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A few months ago I started taking a night-school course called True to Life: Writing Your Own Story.
Every week our teacher, Beth, assigned the 14 of us to write a piece about our lives to read to the class. My classmates learned that my parents emigrated from Jamaica, that I am the middle child in a family of seven, and that I sometimes refer to myself as No. 4.
They learned that I have three sons, and that my youngest has been sick since birth with a brain tumour, that he has seizures every day, and that this has been devastating for both him and me.
They know that I love water, but at 56 I cannot swim. They know that I have nightmares.
But there is something they don’t know: how important the class was to me, not only for the writing. I am so sad our time together is over.
I started the class just days after losing a job I had loved for many years. And my real job of the past 24 years, caring for my son, was also over: He had moved away from home shortly before.
Now it was my time. I had to reinvent myself.
I decided I was going to learn to write what I thought was my life story. With Beth as our teacher, however, something more than just writing happened in class.
We met every Monday from 6:30 to 9:15 p.m. in a cold, beige room on the fifth floor of a downtown building, our desks in a haphazard circle. Beth was witty and kind. She always had great lines for us, such as: “If you’re not going deep, there is no point.”
Whoever sat to her left was the first to read their piece. The next week, whoever sat to her right started first, and around the circle we’d go. I always tried to sit far away from Beth.
In the beginning, the stories were not well written. Somehow, Beth always critiqued with kindness before adding, “Remember: Show me. Don’t tell me,” or “Lose the heavy hand of judgment on yourself,” or “Don’t forget the moment of change in all your pieces.”
In the first class, one woman became weepy, saying she didn’t think she had any stories. As time went on, I realized she had too many. She learned to tell each one with bravery and without self-pity.
The young man in the class made us laugh each week with stories of his imaginary friend, his job as a tree planter, and of adventures in his wreck of a car named Vonda. His stories were always funny, until they weren’t. The night he wrote about his mother’s death, every one of us cried.
One woman wrote stories of her childhood in a fundamentalist Christian sect. It was so strict she was not allowed to read books, except the Bible, or wear pants, cut her hair or befriend outsiders. At 17, she was excommunicated and even her family was expected to shun her. Her stories were bravely written, and I longed to hear them.
There were disturbing stories of depressed mothers; passionate stories of food addiction; angry stories of divorce; haunting stories of dying fathers; heroic stories of emigration; funny stories of weird jobs, heartbreaking stories of abortion and lost love.
In the beginning, my stories were about life with my chronically ill son. I thought I was writing them with poignancy and urgency. In class after class I would read them out.
I wrote about my baby boy, 10 days old, being rushed by ambulance with sirens blaring to the Hospital for Sick Children. When I finished reading, the room was quiet. Some had red eyes, but no one said much.
I wrote about my son’s head being shaved and sawed open when he was 3 so that his tumour could be removed. Again, there was quiet.
“Well, thank you for that, Nancy,” Beth said before asking the class: “What did you think about Nancy’s piece?”
“As a mom, it tugged at my heart,” one classmate said. “But I want to learn more about you.”
The next week, I wrote about all the drugs my son takes to control his seizures, which keep coming anyway, five, 10, 15 times a day. I wrote about the side-effects – how he hurls, and his skin turns an odd shade of green.
I wrote about the doctors, nurses and psychologists who are always there to help him. Again, it was quiet after I read.
I kept on writing about him until one day Beth said: “Maybe you shouldn’t write about your son for a while.”
What was she talking about?
Then she assured me of something I had long forgotten. “You had a life before he was born,” she said. “You told us that now it was your time. So, let’s hear about you.”
My first thought was, “I’m not coming back to this class! My son is my life!” But then I realized that perhaps Beth was right. Where was I in my own life stories?
Indeed, I did have a life long before I was just the mother of a chronically ill child. I was so accustomed to that role that I hadn’t written my own life stories. Those stories are rich and funny and sad, and they are mine. They also needed to be told.
So, I began to tell them. And even though the class is over, I won’t stop writing my stories.
Nancy Figueroa lives in Toronto.