by Karen DeBonis
I recently asked my husband Michael to read a section of my memoir manuscript. He knew the gist of the story; we had lived through it together, the before and during and after of our 11-year old son’s diagnosis with a brain tumor.
That was twenty years ago. Our son Matthew is now 31 and doing surprisingly well. Me, not so much lately. It’s grueling to “bleed on the page” as memoirists are advised. I hemorrhaged regularly almost two decades ago when I started writing my memoir. Today as I edit my work, some wounds, long-ago healed, have opened to drip anew.
Michael and I sat down on the red couch in the living room, the drapes drawn against the dark October evening.
Snuggling next to him, I read along over his shoulder, watching his face when he got to a troubling scene. I couldn’t read his expression, but without taking his eyes from the paper, he grabbed for my hand. When he finished reading, he turned to me with tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” he said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I replied, tears spilling down my cheeks.
It was a scene about my postpartum depression, something that wasn’t well recognized in 1986, something for which I should have been treated, something that I kept entirely to myself for 31 years until that evening on the couch.
A month later, my freelance editor commented on the same scene, writing:
“As a reader .. I still don’t understand how you grew into a woman who could say nothing even when she was having ideations about hurting her child.”
I understood why I said nothing. Revealing those chilling thoughts would make me unlovable, I feared. My child could be taken from me. I might lose my husband. And I knew I would never really hurt my child, so I rationalized that no one needed to know.
Mulling over my editor’s comment, however, I realized there was more to it. My manuscript is full of my private pain that I kept secret for so long. And I habitually hide what’s going on inside me. I did it through our family’s rumble with a brain tumor. I did it before we had kids and after our sons left home. I do it now. I bury thoughts and feelings every day. What’s up with that?
I had to write this essay to figure it out.
Partly I conceal what’s swirling around in my head because I’m an introvert. My mind analyzes every interaction in my day, considering it from every angle, turning it this way and that like a prism. I’m happy up there alone in my mind, absorbed in the nuances of life. I don’t always feel the need for company.
Partly I suppress the bustling in my brain because it takes time to process. If something bothers me, it may be days before I understand how I feel and even longer before I can articulate it.
I also mask my deepest reveries for lack of an audience. So few people know how to listen—really listen—without interrupting or judging or giving advice. And who really wants to hear me ramble, or wait while I struggle to find precisely the right word? I’ve felt the pull of loved ones away from me when I try to verbalize the tornado in my head.
Michael wasn’t always great at listening and I wasn’t great at asking to be heard in our younger days of parenting and working and DIY-ing our old house. We didn’t create enough opportunities to sit on the couch and talk as we do now, now that my manuscript invites us together. After reading the postpartum depression scene, we recalled Matthew’s difficult infancy, long before his brain tumor saga, and we talked about it for hours.
I never was a writer, not poetry in middle school nor short stories in high school. It wasn’t until brain tumor came into focus when I was almost 40 that I took pen to paper and fingers to keyboard. Then life with a brain-injured child sucked away the time and energy to write. Twenty years later, life with a chronic illness forced me to abandon my career, and the manuscript called from its box in the attic. I answered, latently discovering the blessings of writing.
The creative outlet works for me. I can write what I want and keep it secret until I’m ready to share. I can start and stop and revise and put the final punctuation on a thought before it greets an audience. I can ramble until my sentences gel, molding the words and cadence and voice and structure like a sculpture.
When I started this essay, I didn’t know why I kept so much in. I didn’t have an answer for my editor. Now, that I’ve figured it out, I’ll return to my manuscript and sculpt again, knowing that with each revision, I’ll bleed a little less.
One word, one essay, one memoir at a time, I’m figuring myself out and my wounds are healing for good. Give me a laptop and quiet afternoon and I’ll hide nothing.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.