Lisa Geichman Prosek

Telling Stories That Reach People

We all have shared experiences and experiences that should be shared. I find words and images the perfect tools to build bridges between people and find life's universal truths.

25 December 2014 2 Comments

A Precious Christmas Past

I imagine that Charles Dickens would be disappointed in me because I’ve never been a good keeper of Christmas as an adult. The winter-holiday season always brings a low-key melancholy, and it’s grown worse in the last few years. After losing my mother in 2008 and my sister in 2012, I often focus on the past when the holidays arrive.

I’m living this year in 1965, when we loaded into our beige Dodge Coronet and drove the 100-plus miles from our suburban home just south of Dayton to Portsmouth. Route 73’s hilly, winding path upset my stomach as usual, but I didn’t care. I chomped on the Doublemint gum Mom dispensed and focused on reaching my grandparents’ house.

An invisible but agreed-upon line divided the back seat between my four-year-old brother and me on my seventh Christmas Eve. Not even the thought of my sister had yet graced our family.

We traveled in the dark after my parents got home from work on that cold Friday night, bundled up in our winter coats, approaching the trip with the solemnity of a religious pilgrimage. My mother needing to spend the holiday with the parents with whom she didn’t get along. The sound of the studded tires beating the road. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Holy Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” floating out of the radio. I reflected on the magnitude of Jesus’ birth and how his family–both earthly and Heavenly–loved and protected him. News reports of Santa’s progress around the world interrupted my contemplation at the top and bottom of the nearly three hours our journey took. Once or twice I dared to peek into the sky for a chance of seeing the jolly old elf, although the thought of actually spotting him frightened me. Then I watched my parents’ silhouettes as they turned to look at each other from time to time and whispered secrets.

I resisted sleep, my thoughts always returning to how much I loved Nanny and Pa and the magic of their little ranch-style home. I knew that already waiting for me on the end table in the living room were tangerines and Italian wedding cookies, both my favorites, treats that my grandparents–born to poor families in Appalachia–may never have tasted on Christmas when they were kids. But these special people always stocked the delights for me (and for my brother) every year. I knew Pa would crack open walnuts while telling me stories of America’s Old West later that evening, and I’d go to bed in my grandparents’ home feeling safe and secure, the clock on the wall ticking me to sleep.

The next day we woke up to biscuits and bacon gravy and Santa’s special deliveries: a brunette Chatty Cathy, who looked a bit like me but didn’t talk as much as I, and a shiny new medium blue push-pedal sedan on which my brother would allow me to help him put many miles in the coming years while we traveled to wherever our dreams could carry us, as long as we stayed in the driveway.

I know those were the gifts we received that year only because I’ve seen them in pictures, the doll sitting alone in the sedan, waiting to head off to an unknown adventure.

Otherwise, the only clear memories I carry of that Christmas Day are the brilliant hue and sweet tanginess of a perfect tangerine, the delicate powdered sugar of the Italian wedding cookies melting on my tongue, the smiling faces of my grandparents, their belly laughs, their loving arms holding me tight, and the knowledge that I was cherished just because I was me.

When I close my eyes and think really hard, sometimes I can feel my grandparents’ arms around me, still.






11 September 2014 0 Comments

The Window

When I awoke on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I had no reason to feel anything other than unbridled hopefulness.

My family was well, including my two toy poodles and five cats. Our daughter had begun her own life, having moved into a brand new apartment with a friend. Everything in our lives moved ahead, often better than we expected.

Up for a promotion at work. I felt valued and competent and purposeful as my colleagues and I worked together for the State of Ohio to improve technology in schools. On September 10, I traveled from Columbus to Chillicothe for a town meeting on the subject.

The day before, Sunday, I had driven part of that same route with my husband, south from Columbus, halfway to Chillicothe, to visit a farmer’s market. We munched on crispy, sweet, freshly picked corn on the cob, butter dripping down our wrists. We indulged in homemade sausage sandwiches. We reveled in the coming of autumn, my favorite season.

