The Healing Power of Story
When I was 22 years old my favorite uncle died. Actually to say he was my "favorite" doesn't begin to accurately describe how much I loved him. Uncle Al loved me unconditionally and I loved him back in the same way. One of the most precious memories from my childhood is of him coming to visit, scooping my 8-year-old self up in his arms and saying "Hi, big girl" as I rubbed my face against the scratch of his five o'clock shadow.
Uncle Al died after a battle with cancer when he was in his 40's and I was devastated. For six weeks after his death I had a pounding headache all day, every day. Looking back I can see that headache as my body's response to my efforts to avoid what I feared would be a debilitating grief as I replayed the story of his death over and over in my mind. I didn't know that I would soon be given an opportunity to discover the healing power of story.
A week after Uncle Al's death I started classes in acting school. There I met Sylvie. Sylvie and I had one of those connections that couldn't be explained, we were very different but the bond between us was instant and strong. We would talk and laugh for hours, the very definition of "fast friends."
Three months after we met Sylvie, age 26, was diagnosed with cancer. The moment Sylvie's husband gave me the news I determined that I needed to learn from the story of my uncle's death. That loss was still so raw that I had a hard time even thinking about it but Sylvie was my friend and I loved her so I looked at the story of my uncle's illness and death with the intention of rewriting it for myself. I needed to learn whatever I could from the way that story had unfolded in the hope of doing this experience with Sylvie differently.
In the story with my uncle I didn't want him to be sick so I cast myself in the role of denying, disconnected observer; hoping that pretending he wasn't ill would make it so. Part of what that meant was that I didn't see him as often as I could have and didn't say things that felt like an acknowledgement of the truth of his illness. Things I later desperately wished I had said.
With Sylvie I looked at how my choices around my uncle had worked out and decided that I would write a different story this time. I determined that, regardless of the outcome, the story I would write would be one of being aware, honest, and open.
When, three years after her initial diagnosis, Sylvie's cancer returned as bone cancer I was terrified that she wouldn't be able to beat the disease. Sylvie was terrified to and she forbade her family and friends from even mentioning the possibility of her dying from this disease. She was fierce about her survival against very unfavorable odds.
For a year and a half I honored her wishes. Then her wishes and the story I'd determined to rewrite four and a half years earlier came into conflict. It had become clear that Sylvie was dying. All that could be done had been done and now it was all about how much time she would have left. For days I struggled with what to do. Should I say what I felt, that I was afraid she was dying and I didn't know how I would go on without her or honor her edict against such a statement?
Eventually I decided that I needed to take the risk of angering her and say what I felt. There was definitely a selfish aspect to this; I didn't want to live with the regret of things unsaid. Knowing that someone you love is dying brings a different quality to conversations, a clarity that may not occur in normal conversation.
So, one cold winter afternoon when it was just the two of us I said, "I think you're dying and that terrifies me." Sylvie's response was, "Thank you, I think I'm dying and I didn't know how to say that." Then we cried tears of sadness and relief. Both of us had been living in the isolation created by fear and we were freed because, years before, I had decided that the ending to this story, if it came to that, would be different.
Where the wisdom to make that decision to rewrite the story came from, I have no idea. What I know is that I will always be grateful that the wisdom came and that I heeded it. Rewriting that story meant that Sylvie and I had time to cry, laugh, and really be together in those last few months of her life.
All these years later I still miss her and am sad that her journey here ended so soon, but I have no regrets about our time together. While I couldn't change the ending of the story of either Uncle Al or Sylvie I was able to heal the hole left in my heart by my uncle's death. I was able to write an ending to my story with Sylvie that, despite the sadness, I could peacefully live with. I think my uncle would be pleased that I learned from my experience with him. I think he would be pleased that, with Sylvie, there was nothing left unsaid.