Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bittersweet Blessings

Today I closed a bittersweet chapter on an old friendship. Three weeks ago, a friend of mine called and asked if I had time to write her life story. Being a Personal Historian who writes individual stories for people, I welcomed the opportunity. Little did I know what a blessing this one would be.

Let’s call my friend Melissa, to protect her privacy. We had gone to High School together, but we had lost touch after graduation. I happened to run into Melissa’s sister Karen last winter and mentioned my writing business. She shared with me that Melissa had cancer and that she was moving back to our area for treatments.

Over the next few months, I seemed to meet Karen by chance on a semi-regular basis and always asked about Melissa, who was responding to treatments. I planned to go visit her when she was stronger, but that never came to pass.

In response to her call, I told Melissa I could stop by to see her the next week, but she wanted to know if I had time that day. Hearing the soft urgency in her voice, I decided to change my schedule to see her that afternoon, and I was glad I did. She was adamant that she wanted her story written for her daughter, with whom she sometimes had difficulty communicating, and for her family, who were always there for her.

When Melissa answered the door, I was appalled by how unwell she appeared. I would never have recognized her if we passed on the street, based on the ravages of her illness and treatments. However, once we started talking, we quickly reconnected as she reminisced in response to my queries about her life. In spite of the serious nature of our visits, we shared a few good laughs and some delightful memories.

I left her home that first day feeling pleased that we were already making progress on her life story, but wondering how much time she had left in her brave battle. We scheduled interview sessions to meet on alternate days, which gave me time to transcribe my notes and listen to the recordings to capture the finer points of our conversations. On each return visit, I brought along my roughly drafted chapters for Melissa to read and clarify as needed.

It was wonderful to catch up on all the things that Melissa had done over the last forty-some years, which included growing up on a small farm in central Illinois, very much as I had. I never realized just how similar our early lives had been, but the nostalgia from reminiscing was extraordinary.

Each time I went to interview Melissa, it was apparent that her condition slowly and inexorably declined. In the span of barely more than a week, she regressed from answering the door herself, to remaining in her chair, to lying in bed and finally to calling in Hospice.

From previous experience interviewing people, I knew how difficult it can be to relate some portions of their lives. Strategically sequencing questions allowed us to cover a difficult time, such as her illness, followed shortly by a joyful time, such as adopting her daughter. I was careful to limit the time for each session and always ended on a positive note to minimize wearing her out.

When I first heard that Melissa was meeting with Hospice, I was almost overwhelmed to know that she was nearing the end of her struggle and that our time was very limited. This was a bittersweet experience. It was great to get to know her again, but terribly sad that she was dying at such a young age.

As we continued to meet and Melissa’s story unfolded, I began to feel an intense compulsion to complete her story this week on Wednesday. Working late the night before and all that day, I finally had a first draft ready to print. I carried the story on a portable drive to a local office supply store and waited impatiently while they printed and bound just a few copies.

When I arrived at Melissa’s home that evening and saw almost a dozen cars parked in front, I was afraid it was too late. In fact, her house was filled with relatives, and she was barely hanging on.

I quietly walked into her bedroom, where she was lying in a hospital bed and holding her grown daughter Alexandra’s hand. She smiled when she saw the picture of her and Alex on the front cover, ran her hand over it and said, “That’s good.” Then Alex read a few vignettes from the book and added some comments of her own. Melissa was too weak to speak more than a few words, but she smiled and nodded her head in response. I went home that night feeling I had accomplished my task.

Melissa passed away the next morning. In my heart, I believe she was waiting for me to deliver her story so she could rest knowing that her daughter would understand how she felt. I am grateful that I could help fulfill one of her dying wishes. It has also reinforced for me the absolute importance of preserving family stories before it is too late.

Everyone has a story to tell and they are all precious memories. In this case, I shed many tears in the process of writing, but it was truly a bittersweet blessing to comfort my friend at the end. Now she can rest in peace.


Rachel Cornell said...

Can I have a tissue please? Oh Beth, thank you for sharring this. You have been such an influence in getting me to record conversations with my 81 year old, very healthy, father. I know your friends daughter will so charish this gift from her mother that you created for them.
Sniff. A still teared-up,

Elizabeth (Beth) LaMie said...

Thanks, Rach. It's hard sometimes to not want to shake someone who needs to talk with their elders before it is too late.

I guess I need to figure out a gentle way to get their attention.