I remember making a point to look around at other patrons. The place was packed. Families. Moms and dads and kids of all ages, even normally reluctant teenagers, enthusiastically engaging in traditional harvest activities. Laughter. Smiling faces. Discussions about shopping for the perfect Halloween pumpkin and lighthearted disagreements about what perfect meant in that context.

Everything seemed as it should. We felt goodness and security all around us.

Then at 8:46 a.m. on September 11 the lines of goodness and security became blurred if not erased.

At work when the attacks occurred, I watched television in my office and then with coworkers in the conference room. Though we didn’t always agree on work matters and often let petty squabbles get between us, on that day we needed to be together. The looks on our faces: the combination of surprise and agony of people trapped in an unimaginable nightmare. Things like what we were seeing on TV just don’t happen in real life. Do they?

My whole body shook as I drove home around noon. I just wanted to get home and feel safe. Out of the radio came stories about gas prices spiking and lines forming to get all the gas that maybe would ever be available. Fear was already driving us.

When I got home, I still didn’t feel any safer. Like everyone else, I turned on the television.

I wondered what the world would be like the next day. I wondered what our lives would be like six months later, ten years later.

I couldn’t even imagine it. How could I trust anything my mind would conjure about the future when I had been so wrong about today?

Now thirteen years later, we feel we’ve reached some sense of normalcy. We’ve become accustomed to concerned faces on television telling us of terrorist chatter. We sacrifice our privacy at airports for the safety of all. That’s what human beings are driven to do: find a way to survive.

I have heard that only one window from the World Trade Center survived the terrorist attack. Just one out of hundreds. It’s part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City.

I remember how helpless I felt looking through windows in the towers, seeing people inside on that terrible day. I wonder if I saw someone looking out that surviving window waiting for help that would never come. Those images are forever branded on my brain and my heart.

The fact is that none of us will ever again be able to see the world without looking through that window.

21 July 2014 4 Comments

The Confessional

Perhaps I need to make a public declaration so that I can come fully back into the light of a literary life.

Maybe I should finally openly admit that I haven’t written properly in a year. That, after my sister passed away in 2012, my writing died a slow death.

Maybe it happened because there were too many moments I wanted to record about losing Beth. After all, I had promised her that I would write about her experience. About our experience, as a family losing each other. Then the memories of Beth’s battle with cancer came so quickly that I sometimes felt like I would drown in them. Beth happy and struggling to live, then her realization that she wouldn’t survive. Seeing her after she’d passed away, with my stricken father standing just a few feet away, not knowing what to do.

There was no place I wanted to be less than in a room alone with nothing but a blank page and my thoughts.

The mere thought of writing made me sick to my stomach and twitchy with fear. I lit the candles to welcome the Muses, sat down to write, and immediately popped back up. The dishes needed to be done. There was grocery shopping to do, student papers to grade.

But those things could have waited. The truth is that words wouldn’t come.

It terrified me. Words have always come, even if they weren’t poetic or representative of exactly what I wanted to convey. At least images conjured up by my brain came through my hands in the form of words and landed on the page.

I found not being able to write so disorienting that I lost my sense of self-identity and connection to the things that made me happy about myself.

Writing used to help me transcend problems. I wrote for hours without realizing that time had passed, that I needed food or anything else. It helped me figure out what I felt and why and how to live with that or how to change it.

Not being able to write made me feel dirty and ashamed, and I hid it. It felt like more than a personal failing. Rather, it felt like an act of failing every instructor who ever taught me or anyone who ever believed in me…including my sister.

I’ve come to understand that I couldn’t write because the stories about Beth were too dear to me. Because I feared the prospect of imperfectly recreating my sister’s last moments and the indelible imprint she left on our lives.

And does that make me a hypocrite? Every day I teach I tell my writing students not to fear imperfection, but rather to expect it, to embrace it. It’s what writing is. Writing will never be perfect no matter how we try to make it so. Seeking perfection can be the last huge stumbling block, and it must be gotten over.

