Due for discussion on Feb. 17: a taboo topic
Empathy Exams: from Leslie Jamieson
This essay is what is often called a "braided" form, with different voices woven within it, using a structure of a series of medical exams, in which the narrator is at first an actor, then a participant. There's a very deliberate use of repetition which I was impatient with, as a reader, to begin, and then I began to understand what the writer was up to. Memoir can take so many forms, and this is a very intriguing one. It may give you ideas as to how you want to go about writing a memoir; what from your life might you take to improvise a narrative structure? How could you affect the atmosphere, the mood of the piece, with a different structure? These are questions that get answered over time and with drafts, but are well worth thinking about.
For our assignment Feb. 17th, please read and notate what interests you of "The Empathy Exams" and the three Ellen Bass poems I gave you in class last night. Then, write a piece from something in your life considered taboo, as in the syllabus assignment. Try writing a scene between at least two people in which something important must happen or be said, and edit down a 2-pp. version for us, acknowledging its sacredness, its great power..
Homework: read excerpt from the Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, and poems from Ellen Bass, The Human Line. Continue taboo exercise; bring two pages on Feb. 17, 2015.
It would be much too dangerous to talk about the humor in dying, especially at the hospice office headquarters. But that is what happened recently.
Collapsing in a chair in the volunteer office, filling out a time sheet, I caught Susie's eye. Susie was another volunteer for hospice. She retrieved some paperwork and looked around for a pen. A few coffee cups and a plate of half eaten chocolate chip cookies were on the round work table, along with an over sized crockery jug containing a few pencils and ball point pens left by pharmaceutical reps. Locating a pen from the upright jug, one with a cap on it, she put it behind her ear and looked over at me.
Roz Chast's book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was on my mind. Having just finished reading it, especially mulling over the cartoons, I was thinking about how I had laughed out loud at some of Chast's drawings. “Are you going to be around for a little while, Susie?” I asked her as she was picking up the documentation form. I wanted to tell her about some of the funny, googly eyed characters that I found so humorous in the book, and also wanted to chat with her about one of my assignments on the unit.
“Yeah, talk, I am just filling in the blanks,” she responded in an off-hand manner. We chatted a bit about the book, agreeing the approach to the mother dying was one that was not often broached with such honest insight. Chatz had described her relationship with her mother as always having been one of those love/hate, age old dilemmas between a mother and daughter. Chatz never outwardly opposed her mother, but inwardly seethed with resentment over past criticisms.
“In the latter part, where the mother was taking so long to die, I just laughed out loud remembering the daughter's eyes popping out of her head, showing both anxiety and frustration. And that part about when the mom reached the Chrysalis Stage, when the mother looks at The Grim Reaper and says 'Back off', Mister.' ” I trailed off with a few chortles, realizing Susie did not have the same reaction as I had toward that scene.
“Well, I saw nothing humorous about the book. It was serious way of looking at the problem of dying, including the costs, the indignities, the suffering. What is funny about that?” Susie was bristling,
“Of course, there is nothing funny about her dying, just that the cartoons were so realistic, so very much how that was my experience with mother taking such a long time to finally give up,” I replied, trying to backpedal out of this now uncomfortable conversation. “I thought Chatz did an excellent job portraying how she felt in pictures, being sad and also weary from the dying process.” Realizing this was not the way I had envisioned Susie reacting to my words, I became quiet, avoiding her look.
Maybe Susie did not understand what I had said about my own experience with my mother. I felt I needed to let her know that I actually had been in a similar situation to that portrayed in the book.
I continued, “With Mother, I was still pushing the Ensure until the time she finally quit drinking it, as well as when she no longer swallowed water.” More silence, then I looked again at Susie with just a tear coming from one of my eyes, brushing it away with the back of my hand. “I just meant that having a mother die is a process that no one wants to go through or even talk about, other than to say how hard it is on the person dying. But it is hard on the caregivers, too,” I finished. Then thinking about The Grim Reaper scene toward the last chapter, I half smiled to myself. “OK, if not funny, Chatz understood it. And she cartooned it in a way that should earn her top billing on the New York Times book list.”
Susie shrugged, got up from the chair, tidied around her work space, said goodbye and left. “She thinks I am a jerk talking about the book being funny,” I muttered to myself. And here I was just like one of those helpful hospice volunteers in the book who won't give an answer to a family member who questions how long their loved one has left.
I realized that I had better be wary talking about the book being humorous; Susie was likely typical in thinking that this death business was nothing to joke about, especially at the hospice office.
But in those earlier hours of the morning when I had finished the book, I had thought it extremely poignant. And funny. I decided to be a little more circumspect when talking about Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?