The best authors write about what they know. Over the last couple of weeks, I have gotten a pretty close look at what a major illness can do to a family. I don’t think I know nearly enough about it yet to write about it, so I decided to ask my writer friends some questions either directly or indirectly related to a major illness. To the Ask an Author cabal of writers I asked a couple of questions. I wanted to know what their favourite book about a family going through an intense medical situation was; what is their preferred book to purchase and take to someone who isn’t doing well, and what book they read to get through a particularly bad illness if they ever had one. The answers are, always, quite interesting.
As for me, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper is a particularly poignant story intertwining illness and family. I usually purchase light-hearted yet deep books for friends who are sick; I don’t have a go-to book, but think Stella Newman or Jennifer Weiner. As for what book I read when I particularly ill, I usually go back to books that I know almost by heart as they become soothing blanets of comfort rather than puzzles to solve. The Harry Potter series often makes the cut!
The book that has most moved me about an intense medical situation hasn’t found a publisher yet, but I’ve been privileged enough to read it. Entitled Love, Loss and Facebook, it’s written by my friend and colleague Dawn Picken, and tells of the devastating loss of her cameraman husband Sean a few years ago. After Sean’s death, Dawn travelled the world with her two small children and her husband’s ashes—sprinkled liberally with cinnamon and re-named cake mix—in search of fresh memories. Driving herself on for the sake of the children, and barely holding things together, she finds herself on the other side of the world, where she discovers a beach, a mountain, and a Kiwi bloke named Pete. Laced with black humour and achingly poignant observations, it’s a story to make you laugh and cry and laugh again, sometimes in the space of a page. There is an element of healing in writing, a way of working through things. The act of putting words on the page somehow helps us to see things more clearly, and ultimately to thumb our noses at the bad stuff. Dawn’s story does exactly that, showing grief in all its stages, and proving that sometimes renewal and recovery can be found in the most unexpected places. I will be recommending Dawn Picken’s Love, Loss and Facebook to anyone experiencing a tough time through illness, just as soon as a publisher with pluck and vision comes along and snaps it up.
Sadly, the story I liked best was a short story that I do not recall the name of off-hand. A tale about illness and miscommunication, it was about a small boy who had a fever of 101˚F or 102˚F and was kept home from school. He was inordinately quiet and parents talked to him after supper to see what was wrong. Seems the child had been waiting all day to die. The parents were quite perplexed by this. He had a high fever, but it was nothing so severe.
The boy said that he was told that anyone who had a temperature over 40˚ would die. They had lived in Europe and moved to America. The child didn’t know there was a Celsius scale and a Fahrenheit one. Once the error was discovered, the father explained it and they both laughed and talked of nothing of consequence afterward. I still think of this story when I have a fever or am dealing with miscommunications at times.
The best book to bring someone who is not feeling well is whatever one they want. Aside from that, I might share a favorite like Bardic Voices 1: Lark and Wren, or some Dragonriders of Pern or an anthology. Anthologies are nice because you can complete a story in a short period when you don’t have a lot of energy.
I tend to avoid books that involve intense situations because I don’t cope well with them. I tend to get upset very easily at the unjustness of illness (like toddlers and babies having cancer!!!)
I had a friend in hospital due to have a baby, and she had Obstetric Cholestasis (pronounced Coley-stay-sis which was rather ironic considering we nicknamed her Coley) which meant a long hospital stay before her baby was born, and then it had to be delivered early to prevent complications in both mother and child. I took along some of my favourite authors for her to read, because she has similar reading tastes to me. She loves reading and enjoyed reading the books that I took in for her.
If I had a bad illness, I would probably refer to my favourites too, like Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), Sunne in Splendour (Sharon Penman), Fatherland by Robert Harris. Since they are books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and can re-read, I would want to read them again.
It is my impression (correct or not) that people from a wide variety of belief systems have found something in common in the practice of Zen.
Here’s what my friend, Claudia Barry says:
“My closest friends, the only two people who know what I do for a living, have asked how I manage my sanity—what little of it there is—and the answer is compartmentalization. I seal every assignment into its own compartment. Because of that ability, this reading from 365 Zen is one of my favorites. We have created such insulation between the whole of life and ourselves—not just a thin membrane, but a whole suit of armor—because we do not want to face impermanence and experience suffering, especially the suffering of others.'”
We must break through the armor and pull back that thin veil and help our loved ones–become one with them and their needs.
There are a few books that I go to when things get rough. Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey was my first comfort book, and my copy is so faded and dog eared it’s a wonder it’s still holding together. Newer friends include Pride and Prejudice, Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchey and Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. These are all books that I know intimately and yet can still lose myself in when I need a break from harsh reality.
Image courtesy of Chad Mauger.