Now it’s come to the point where I simply have to write something–anything–so that I’m no longer an imposter and so I can find my balance again. While I eventually need to try to find the parallels in the story, to discern the meaning, and to bring my reader along with me through the experience, right now I just have to write.

Like Thurber said: “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”

Even that is imperfect: a comma splice. But no better advice ever came to the page, and I will take it.

I declare that I will move ahead to strive to remember and experience again the joy of writing and jettison the dread, failure, and remorse for not showing up.

That’ll be a grand and appreciated beginning. But in the distance, as I write, a mourning dove coos, reminding me that there will still be more work to be done.

So, I will also take on the joyous and yet dreadful job of remembering my sister, bring the feelings forward, let Beth breathe again…even if just on the page, and then I’ll finally let her rest, so I can rest more easily, too.




22 August 2012 2 Comments

Altering Dreams

I don’t experience the traditional kind of nightmares often, but when I do, they usually feel like whoppers. Someone chases me, or I miss a critical deadline, or I return to a hellish college math course, failing consistently. I wake up drenched in sweat, with my heart pounding. I let out a relieved sigh when I realize my reality is more comforting than the dream.

A few weeks ago I dreamed of my sister, Beth. She strode across a parking lot to join me in my car.

“You’re walking,” I said to her, and she smiled broadly.

Five months before she died, Beth lost the use of her legs when tumors pressed on her spine. This after being an avid walker all her life, visiting parks and reveling in life.

During those last difficult months, confined to her bed, Beth had a recurring dream in which she square danced at a party in a barn. She told me about this with a smile on her face, but the dreams must have haunted her. First, the exquisite sensation of being up on her feet and moving to music–feeling it in every part of her body. Maybe even feeling without worry–cancer free for the first time in ten years. Then she’d wake up with the realization that she’d never be able to walk again and that her life was ending. That moment must have been excruciating, maybe even more excruciating than the dancing dream had been exhilarating.

I wonder: If Beth had been able to control her dreams, would she have chosen to? Would she have turned off the square dances and the joy they brought?

I’ve learned of people who say they trained their brains and became able to program their dreams. Mostly, the people who discussed this ability suffered with nightmares and needed a way to stop the debilitating cycle. They trained themselves to realize they’re dreaming when the scary parts occur and developed the ability to change the course of the dream. But there are other people who simply want to dream what they want to dream.

Given the opportunity, I’m not even sure I’d know what to dream about.

Would I dream again of Beth walking or of hugging my deceased mother or cuddling the beloved little poodle I lost two years ago? Would I dream away this last year that brought my sister’s death and deepened my furrowed brow but which also brought me knowledge and a better understanding of suffering? These dreams would be sweet, but they’d end in pain upon my waking.

So, instead, would I want to dream of meeting Abraham Lincoln or Charles Dickens or of being there as the Great Pyramid was built? Would I dream of having a book published or a screenplay produced?

Or would being able to program my dreams–to limit my subconscious–also limit my ability to reach heights I can’t even yet conceive?

If you could program your own dreams, would you? What would you dream about? Would you dance in your dreams, even if you couldn’t dance in real life?


12 August 2012 0 Comments

Learning About Writing From Olympic Gymnasts

I don’t know about you, but performances by artistic gymnasts mesmerize me. I love to see them fly off the vault, soar from one uneven bar to another, and tumble with forceful assuredness in the floor exercise.

What really gets me, though, is the balance beam. How does anybody stand on a four-inch piece of wood, let alone pivot, leap, and handspring across the beam?

I never thought I had anything in common with these fearless gymnasts; then I heard Gabby Douglas speak: “The hard days are the best because that’s when champions are made. So, if you push through the hard days, then you can get through anything.”

I realized what she said applied to anyone’s attempts to achieve greater heights.

