Originally published June 24, 2010
There comes a point in your life when you realize that your parents are people too. Not just chaffeurs, laundresses, baseball-catchers, etc.– but people. And when that happens, it is a lightbulb moment, a moment in which a parent’s humanity, flaws, and individuality come into focus.
If you are lucky, like I am, you get a window into that world via an adult relationship with your parents. In this domain you start to learn more about them; you see them through the eyes of their friends, their employer, their spouse, and their other children.
Yesterday I sat transfixed reading Katherine Rosman’s book If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter’s Notebook cover to cover. The book arrived at noon and at 11:00 last night I shut the back cover and went to sleep. But by the middle of the night I was up again, thinking about it.
I had read an excerpt of the book in a magazine and had already been following Katie on Twitter. I knew this was going to be a powerful book for me, and I was right. Katie is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and went on a mission to learn about her mother after her mother died (on today’s very date in 2005) from lung cancer. In an attempt to construct a completed puzzle of who her mother was, Katie travels around the country to talk with those who knew her mother: a golf caddy, some of her Pilates students, her doctors, and even people who interacted with Suzy via Ebay when she started buying up decorative glass after her diagnosis.
Katie learns a lot about her mother; she is able to round out the picture of who her mother was as a friend, an inspiration, a wife, a mother, a strong and humorous woman with an intense, fighting spirit. These revelations sit amidst the narrative of Katie’s experience watching her mother going through treatment in both Arizona and New York, ultimately dying at home one night while Katie and some family members are asleep in another room.
I teared up many times during my afternoon getting to know not only Suzy, but also Katie and her sister Lizzie. There were so many parts of the book that affected me. The main themes that really had the mental gears going were those of fear, regret, control, and wonder.
I fear that what happened to Suzy will happen to me:
my cancer will return.
I will have to leave the ones I love.
I will go “unknown.”
My children and my spouse will have to care for me.
My needs will impinge on their worlds.
The day-to-day caretaking will overshadow my life, and who I was.
I will die before I have done all that I want to do, see all that I want to see.
As I read the book I realized the tribute Katie has created to her mother. As a mother of three children myself, I am so sad that Suzy did not live to see this accomplishment (of course, it was Suzy’s death that spurred the project, so it is an inherent Catch-22). Suzy loved to brag about Katie’s accomplishments; I can only imagine if she could have walked around her daily life bragging that her daughter had written a book about her… and a loving one at that.
Rosman has not been without critics as she went on this fact-finding mission in true reporter-style. One dinner party guest she talked with said, ” … you really have no way of knowing what, if anything, any of your discoveries signify.” True: I wondered as others have, where Suzy’s dearest friends were… but where is the mystery in that? To me, Rosman’s book is “significant” (in the words of the guest) because it shows how it is often those with whom we are only tangentially connected, those with whom we may have a unidimensional relationship (a golf caddy, an Ebay seller, a Pilates student) may be the ones we confide in the most. For example, while Katie was researching, she found that her mother had talked with relative strangers about her fear of dying, but rarely (if ever) had extended conversations about the topic with her own children.
It’s precisely the fact that some people find it easier to tell the stranger next to them on the airplane things that they conceal from their own family that makes Katie’s story so accessible. What do her discoveries signify? For me it was less about the details Katie learned about her mother. For me, the story of her mother’s death, the process of dying, the resilient spirit that refuses to give in, the ways in which our health care system and doctors think about and react to patients’ physical and emotional needs– all of these are significant. The things left unsaid as a woman dies of cancer, the people she leaves behind who mourn her loss, the way one person can affect the lives of others in a unique way… these are things that are “significant.”
I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the book. My head spun with all of the emotions it raised in me. I think that part of the reason writing has become so important to me is precisely because I do realize that we can die at any moment. And if you don’t have an author in the family who might undertake an enormous project as Katie did, where will that explanation of who you were — what you thought — come from?
Is my writing an extension of my desire to control things when cancer has taken away so much of this ability?
Is part of the reason I write an attempt to document my thoughts, my perspective for after I am gone… am I, in a smaller way, trying to do for myself what Katie did for her mother?
If I don’t do it, who will do it for me?
And in my odd way of thinking, am I trying to save anyone the considerable effort of having to work to figure out who I was– deep down?
My blog has the title “You’d Never Know”: I am telling you things about myself, my worldview, and my life, that you would otherwise have no knowledge of. One of the things people say to me all the time is, “You’d never know to look at you that you had cancer.” After hearing this comment repeatedly I realized that much of our lives are like that:
If we don’t tell someone — share our feelings and experiences — are our lives the proverbial trees falling (unheard) in the forest?
What if you die without being truly understood?
Would that be a life wasted?
If you don’t say things for yourself can you count on others to express them for you?
Further, can anyone really know anyone else in her entirety?
After a loved one dies, there always seems to be at least one mystery person: an individual contacts the family by email, phone, or in person to say, “I knew your loved one: this is how I knew her, this is what I remember about her, and this is what she meant to me.” I know that this happened when Barbara (my beloved mother-in-law) died suddenly last fall. There are stories to be told, memories to be shared. The living gain knowledge about their loved one. Most often, I think families find these insights comforting and informative.
Katie did the work: she’s made a tribute to her mother that will endure not only in its documentation of the person her mother was (and she was quite a character!) but also in sharing her with all of us. Even after her death, Suzy has the lovely ability to inspire, to entertain, to be present.
I could talk more about the book, Katie’s wonderful writing, and cancer, but I would rather you read it for yourself. I’m still processing it all, making sense of this disease and how it affects families, and being sad that Katie’s children didn’t get to know their grandmother. Katie did have the joy of telling her mother she was pregnant with her first child, but Suzy did not live long enough to see her grandson born. In a heartwarming gesture, Katie names her son Ariel, derived from Suzy’s Hebrew name Ariella Chaya.
I thank Katie for sharing her mother with me, with us. As a writer I learned a lot from reading this book. I’ve said many times recently that “we don’t need another memoir.” I was wrong. That’s like saying, “I don’t need to meet anyone new. I don’t need another friend.” Truth is, there are many special people. Katie and Suzy Rosman are two of them.