This post is part of ChicagoNow’s monthly “blogapalooza” series, where our community manager provides a writing prompt to all bloggers with the only rule being it must be published within one hour. This month’s prompt:
“Write about a period in your life when you were at your best.”
Dammit. This is a tough thing to consider today. Not really where my head is at, you know? But, a challenge is a challenge, so I will give this a go.
I remember October 2, 2011 vividly. It was a beautiful early fall day in Chicago. I was working part time at the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago, right on Michigan Avenue. I had gone back to work ten months earlier after the death of my daughter in 2009. My profession was social work, but the kind of social work I did before my girl was diagnosed with cancer — working with older adults and their families in a retirement community, providing advocacy and counseling to elders and their families as they coped with aging and death — well, let’s just say that my head and heart were no longer able to do that type of work anymore.
An old acquaintance from graduate school was a VP at the Alzheimer’s Association and knew I was looking for work. I applied to a position she had recommended me for. It was a purely corporate type of gig. Foundation work, not clinical in nature. Part-time. Creating training programs about dementia for paid caregivers and family members. Full disclosure, it was never a good fit, but I appreciated getting out of the house, I liked my co-workers, and it helped me re-connect to part of myself that I had lost when our family moved to Cancerville.
At the same time I went back to work, I started my Mary Tyler Mom blog. I was introduced to online writing through the CaringBridge page my husband and I co-authored through our Donna’s illness. After Donna died, my husband stopped writing, I did not. I came to realize how much I needed the words, the connection, the community. I also came to realize I needed to write about more than cancer and grief.
Mary Tyler Mom was born. The blog was named after one of my childhood icons, Mary Tyler Moore. As a young girl, I always found her spark and independence so appealing. She was gonna make it after all, you know? And, I needed to believe in those early days of my grief, that I was, too.
The first six months of the blog had absolutely nothing to do with grief or cancer. I trashed Gwyneth Paltrow more than once, in erudite and clever ways, and was celebrated with thousands of likes and shares. People, it turns out, really dislike Gwyneth Paltrow. My stomach literally turned when I realized that my clever quips gave other people permission to refer to this woman none of us knew personally as a cunt, a bitch, a whore. I felt lost. You see, I never revealed to my readers that I was a grieving mom. Because I had decided Mary Tyler Mom was not about that, it was about working and raising children. And trashing easy to hate celebrities.
Right after my daughter’s would be/should be 6th birthday, I came out to my readers. I introduced Donna to them. Finally. Timidly. I revealed myself to you readers for who I was, a broken, grieving, sad,but hopeful mom. I peppered anecdotes and memories of Donna in some of my posts, still feeling protective of how both she and my grief would be received, still worried that if I stopped trashing Gwyneth, people would stop reading.
In August of that year I approached my community manager at ChicagoNow, the same one who provided this damn prompt (thanks, Jimmy), with the idea to serialize Donna’s Cancer Story. I pitched the idea of writing about one month of my daughter’s 31 months of cancer treatment each day over the course of September. It was my effort to raise awareness for National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. I was worried how he would receive it. I mean, 31 days of blogs leading up to the death of my daughter. Not exactly good time reading. Jimmy did not hesitate in his encouragement. Literally. Not a single second passed before he offered me whatever support I would need.
My pitch was naive, in that I didn’t realize what the process would be like. Seriously, who on earth could I have known?
The month started with a “game on” kind of attitude. The day before posting, my routine was to re-read the month’s worth of CaringBridge journal entries for the corresponding month. On September 1, I read about the 30 days that started with Donna’s diagnosis. I would then cross reference the thousands of photos we took of Donna during that same period of time, wanting to represent pediatric cancer both visually and through storytelling. I would generally wrap up the entry for the next day around midnight or 1 a.m.
As the month progressed, this routine got harder. I got more tired. I stopped posting first thing in the morning, simply because the posts weren’t ready. I started writing at 9 or 10 in the morning, instead of posting. Again, as the days passed and my fatigue, both physical and emotional, worsened, there were days I didn’t write until my lunch hour at the office, posting later in the afternoon now.
The reader response to Donna’s Cancer Story took me by complete surprise. People were reading the entries like a soap opera, as if I was purposefully generating cliff hangers, as if our life hadn’t been a cliff hanger for those 31 months of treatment. It was wrenching and traumatic for me, writing Donna’s Cancer Story. It was also, potentially, one of the greatest things I will have ever accomplished in my life, telling the story of my daughter, who would never be able to tell it herself.
Oh, Donna. My dear girl. I wrote Donna’s Cancer Story for you, for me, too, selfishly, to keep you near, to keep you close, to alert the world that you lived, that you existed, that you were amazing. My life has changed because of you, and telling your story, sharing your life.
That day, October 2, was to be the very last entry in Donna’s Cancer Story. The final post was an unexpected addition about how to harness and direct the outpouring of help that people wanted to provide after reading of our girl, my Donna. Jimmy, my community manager, had also arranged for a live chat with readers. I was so tech challenged that he agreed to come to my office and help me navigate it. The response astounded me. Floored me. Humbled me. It still does, six years later.
That afternoon, I opted to leave work early. I walked out of the Mies van der Rohe high rise I worked in and out the door, heading to Chicago’s beautiful Millenium Park. I walked amongst strangers, native Chicagoans and tourists from around the world. None of them knew my story, none of them knew the sense of immense accomplishment I carried with me that day, as I enjoyed the warm sunshine.
When you bury a child, you no longer have the opportunity to parent them. That day, October 2, 2011 I got to revel in a month of getting to parent my daughter again, by telling her story, not stopping when the pain and memories overcame me, honoring my daughter in a way that was worthy of her. What a gift.