When I took a closer look, it turned out that there was an awful lot about writing I could learn from gymnasts:

1. Gymnasts know that success hinges on having a competitor’s personality–mental preparation, a positive attitude, and determination to succeed. This means that, when you think you’re going to fall, you must grab on, even if it’s just with your toes. Never simply jump off and give up without a fight. It looks bad and feels worse. Writers must keep working through challenges.

2. If you do fall off, get back up and go again. Don’t focus on mistakes because that will drown you in the fear of failure. Learn from challenges and move on. Just because you make a little mistake doesn’t mean your work is ruined. Make a shift. Fix the problem, just like a gymnast does a balance check to stay on the beam. Don’t go looking for trouble, but expect that there will be challenges. Refuse to be afraid of them.

3. Be keenly aware of your abilities, not to limit yourself, but so you can know where you need to improve and grow. Be willing to constantly reassess your situation and develop your skills. Keep an eye on where you’re going–not on your feet. Your feet keep you where you are at present. You need to move ahead. Do this by writing every day. Be in the moment each time you’re at the keyboard.

4. Gymnasts put pumice on their hands and feet so that they can grip without ripping their skin. Pumice gets on their faces and on the backs of coaches and teammates after congratulatory or consoling hugs. Writing, too, is a dirty business. Get over it. Be willing to write a really messy first draft so you can clean it up later. And be willing to do whatever you need to do to summon the Muses, and use whatever tools are at your disposal so you can get going and stay going.

5. Pay attention to little things and the big things will take care of themselves. Gymnasts attend to the tiniest of hand and foot movements so that their grander skills look even more dazzling. Writers need to pay attention to small things, too–nouns and verbs, commas and paragraphs.

6.  Keep the writing process new no matter how many times you’ve done it. You can do this in tough times by remembering what you love about the good times. When things go well, write a note to yourself explaining how writing thrills you. Refer to your message in down times.

7. Even though they know the scariest parts of their routines come when they let go of the beam and leap, gymnasts also know these risky maneuvers earn the highest marks from judges. Writers, too, need to take risks. Write in an unfamiliar genre. Submit to an upper-level publication. Give a public reading. It’s scary, and every bone in your body may tell you it’s dangerous. That’s when you know it’s right. Leap! The more often you take risks the greater your rewards become.

8. Gymnasts know they may not always win a medal. The key is to be happy in each of their performances knowing they did the best they could. Writers may not always be published, so you must find happiness and courage in knowing you’re doing your best writing possible at the time. You don’t need anything else as long as you keep learning and trying. There’ll be other days.

9. Cheer on others and help them succeed because that will help you, too. You’ll learn what works and what can be improved. And by developing a network of supportive peers, you’ll have writers to whom you can turn for assistance. But don’t compare yourself to other writers. Keep jealousy out of the relationship because it’s toxic.

10. Like gymnasts depend on their coaches, learn to take feedback from others. However, believe in yourself and do what works for you, even when others say you’re no good and can’t do it. You owe that to yourself.

Did I miss anything? What would you add to the list?


22 July 2012 1 Comment

Residual Haunting

Four years ago today I felt my mother’s touch for the last time.

I walked into the hospital room where she was undergoing treatment for a ruptured brain aneurysm to see an arc of doctors stationed around the foot of Mom’s bed trying to determine what to do about her inability to breathe. Even with the breathing tube placed down Mom’s throat and the ventilator pushing oxygen and pulling carbon dioxide, the doctors and respiratory therapists hadn’t found the right settings to allow my mother to breathe comfortably and efficiently.

A few moments after I arrived on the scene, a phlebotomist stood on his tiptoes to gain leverage as he rammed a needle into Mom’s wrist to pierce an artery and measure blood gasses. He poked her arm with the intensity of a thirsty vampire. When he experienced difficulty hitting the target, instead of withdrawing the needle to meet the artery dead on, he kept the needle submerged in Mom’s skin and fished.

