the writer could be gleaned from this Buddhist pearl:
Imagine standing on the bank of a river. There are two shores: the one you are standing on and the one you are looking across to. In reality, there are not two shores, only one, for if you were to walk to the source of the river then around it to the point you were looking at, you would be on the same shore.
If the walk along the shore represents our, the memoirists, lives, we stand at one point, looking back or across to where we have been. Our place on the shore, point of view, determines what we see and influences the voice or voices we use to tell about it. How we see and feel about something changes, determined by where we are when we look back or across to it.
The dire moments not only affect us while they happen, they continue shape and mold us as we move on from them. We may never know why something has happened, but the picture can become clearer as we move away from the event.
The ordeal in the hospital is immutable, but the story, how different it has become already. I have seen Mary Ann and my love deepen. I have watched us grow and become closer. I have become a better (not sure if Mary Ann would totally agree) person. My life, my voice, has changed.
“If you can’t talk about it, maybe you could write about it.” she said.
“That’s a good idea,” I told her, knowing I couldn’t…
Powerful. You couldn’t . . . and then you did, and probably had to.
I’m sorry you and your wife have had to go through such trauma. I hope the healing continues.
I write about disaster in all its messy phases — when it’s new, when it fades and shifts and changes. Sometimes, early on, I just write words and phrases, or lists, bits to work with and piece together later. I have a terrible memory — made much worse by a recent, bad concussion — so I feel the need to write everything down lately, as it unfolds. You’re right, that the shoreline changes as we move, but I like to have the transcription of that tree, that shadow, that wave ripple on the river, just as I saw them, the first time.