Andromeda: Illness, Terrorism, and Telling Stories

How and why do we tell the stories of our lives?
I am currently visiting my mother who is dying from brain
cancer, and who is now reduced to short sentences, not all of them coherent.
Life is pretty simple now: eating, watching t.v. including news of the latest
San Bernardino shooting and the terrorist attack on Paris before that. When my
mom, once loquacious and now reduced to relatively few words, said to my sister
in regards to terrorism, “It’s confusing,” my sister said something along the
lines of, “Hey, I’m confused, too. I’ve been confused for years.”
We are now at the place where new narratives are not easily
spun or shared.  
When I visited two months ago, things were very different. I
arrived expecting – and terrified to find – a person in the deep throes of
depression. My mom had breast cancer two years ago and the treatment was pretty
awful. Brain cancer and brain surgery—a ball of brain material removed – had to
be worse, right? There is no question now: she will not be cured. How could a
person not be in a blue mood, dealing with that?
I was surprised to find my mom in distinctly upbeat spirits,
easier to deal with in some ways than she had been two years earlier, when she
was last being treated for cancer, and a world better than she was a dozen
years ago, when my stepfather died.
On this October visit, whenever a story from the past arose,
it was reframed—reshaped, renarrated—in the best possible light. She talked
about her good marriages, counting herself lucky. (A different story: she
married and divorced my father, a damaged and abusive charmer who scarred
numerous people by his actions and ended up dying in another country, where the
law could not reach him. My mother’s second marriage was better in every way,
but not without its own mundane problems.) She recalled stories about her own success
and generosity that were not untrue, but were exaggerated. Spotty friendships that
had lapsed over many years were now remembered as strong and continuous. Oh,
and by the way, she was suddenly proficient in a few more languages as well,
including one she has never studied.
My response was twofold. First, simple astonishment: How can
she remember things that way when that’s not the way they were? (Anyone who has
written or read memoir knows the answer – we shape and select memories to fit
our own needs for coherence.) I felt taken aback in a few cases, but only
briefly. A person doesn’t have to endure removal of brain parts to spin a
radically different and sometimes self-serving story. We all do it, every day.
Second, I realized very quickly how lucky we all were. She
was going to enjoy the last months of her life, and we didn’t have to feel
despondent about her mental state, even with it’s moment-to-moment confusion.
What a gift for every one of us, if we can manage, near the end, to assemble a
narrative that gives us a sense of meaning and contentment. I am so very, very
grateful that she has found time to happily reminiscence, unburdened (it seems)
by many thoughts about our family’s darkest hours. Certainly, she may be
thinking sad thoughts she isn’t sharing. But her self-censoring abilities are limited.
She mostly says what she thinks, as she thinks.
In the novels I’ve written, I sometimes worry that I’m
unrealistically depicting the mental-review process of people in the middle or
near the end of their lives. In my latest, the novel is narrated retrospectively by a sick woman reconsidering long stretches of her life. At times I’ve
thought, “But what if people don’t really do that? What if the average person
never looks back at all?”
I am the type to look back. My mother is, without a doubt,
spending her final months looking back, re-evaluating and communicating those
stories whenever she can.
And here is this last finding before I run out of time (breakfast
to be made, preparation for a medical visit after that): successful and
resilient people absolutely do just what my mother is—or was, until recently –
In the first place, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote
after the Paris attacks: people experience hard knocks and are less prone to
post-traumatic stress disorder than we may assume. (For example, only 13
percent of people who experienced 9/11 in person had PTSD in the next six
And second, the people who bounce back do so, at least
partly, through narrative.
I will end this piece with Brooks’s words, which leave me
hopeful about many things: about my mother, about Paris and world terrorism,
and about this thing we call story, which every person tells and sometimes
writes in his or her own way:
Recovering from trauma is mainly an
exercise in storytelling. As Richard Tedeschi, a psychology professor at the
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has pointed out, trauma is a shock
that ruptures the central story that you thought was your life. The recurring
patterns that make up life are disrupted. The sense of safety is lost. Having
faced death, people in these circumstances are forced to confront the elemental
questions of life.
But some people are able to write a
new story. As Tedeschi
, post-traumatic growth comes not from the event but from the
struggle afterward to write a new story that imagines a life better than
before. Researchers have found that people who thrive after a shock are able to
tell clear, forward-looking stories about themselves, while those who don’t
thrive get stuck ruminating darkly about the past.
Book 1 is life before the event.
Book 2 is the event that shattered the old story. But Book 3 is reintegration,
a reframing new story that incorporates what happened and then points to a more
virtuous and meaningful life than the one before.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of Behave, a novel about science, motherhood and the 1920s (March 1, 2016), as well as The Spanish Bow, The Detour, and Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers, teaches in the UAA MFA program, and is a private book coach.
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