I realize now that the guy’s knees were probably shaking as mine were and that his heart was undoubtedly pounding with adrenaline, as mine was. But at the time I thought him the cruelest man I’d ever met. The alarms in my head sounded louder than the alarms on the medical equipment signaling Mom’s respiratory insufficiency.

I knew the repeated quest to have the needle meet the artery had to be excruciatingly painful for my mother because I’d had that test before. The wrist is poked at its most sensitive point, in a line right under the thumb, where hand joins arm.

Of course, Mom couldn’t talk around the breathing tube, but, to make it worse, with arms tied down to either side of the bed, she couldn’t even gesture to register complaint.

I couldn’t take it any more. All the sorrow and frustration and juxtaposed hope and hopelessness of the previous three weeks welled up and erupted.

“She’s had enough!” I said, without realizing the import of my words. “We’re done with this! She’s done with this!” And then I went further: “Mom, we’re going to take out the breathing tube.”

This meant my mother would die that bright July Tuesday in 2008.

My family and I had been going back and forth about the mere thought of removing Mom’s life support as her condition worsened and improved and worsened and improved. We were to meet later that morning to discuss the matter with palliative care specialists. But I couldn’t wait, and I unilaterally promised Mom her suffering would be over.

And then my mother squeezed my hand three times.

Squeezing three times had been one of Mom’s trademarks. I suppose it meant “I love you.” She squeezed our hands three times after the blessing at dinner and other times, like at Christmas when she’d take our hands and kiss our cheeks.

“I love you.”

I’ve replayed the moment over and over again in my mind since that day we lost my mother. The last time she communicated to me. Her last chance to mend a ruptured relationship. Her understanding that I’d done my best to ease her.

But even with this poignant memory of my mother, even before I knew my sister Beth would die of cancer, it was the image of Beth’s face that I remembered most clearly about that day. Her uncharacteristically pursed lips and furrowed brow. The tenseness in her jaw. Her eyes hidden in a grimace so extreme it seemed to presage a scream. Her clenched fists. All this set against the signature perkiness of Beth’s blond ponytail underscored the absence of my younger sister’s usually bright demeanor and evidenced her breaking heart.

I remember thinking at the time that I wished I could have saved Beth that pain.

Today I’m reliving that wish.


12 May 2012 2 Comments

The Power of a Mother’s Touch

My grandchildren knew me before they even realized it.

When I held one-week-old Carter, I spoke to him quietly and caressed his soft little shoulder as it peeked out from the baby blue blanket. This new little boy, aware of almost nothing but his need for creature comforts, got a puzzled look on his face as if he were saying, “I like that. And I don’t know you, but I know you.”

It was the same when my granddaughter, Quinn, came into the world.

The babies knew me because I sound a bit like their mother. More important, my touch feels like hers.

From the time I first held Carter and Quinn’s mommy as a baby, I held her a particular way and stroked her skin with my own special touch. She internalized these characteristics and now touches her children the same way.

Just as I internalized my own mother’s touch so many years ago.

We first hear our mother’s voice while still in the womb. Once born, we tie our mother’s touch to her voice and make a connection to the time before birth when all our needs were satisfied without our even understanding what those needs were. In this way our mother’s touch becomes the ultimate security. A tangible sign that we’re safe and our needs will be met. As we start our studies in The School Of Hard Knocks, our mother’s touch signals that, no matter how bad things are, we’re still wanted and loved and cheered for, absolutely.

My mother died three years before my sister’s cancer started gaining ground in 2011, leaving the rest of us to care for Beth in the final phase of her illness. Beth’s mother-in-law even left her warm home in Florida to stay at my sister’s house during Ohio’s winter months. This loving stand-in mother gave Beth her medications, cooked for Beth, even hugged her and comforted her otherwise. Still, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t provide Beth’s mother’s touch.

