Michelle Gillett: Embarking upon a different story
STOCKBRIDGE >> Several years ago, I participated in a program at North Adams Regional Hospital for women with breast cancer. Inkberry, the writing project based in North Adams, started the grant-funded initiative to help breast cancer survivors tell their stories. My job was to transcribe and edit the stories and help turn them into a book for the women to give to their families.
One young woman's story in particular touched me very much. She had two little girls, and she wasn't sure she would live to see them grow up. There were things she wanted them to know, things she wanted for them — confidence, a belief in what they could accomplish. She wanted them to be strong and loving, to have self-esteem and to be kind.
I think her story touched me because I have two daughters — not young anymore — strong adult women who do have confidence, and who have accomplished wonderful things in their lives. What if I hadn't had time to watch them grow up, time to appreciate them as much as I do?
I gave the young woman her story to give to her daughters, and I was happy to do it. I felt lucky to be able to help these women tell their stories: our stories are who we are, even when they don't have happy endings.
I wasn't going to write about cancer in this column. Who wants to read about cancer? It's depressing, it's morbid; it takes over lives, it ends lives. But a couple of weeks ago I found out I have cancer. One day I was fine; I was me. The next day I was horribly sick, and that me was not the same me anymore.
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the US, exceeded only by heart disease, and it accounts for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths. So it is a part of many, many stories. Now it is a part of my story as well. Although I don't know the ending of my story, it is certainly a different story than what I thought it might be.
For over 30 years, I have been fortunate to be able to write my stories here in The Berkshire Eagle. My first story was about one of my wonderful daughters: my younger daughter had come home from middle school to deliver a wake-up call to the parents she knew. She felt that parents were not paying attention to the fact that she, my wonderful daughter, was living in a dangerous world.
So little has changed: she is still living in a dangerous world, as are we all, and I am still writing my column. But from now on, my stories will be different; the danger is much closer.
Over the last 30 years, I have written about lots of things: families, my own and others. I have written about women's issues — abortion, birth control, and equal pay. I have written about life in the Berkshires: the creative economy, poetry, art and music, and about the natural world that surrounds us. I have written about dogs, fly fishing, and trees; I have written about neighbors and gardens; I have written about the inconveniences of contemporary life. I have written about people who are gone: my parents and their friends. I have written about the life of the body and the life of the spirit. I have been happy to tell all these stories, and grateful to my readers for reading and responding and sharing their stories with me.
When I helped breast cancer survivors all those years ago, it was a gift. It was a gift to me to be able to help women, with and without cancer, talk about their lives and share their stories with their families. Our stories do explain us.
Now I have to explain that I have cancer. "How do you feel?" they asked when I was admitted to the hospital. Like I lost myself, I said. Someone handed me a tissue. I see myself somewhere between who I am and who I used to be. I find myself reaching for her, the old me, trying to bring her back to tell our story.
Stories have to be authentic; they have to be honest to reach that far. I don't know if I can get myself back, just as that young woman with breast cancer didn't know if she could get herself back to her daughters. I hope I helped her find a way through the uncertainty cancer brings. I know she helped me realize that no matter how the story ends, telling it is worth the effort: it is the only way we have to bring the old me, the new me and the me that is yet to be together, which is where we belong.
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