Maintaining Perspective in an Imperfect World
I think we can all agree that the world has been crazy this last year. It’s easy to lose your perspective. Having recently retired, I restored my perspective by briefly reviewing my 43-year career and recalling some of my favorite moments along the way—and some of the most life-changing. I want to share one with you.
From 1991 until 2000, I was a freelance writer. I built a small business around a home-based advertising and executive speechwriting firm that allowed me to watch my sons grow up. My largest client was a healthcare facility, so much of my writing addressed life and death issues. One day, a writing assignment so resonated with me that the story below was born out of it. It has been published nationally twice.
To this day, when life is uncertain, this story helps me restore my perspective on what really matters.
Lose the Head, Open the Heart
It was just another assignment—until the writer realized that
getting to the truth of the story meant feeling the words he wrote.
What would you say to the most important people in your life if you had only three months to live? It’s a question we hope we never have to think about. For Katie Miller, it’s a question she thinks about every day.
It’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning. Most people are hard at work trying to earn a living. I’m interviewing Katie, a mother of three, who’s doing her best just to keep living. Katie is dying of ovarian cancer. She is 27. She has three months to live. Three months to agonize over what life might be like if her health care provider had approved appropriate chemotherapy treatment. Three months to say good-bye to her husband of seven years. Three months to say whatever a mother can say to prepare her children six, four and three--for life without mommy.
Katie has accepted the fact that the health care provider made a mistake--and she will pay for that mistake with her life. She has accepted that she will never be 30, 40, 50 or any other age that most of us whine about. And she has accepted that she won’t be there when her children need her most. Instead, her goal is simple. Live till tomorrow.
For me, tomorrow is just another day—Wednesday. I’ll be writing a capabilities brochure for an architectural firm. On Thursday, I’ll write an ad for a Fortune 500 company selling a new “must-have” consumer product. And on Friday, I’ll begin drafting an executive speech for a vice president and start outlining an idea I have for a novel. This is the life of a full-time freelance copywriter. Every day I write about an exciting new product or service that promises to make our world a better place to live.
But today is different. I’m writing about the conclusion of a life. I’ve been hired by a local health care facility to write a feature story explaining how it helped increase Katie’s quality of life after a competing health care system in a neighboring city failed her.
My tape recorder is running and I’m interviewing Katie and her husband, Ken, at the dining room table of their small rented home. The dining room walls are lined with pictures drawn by their pre-school Picassos. Family portraits hang unevenly above an artificial fireplace—the only person I don’t recognize is Katie. In the photos, she’s healthy and beautiful. Her smile is electric and her blonde hair is gorgeous. Today, both are missing.
Deep into the interview I ask, “On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst, how bad is your pain?”
“Every day, at some point, it hits ten,” she says slowly. “And every night I cry myself to sleep because the pain is so severe, and I don’t know if I’m going to wake up in the morning. But there’s no way I’m going to let this beat me without a fight.”
As Katie finished her sentence, 4-year old David climbed into my lap and gave me a hug. Suddenly, I wasn’t the writer. I was part of the story. But not Katie’s story.
As David squirmed in my lap, my mind shot back to a warm, sunny June afternoon in 1965. My father has just returned from the hospital. He calls his six young children into his bedroom. We know what he is going to say. “Your mother passed away today,” he says solemnly. Panic seizes our hearts as he, my aunt and uncle, desperately try to bury their grief so they can help us cope with ours.
My mother died after a short battle with cancer. She was forty-five. Her children ranged from four to fourteen. I was eleven.
As David jumped down from my lap, I felt the eerie irony of his childhood colliding with mine. In three months, he will never see his mother again. He will no longer enjoy the security of her embrace, the warmth of her touch, the joy of her smile, the strength of her encouragement or the smell of her perfume. Yet, someday he’ll crave to know everything about her—especially when friends and relatives tell him how much he reminds them of her.
“Katie, you told me your doctor said you have three months to live. As a mother of three, how do you cope with that?”
Katie bit her lip. “Even though you know you’re going to lose, you have to keep fighting,” she said firmly. “Every day I push myself to give my husband and children one more reason to remember me. And I have a box of special things for each of my kids.
"Inside each box is a diary of how we spent our time together, little toys that were important to them, and a videotape of special conversations we’ve had together. I’ve also recorded a tape that my daughters can listen to later in life. I talk to them about female things that their father will not be comfortable discussing. I want to be their mother when they need me—even if I can’t be there.”
Tears welled in my eyes as I jotted notes on my legal pad. I quickly composed myself and asked, “Is there any special message you would like to share with the community and other cancer patients?”
“Before I die, I want people to know two things. First, if you are diagnosed with cancer, get a second opinion. Second, I want people to realize that cancer is not the end of their world. It gives you a second chance to do something with your life. It gave me the opportunity to focus on the things most important to me—my husband and my kids.”
I wrapped up the interview and drove back to my home office. I wrote a lead for the story but it was too sterile. I wrote another, then another. Finally, I hammered this out:
Cancer. Next to heart disease, it’s the leading cause of death in America. All of us know or love someone who has fallen prey to this impartial killer. If Katie Miller didn’t have to fight her former health care provider for an accurate diagnosis, she might not have to fight cancer today. Now, she is not only fighting for her health, she is fighting for time. This is her story.
This lead, too, felt cold and empty. I was missing something. I grabbed my tape recorder, leaned back in my chair, and played back part of the interview. I could hear what was missing. Compassion. Emotion. Feeling. Heart.
I was writing Katie’s story like one of my business articles—with my head. To tell Katie’s story I realized I had to lose my head, and open my heart. I closed my eyes, and, like a fiction writer, tried to climb inside the main character’s head. What are they thinking, feeling? What do they fear? Do I feel their pain? Then I tapped out this lead:
For Katie Miller, life is short. Too short. At 27, she has just seen her last Christmas, her last winter and her final birthday. She knows she will never see Jenny, her 6-year old daughter, finish the first grade. She knows she won’t be there when her son, David, 4, loses his baby teeth. She knows her husband will spend their eighth wedding anniversary alone. And she grieves knowing Joanna, 3, will never remember her.
Katie is dying of ovarian cancer. She has approximately three months to live. But the real tragedy is, it didn’t have to be this way.
I finished the story a few days later and mailed a copy to Katie and my healthcare client.
A few weeks later, my client asked me to stop by Katie’s home and help coordinate the photo shoot. I asked Katie how she liked the story.
“It’s very good,” she said with a smile. “You really captured how I feel. I’m going to put a copy of the article in my kids’ special boxes.”
Three months later, I was flipping through the newspaper and I saw a picture of Katie. It accompanied her obituary. I paused, remembering how her life had touched mine.
Writing is a cerebral profession. But sometimes a writer must let his heart do the talking. You must enter a subject’s world, sense her struggle, understand his problems, and present those problems in a way that allows the readers to feel their pain. To do that, you must feel their pain.
“A writer’s problem does not change,” Hemingway said. “It is always how to write truly and having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.”
I suppose I could’ve learned to write from the heart from Hemingway. But Katie taught me first.
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