Though my visits to Beth’s bedside mostly involved happy chats about TV shows, movies, and current events while we ate special meals from favorite restaurants, I sometimes reflected quietly about how the cancer worked to conquer Beth’s body. I became aware of my abject helplessness to fend off the deadly invader. In those moments, I didn’t know what to say to Beth. Painful, pregnant pauses that threatened to even further empower the cancer.

Sometimes when those helpless moments arrived, not knowing what else to do, I ran my fingers gently over Beth’s head, bald from chemotherapy. As soon as my fingertips brushed her skin, Beth involuntarily closed her eyes and vocalized. “Oh…” She seemed to be magically drawn into a soothing reverie, and a grin broke across her face. Without fail, a few moments later Beth started conversations about our mother.

“Remember how Mom used to rub our necks and backs and play with our hair?”

We’d then laugh about how we and our brother used to fight over who got to go first for this delightful treatment or who got the longest back rub.

Then, as Beth lay in the hospital bed in her living room, she and I reminisced about special foods that Mom made for us when we were kids or times she comforted us in other ways.

With the awkward cancer-empowering moment behind us, we forgot about the invader and made the most of the day.

Because of the way mothers transfer their touch to their children, in the end, my mother was able to be there for Beth during her baby daughter’s last days, without even stepping into the room.

Mom’s touch transcended the door through which Beth later departed.


19 April 2012 12 Comments

In Memoriam

The eulogy I gave for my sister, Beth Geichman Clemmer, on April 15, 2012:

If you knew Beth and you’re like me, you think of her as quiet, reserved, maybe even kind of shy. She certainly was never one to want to draw attention to herself.

So, it might surprise you to hear that her life started with a crash. By that I mean that during the first and, I think, last real birthday party we put on for my father—with Mom and Dad’s friends coming over and enjoying adult beverages and hors d’oeuvres served on Ritz crackers, which, of course, was the height of casual partying in the late 1960s—Beth crashed the party when Mom went into labor. I remember watching my mother as she sat on the edge of her bed wondering if this was it. And it was, and the party ended rather abruptly.

One of my parents’ friends stayed overnight with Mike and me while Dad and Mom went to the hospital to get our little sister. I was eight years old and so excited the morning Mom and Dad and Beth were to arrive home that I threw up all over the hallway. Avocado carpeting christened with milky breakfast. Some things you just never forget.

I was the big sister and should have set the example, but it was Beth who helped me learn years later what being a protective and caring sister really means.

In 2002, Beth, Dad, and I took an August trip to Tucson. Now, August isn’t a great time to travel to Arizona. It’s monsoon season, when the average daily temperature rises to the upper 90s and the sometimes-daily downpours can make it seem much hotter. But I had a business conference to attend and asked if Dad and Beth would like to go. And since they both loved to travel, they jumped at the chance.

I, on the other hand, didn’t like traveling so much. Flying terrified me. The season’s violent storms moving from the southwestern states up to Ohio heightened my fears because we had to fly right over and sometimes through those storms. The plane tossed and felt like it was being bounced from one side of the sky to the other. Beth knew I was scared, and she held my hand. I didn’t realize how hard I was squeezing her until she disengaged for a moment and shook out the pain. And she had to do that several times. She later said I was squeezing so hard that I cut off her circulation. But, every time, she enthusiastically offered me her hand again. No words. Just an outstretched palm that made me feel calm and protected.

Beth radiated excitement about our trip. She looked out the plane’s window, watching the ground when it was visible and at other times staring straight into the storm. She wasn’t at all afraid of the challenge.

As I watched my sister, I remembered that Beth and I had a secret. It was just a few days before this trip commenced that she’d had scans and a biopsy because the doctor suspected cancer. As always, Beth thought more about others than herself. She asked me to keep her secret so as not to unduly worry the rest of the family. After all, what if it turned out to be nothing?

As I sat there on that bumpy plane watching Beth stare into the storm, knowing what storm she may have to come to face, realizing that my little sister was braver than I, I still had no idea how brave she could and would be.

