Through my work in marketing at a children’s hospital, I met a woman whose young daughters can only see each other through a glass pane while one undergoes a bone marrow transplant in the isolation unit. The 6-year-old, who is well, and the 8-year-old, who isn’t, meet often—but not often enough—to do their little girl talk via walkie talkie in a circular area of the unit that’s called the fishbowl.
When I heard, I cried.
I thought back to the last year of my father’s life when I contracted mono by drinking Coca-Cola after my boyfriend’s sister. I was 16 years old. My father’s immunity was low from cancer treatment, and because I was sick, I couldn’t be near him. We led our separate lives on opposite sides of our old ranch house.
There was one day when I saw him for a moment, bald and frail, and he asked me how I was feeling. My throat had gotten infected, and I told him, at length, that I felt terrible.
He snapped at me. “I can’t stand to hear you whine when I’m the one who’s sick,” he said, or something to that effect.
I felt ashamed and burst into angry tears. “I’m sorry you have cancer,” I said, “but it’s not fair that I can’t complain about normal things.”
How stupid and selfish of me! But my dad was moved.
“You’re right,” he said. “Cancer isn’t normal. You should be able to complain about normal things. I’m so sorry.”
Did he take the risk of hugging me? After all these years, I can’t remember.
In one way or another, I am always writing about cancer. Feeling it, then backing up from it. Letting cancer break my heart, then wondering exactly why it does. If I can figure out the mechanics of my own grief, then I can recreate it and make someone feel the same as me. If I’m doing it for fundraising, it could do some good.
THE LOOK OF DISTANCE
At work, we talk about the need to “take a moment,” to walk away from the group and be by ourselves when we hear something sad about a family we’ve come to love. It’s a strange job we have, marketing on some of the saddest moments of a family’s life. The only thing that makes it better is knowing we make a difference by raising money to find a cure for a stupid, horrible disease.
In his book The Look of Distance, Walter Slatoff urges us to approach fictional characters as creatures of flesh and blood with human motivations. People we could know and love. Writers sometimes see their characters as set pieces and kill them off or place them in the most desperate situations. Consequentially, these paper people seem devoid of motivation, their actions make no sense, we can no more care about them than we would a coffee table.
Believe in your characters, and you’ll be careful where you put them and what you ask them to do. You’ll still harm them, but when it happens, you’ll feel terrible. Your characters are real now, at least to you.
Slatoff’s urging has stayed with me now for many years and influences how I approach not only my fiction writing, but also my work in writing about the real people at the hospital dealing with incredible challenges.
So when I heard about the two sisters communicating by walkie talkie through a glass pane, and I thought about Dad, and I needed to “take a moment” to cry, I also had to compartmentalize the stories and give it direction for my work.
I thought, “If I’m crying, maybe other people will be moved. I could have a picture taken and post it to our hospital’s Facebook page.”
When the contact sheets of the two sisters came back from the studio, the images told a story that was beautiful and devastating in equal measure. But there was something else I noticed. In some of the shots, the camera flash had picked up what had been invisible at the time of the shoot—multiple handprints on the glass from earlier visitors. All trying to will their way through the glass, all hoping for healing.
(Crayon and marker illustration by the author of her childhood home, March 2014)
Betsy Taylor works for a children’s charity in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in The Republic of Letters, Evening Street Review, Memphis Magazine online, Apparatus, and the Crab Orchard Review. She received her MFA from Southern Illinois University. She lives with her husband and son in Minneapolis, and hails from Memphis, Tennessee.