Writing as Healing

After my daughter died, I knew I had been handed my writing assignment for the rest of my life. If I had been a painter, I would have painted Maya. If I had been a dancer, I would have danced my sorrow. But I was a writer. So I did the only thing I knew. I wrote one hard word after another.

That’s how Swimming with Maya came into being.

Maya at age 18

Maya at age 18

Early in my career I had been a newspaper reporter, trained to take notes on everything. And I had always been a devoted journal keeper. At the time Maya died, I was in graduate school working on a master’s degree in creative writing, a dream I had set aside when she was born.

Now I put away the novel I had begun a few months before her accident.  Instead, drawing on my journals, photographs, and vivid memories, I wrote the true story of Maya, our life together as mother and daughter, and my struggles as a single parent. I also began to research transplantation, trying to understand the outcome of my decision to give my daughter away in pieces in order to save the lives of strangers.

Ultimately, an article I published in the San Jose Mercury News about our personal experience of organ donation wound up in the hands of a man who knew Maya’s heart recipient. He realized the person I described in my article as “a Chilean businessman” could only be his friend Fernando. After Fernando read my article, for the first time learning details of the life of his anonymous donor, he was determined to meet me.

Through my writing I not only began to heal my grief, I also brought into my life a man who had every reason to want to know everything he could about Maya. Fernando felt my daughter as a mysterious presence in his body. He was intensely curious about her. As I poured out our story to him, I simultaneously experienced it in a new way. I began to record my insights.

Those early writings about Maya – and then about Fernando – ultimately became the thesis for my MFA degree. Then, I began to transform the thesis into a book manuscript. From that manuscript I selected and obsessively rewrote five sample chapters for a book proposal. Ultimately, after taking classes in proposal writing and book publishing, I sought out an editor to help shape the proposal.

Meanwhile, with encouragement from my creative writing professors, I began searching for an agent. What had begun as a way to survive by putting words on a computer screen turned into something entirely different – a hard fought, long drawn out attempt to craft a story that would inform and uplift readers.Swimming with Maya

Writing to heal is an important tool in the recovery arsenal. But it is not the same as writing for publication. It is an activity of raw emotional processing, whereas writing a book is an intense exercise in crafting a marketable story.

People often ask if writing Swimming with Maya healed me. Honestly, I have to say that working with other grieving parents to share our recovery, going to weekly therapy sessions, journaling, walking, attempting to be a good parent to my surviving daughter, having long talks with family and friends – these are the things that healed me. I did my grief work. And in between I wrote like a banshee.

Writing is powerful medicine. But on its own, it’s only one tool among many. Use all your tools – write if you can (or if you must) – but don’t neglect all the other important activities of self-care. Give your all to grieving and to healing. It’s worth it.



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Sourdough pancakes with butter on plate

Sourdough pancakes with butter on plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I made raspberry pancakes this morning in honor of my 92-year-old father. Dad has become a will o’ the wisp of himself, gasping for air, his cheeks and eyes sunken, barely able to sip water, drugged to the gills on morphine and Atavan. But when the nurse came in and said, “Larry, do you want anything?,” Dad opened his eyes and said “Pancakes.”

On his deathbed my father wants pancakes. When my brother sent this update from his mobile device to mine, I read it and broke into a grin. My father remembers the pleasure and comfort of butter and syrup, the texture of egg, flour, and milk fried to delectable lightness. I wish I could make pancakes for him. I wish he could eat pancakes at this point. But I’m 2,500 miles away and he can’t swallow solid food.

So instead, I defrost a package of raspberries, their summer tartness intact by some miracle of modern science, and make a batch of pancakes.

My sister phones me from the hallway outside Dad’s room at the Actors Fund Home to tell me that it won’t be long now. His hands are turning blue. Tremors shake his body. Cathy says he told the nurse, “Get those three kids out of here!”

He thinks I’m there with him, and that makes me happy.

So I eat my pancakes, and remember my father fixing Sunday breakfast for us. The menu was always the same: scrambled eggs and bacon and Sara Lee pecan coffee cake with sugar icing that dripped over the side of the aluminum pan when you heated it in the oven. Butter, cinnamon, crunchy pecans. The kitchen smelled of it for hours afterward. For years, I continued the tradition for Christmas brunch until Sara Lee stopped making pecan coffee cake. That was a sad day.

I fly to New Jersey in less than 24 hours. But I may not make it in time. I told my brother and sister in one of our many phone calls, “Dead or alive, I’m still coming. I just want to drink hot cocoa and have a snow day with you guys.”

Paul and Cathy hover over Dad until he shoos them away so that he can focus on the hard work of leaving his body. Flashes of memory light my mind like shooting stars as I keep the pancakes hot in the oven, the bacon crisp, the butter and syrup warming in the microwave.

I’ll be in Englewood, New Jersey by 10 o’clock tomorrow night. Because of the blizzard on the East coast, I had to change my flight. If I don’t get there in time to hold my father’s hand and say my final goodbye, at least I prepared and ate his final meal for him. Pancakes. Sweet, sad, and delicious.



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In Praise of the Microchip


Saffron, 18, the cat who came back

The New York Times blog “Well,” reports the improbable journey of a lost cat named Holly from Daytona Beach – where she ran away from her owner’s RV – back to her old neighborhood in West Palm Beach. She traveled 200 miles in two months.

Holly was found about a mile from her home, weak, emaciated, and with bleeding paws, rescued, and ultimately returned to her owners.

Holly and her owners recognized one another immediately, but confirmation was provided because Holly had an implanted microchip to identify her.

Given the wear on her paw pads and claws, animal behaviorists believe Holly walked the entire way home.

“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado who was interviewed by the New York Times. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this,” he added.

My 18-year-old cat Saffron was found three miles from home. But instead of two months, he was gone for six years. If he had not been found by a Good Samaritan and taken to her vet who scanned for a microchip, he would never have been returned to me. Many pet owners now microchip their furry friends, but thankfully few ever have to test the usefulness of the practice.

Our story is proof that microchips work. Before I moved from Walnut Creek to Oakland, I had microchips implanted in both my cats. It’s a simple, inexpensive procedure. Now that Saffron is home again, I’m glad I did. Too bad I didn’t have a video camera on his collar. The Times also reports on studies done using Kitty Cams to follow roving cats.

“New research by the National Geographic and University of Georgia’s Kitty Cams Project, using video footage from 55 pet cats wearing video cameras on their collars, suggests cat behavior is exceedingly complex,” reports The Times.

Apparently some cats routinely two-time their owners, seeking food and affection elsewhere. In fact, that may have been how Saffron’s adventure began when he was a lean and mean 12-year-old.

If only he could talk. Whatever happened to him, he shows signs of wear and tear – the skin on his paw pads is almost entirely worn away, he limps, and despite regular doses of immune boosting supplements, has a constant eye infection.

But his coat is now glossy, he’s gaining weight, and his thyroid condition is under control. Most important, he is loved and cared for – and harassed every day by the ever-playful Odie, my other orange tabby. It’s a far better life.

How and why cats come back remains a mystery.

“We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” one scientist quoted by the Times said. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.”

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