As Beth confirmed later, I happened to walk through the lobby of the resort where we were staying as she was on the phone getting the diagnosis. She indeed had cancer. She wasn’t crying. She didn’t even look upset. When she saw me watching her, she turned away to shield me from the news.

We went through the rest of the trip as though nothing was wrong. We even visited Tombstone, walked through Boothill Graveyard where famous and infamous cowboys lay, and talked about my childhood fantasies of being a wild outlaw. Beth never let the specter of cancer mar her journey, or ours. She was all smiles, as usual. Bright, happy Beth.

The morning we were leaving the resort and Dad was downstairs putting our luggage in the rental car to take us back to the airport to another scary plane, Beth turned to me and asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Yes,” I whispered, fearing what she’d say.

And then she said it. “I have cancer.”

I grabbed Beth and hugged her, and she hugged back. And, when Beth hugged you, you knew you were being hugged. She put her whole self into it.

As we held each other and I tried to hold back tears, Beth said, “I’m gonna beat this. I’m gonna beat this.”

And she did. She beat cancer. She never let it get the better of her.

Cancer tries to take away everything. All the light in someone’s life. All the hope and future, right from the very start. It offers its dark grizzly hand and says, “It’s over.”

But Beth didn’t buy that. She courageously went through surgery and chemotherapy treatments to fight off the invader. Throughout it all she maintained a positive outlook—up until the very end, even when she knew she was going to die. She refused to look at the dark side. She beat cancer for ten productive, happy years. She brought light into our lives, reminded us that every day mattered and that we had a choice to use it the way we wanted. And she helped us learn what real courage looked like and showed us how we could emulate it.

Instead of focusing on cancer…instead of allowing us to focus on cancer…Beth focused her life on home and family. She especially reveled in holidays, when we all got together. She not only made cookies for us every Christmas, but she also made sure she made what we liked, and she got her deepest pleasure out of our enjoyment. There was nothing she liked better or wanted to do more than please others. It made her beam.

Everyone who took the time to get to know Beth knows how she always focused on the good in people. We, none of us, are without faults, some worse than others. I’m certainly included in that last batch. But Beth looked beyond those faults, no matter how vivid they were, to the good that lay inside every person she knew.

If we’re going to honor Beth and her memory, we should remember the great lessons she gave to us. That adversity doesn’t have to envelop our lives in blackness or even shades of gray. That smiles and laughter go far to help us get through bad times. That there’s good in everybody, and we can work to help each other bring it out. That love really can conquer all. That life is an adventure that should be joined without delay.

And Beth did love an adventure. Hiking. Scuba diving. Camping. Boating, which was one of her family’s favorite activities.

My husband, John, and I went with Beth and Jim once to Cesar’s Creek. It was a beautiful day in early October. Just chilly enough to allow us to appreciate our jackets. Cloudless azure blue sky. Trees draped in their glorious red, orange, and yellow autumn clothes. Glints of light dancing on the lake’s water as Jim steered the boat to favorite spots. The sun shining on Beth’s face, making it even brighter than usual. She made sure we enjoyed the food she’d packed. She belly laughed as the fishy water waves jumped up and hit me…which she knew I didn’t like.

Beth held my hand as I walked along the wobbly dock. As usual, she knew more than I how to navigate the bumps, and she took me safely to the shore. It was just a few years ago, but Beth was physically strong… and so joyful.

I bet boaters on that lake today can still hear Beth’s peals of happy laughter. I hope we all can. She hopes we all can.

9 April 2012 18 Comments

At A Loss

I’ve been running from it for a long time, but today is the day when it became necessary for me to write my little sister’s obituary.

I’ve never written an obit before. What do I say?

Do I say that when Beth was a golden-haired little four year old, eight years behind me, she walked through the house on her tippy toes? Do I mention that she loved American cheese as a tippy-toed child but refused to eat the single slices if they broke when she carefully peeled back the cellophane packaging? Do I include that till her dying day she loved Hostess Ho Hos? Or that, to my knowledge, there is only one picture taken in all of her 45 years that shows her not smiling a big, genuine smile?

