Brothers and sisters: Remembering loved ones who died of AIDS

    My brother Sam was three years younger than me and died from AIDS while still young and handsome at the age of thirty-nine in 1989. On November 21st, 2014, he would be 65, eligible for Medicare. I’m not sure how he would have handled getting older. We were very close, in spite of a scrimmage now and then. When we were growing up, I seemed to be the person he preferred to fight with, but also the person he ran to whenever he got into difficulty. He was fiercely competitive with me, even though I didn’t want to compete. My first memories as a child were about Sam, and my memory of his dying words stuck with me.  Eventually, I had to write about it in order to try to understand what he was trying to say. I was honored to have my essay about our life as brother and sister, Sam’s Way,  published in The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 2012), and doubly honored when it was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013. Writing our story was a way to bring him back into the world – and it worked. Many people who had known him contacted me and I had lots of great conversations about what a funny, courageous, difficult and generous person he was. In honor of Sam, I’ll be baking his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing on Friday and thinking about all the beautiful and talented people who were lost to a horrendous disease. Happy birthday, Sammy. Wish you were here.      

A Veteran’s Day Remembrance

My husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., left for Vietnam on November 11, 1968. Veteran’s Day always brings back the memory of his early morning departure from a small local airport. This year, on the anniversary of his death in Vietnam, May 17, I published a memoir about that time in my life and the aftermath. I’m happy to say that the experience of writing this book and reconnecting with the men who served with him in Vietnam has been transformative. I have reconnected with a neglected past. The following is an excerpt from the first chapter: Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War     Truly nothing is to be expected but the unexpected! Alice James (1891)   On May 17, 1969, when I was twenty-three, my husband, Captain David Rockwell Crocker, Jr., was killed in the Vietnam War. We had married on the day after his graduation from West Point in June 1966. Three years later, after six months in Vietnam, he was mortally wounded while inspecting a deserted Viet Cong bunker. He had entered the small dark enclosure with his first sergeant along with a Vietnamese translator, and another soldier, who was a conscientious objector, carrying a bulky radio. There are speculations about what happened next in the bunker. Possibly an unseen wire like fishing twine, strung overhead, connected to the trigger on a booby trap; probably the antenna, projecting up from the radio, pressed against the wire. The explosion sent earth, human flesh, glass, bamboo and shrapnel in all directions. Dave survived for a few hours with fatal wounds to his […]

Musings on Memoir

In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The objective is to be personal and impersonal all at once. In a sense it is to be a witness and a storyteller. The hallmark of memoir is the expression of both Now and Then. It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience back then and expressing what that experience means to us now. We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self. Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning. The event itself usually happened years ago and a memory, a scene, lingers. I remember weeping in a kitchen in a lonely apartment in a foreign country in 1968 and devouring a box of graham crackers – a big box.  Whenever the memory came back, I was uncomfortable. When I eventually described the scene by writing about it, the events before and after came flooding back and I started to get closer to the story. Memories survive on fleeting things – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song. These details are the starting point for the deeper story.. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and who you are today. It is mental and emotional time travel and sometimes it might involve actual travel. The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a free-thinking […]

What is Memoir?

    Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory, except that territory is within you. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a sky diver all at once without leaving your writing table. You take risks on the journey as you delve deeper and deeper into the ravines of memory, but the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer. A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see. There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it is often because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. Russell Baker told the story of writing a complete manuscript – 450 pages – of a well-researched and documented family story. He included a slew of facts about his family’s genealogy and history. But in the end he realized that, although he was accurate in the reporting of facts about his family, he had been dishonest about his portrayal of his mother. He said, “I had been unwilling to write honestly… and that dishonesty left a […]

A Grandmother’s Memory of 9/11

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down. […]

Lost for Words: Can Writing be Healing?

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph. The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s. “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and […]

A Tribute to Nurses in War and Peace

    As we recognize the anniversaries of the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II, it is chilling to realize that nurses were also at the battlefront, but barely noticed. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated. The patients were mostly elderly people who had the usual physical and mental problems related to aging, but we lived in a rural area and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for situations that were considered minor emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones and head injuries. I can see my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound caused by broken glass and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually a doctor would become involved, but watching my mother and her colleagues in action day after day offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses, even in civilian life, were unsung heroines. There is no comparison of what civilian nurses did to the horrors and chaos of serving as a nurse in a war zone, but nurses in military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed, as well. Thousands of women serving as nurses put their lives in peril on the battlefield over centuries and yet little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Even appropriate financial remuneration has been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ […]

Critic or Critique: Giving a Writer Useful Feedback

  Most writers need feedback about their work – some more than others. Ray Bradbury, for example, was not only a highly motivated and prolific writer, but also a ferocious reviser without need for advance readers. He was disciplined in his writing process and daring. He said, “When you write – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! Then give yourself enough time to think, cut, rework, and rewrite.” If and when he did show his work to others before publication, he had already logged double-digit revisions. But, most of the rest of us earthling writers need support and encouragement along the road to the finished product. There are those writers who show their manuscript to no one until they think it’s ready for publication, but often, when I’m still revising, I like a nudge now and then from a carefully chosen reader who will be honest enough to say that they have no sense of what I’m trying to say, or they lost interest after the first paragraph, or they just couldn’t figure out what my characters were trying to do. This usually happens when I don’t know what I’m trying to say and I’ve wandered off into a thicket of ideas. My reader is not going to tell me what to do or how to find my way, however they might offer a clue or notice that there is too much of something and not enough of something else. Perhaps I won’t agree with my helpful reader – but I was the one who asked! […]

Grieving the Death of a Child

            When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child. “Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.” He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow. “Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.” Tom started writing and couldn’t stop. “I wrote my heart out,” he said. Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult. Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems […]

A Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]