What about the way Beth faced cancer? Because so many will say that she “lost her battle with cancer,” shouldn’t I say that Beth actually won the battle? Shouldn’t I say that she never let cancer get her down, that it never was the focus of her life? That her family was my sister’s uppermost concern even on her last evening alive? Beth lived to protect those she loved at all costs, and that persisted despite my coaching her for years about how to learn to put herself first, at least on occasion. She never bought into that. I should have known she wouldn’t.

Do I mention those of us left behind whose lives now seem a bit darker? But shouldn’t I say that even as Beth’s voice has fallen silent, her deep, heartfelt laughter still echoes in our memories? If we close our eyes and listen, it seems like she’s still with us, hoping that we’ll get as much out of our day as possible because, after all, each of us has only one life to live and we have to make that count.

Certainly, it seems appropriate for me to mention that we are terribly proud of the way the little tippy-toed girl turned out.

Wouldn’t it also seem appropriate to say how much I love my little sister and, though I already miss her terribly, that I’m so glad that she’s finally at rest? That I respect and admire her courage, tenacity, and tenderness more than words can ever convey? That the gifts she left us all will shine forever? That I am so grateful for having known her?

28 February 2012 2 Comments

Writing Through Adversity

Since late October, my family has been increasingly devastated by my sister’s cancer, which has continued to progress despite aggressive treatment.

When faced with such life-and-death crises, my first impulse is to shut myself off from the world, and this means that my writing stops. Like a flower that closes when the night’s darkness approaches, I often wait for the brightness to return to write again. But life’s most complicated cycles last longer than 24 hours, and I’ve no time to waste.

Though I’ve made some feeble attempts to write during this difficult time—telling myself I needed to write, that writing is therapy and healing—the page has been the last place I wanted to be. The page is the place for truth, and I didn’t want to face it.

We are losing Beth.

There: I’ve written it. It didn’t hurt to write it any more than it hurts to think about it. So, why am I running away from writing?

It seems to me, when I’m not running, when I’m thinking clearly—when I’m thinking as a writer—that the page is right where I need to be now that adversity’s fog surrounds me.

Most particularly, memoir provides an especially well-fitting outlet for times such as these. I can tell my page—myself—what I need to hear to get through and understand my feelings. I can share the harrowing experience of losing my sister with others so that when they face their own problems they won’t feel like they’re blazing a path. They won’t feel like they’re alone. They’ll know that others have been there and understand.

I think one of the problems with writing through adversity is that there are so many unknowns.

I tell my students every week that writing is a process of discovery, that they should have faith in the process, that they shouldn’t worry if the words and the story want to go in another direction from what they intended at the outset.

But now I find myself a hypocrite, unable to be willing to let the words go where they want. I think I’m scared because I don’t know exactly how this story ends yet. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I’m afraid of what I’ll see and how it will affect me.

But isn’t all that scary stuff what writing is about anyway?

Isn’t being a writer about using words to make sense of the world, especially when it’s been turned upside down by a monster? Is there a more important time to try to make sense out of things than when my baby sister is being taken away forever despite her tenacity and courage and faith? Isn’t it important to describe and understand the terror I see in my dad’s eyes as he faces the prospect of losing a child? Shouldn’t I be willing to record how losing my beloved sister is ripping a gaping hole in my heart and how it feels to know the abject helplessness of not being able to do anything to stop the cruel process of destruction? And what about that awful feeling of knowing that at some point I’m going to be called upon to actually abet the process by helping to make final arrangements and writing my sister’s eulogy?

Yes, most certainly, I need to get started. But I’m going to need a mantra to keep me going through the darkness and tears.

Writing is therapy. Writing is healing. Writing is record. Writing is truth. Writing is life.