A hundred lifetimes ago, in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, I studied the ways that tense and perspective change the tone of a story. When it comes to my emotions and my words, I find that tense and perspective are the best tools I have for bringing readers into the story quickly. For example: What happens when I tell this in the past tense — “My daughter could barely breathe” — versus when I tell it in present tense: “My daughter can barely breathe”? What happens when I tell a story in first person (“I was frightened“) versus when I tell them the story in second person (“You will be far colder than one would expect“)?
For me, past tense offers distance. As I write in past tense, I feel separated from the events. I can write without getting too caught up in the moment as I experienced it in real time. I am calm, almost clinical in my descriptions. It reminds me of the unwavering steadiness I’ve been able to construct in moments of real trauma by simply breathing deeply, disassociating from my emotions, and behaving like a soldier on a mission. In past tense, I am a reporter, and even when I report on the raw and furious emotions in our family’s history, it is with a detached, analytical eye.
Present tense is where I get you invested. I am here, in the sun-filled living room, with the baby in my lap who is struggling to breathe. Or, I am lying on the floor of my basement in the cold dark, and I think, for a moment, that I can hear my screaming daughter two floors above me as I sink into the drugged sleep of a woman past the edge of exhaustion. You are watching me in real time. Neither of us knows what comes next. We are both — writer and reader — in my mystery. Continue Reading…
This Ted Talk was produced in 2011. While Dr. Goldman was speaking eloquently and so bravely about his humanity as a physician, my daughter Sammi was in kindergarten. That is, she was in kindergarten when she wasn’t on an operating table or in the gastroenterology clinic at our local children’s hospital, being treated for eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition with which, we would learn three years later, she had been misdiagnosed.
Dr. Goldman’s talk gives me hope. My bitterness about the lost and wasted years we spent engaged in the fight against the wrong enemy has not resulted in a lawsuit, not because I am not furious and not because I am not heartbroken and not because I don’t believe we could win. We haven’t sued because Sammi’s doctors are human beings. Continue Reading…
After six weeks on a fat-free diet and a week on a low-fat diet, my eight-year-old daughter Sammi was officially released from all her food restrictions by her cardiothoracic surgery team. Her chylothorax — a leak in the thoracic ducts that process fat — had completely healed.
The two of us had decided to spend the day together in downtown Chicago, starting with a visit to the Hershey Store. After all, it had been nearly two months since she’d had free rein to eat anything she wanted. I thought that surely she would gorge herself on candy while I watched gleefully.
Instead, she nibbled timidly and said, “I’m full for now.”
We said no — had to say no — to almost everything she liked. It was heartbreaking. Still, there was one very wonderful, very life-affirming refuge for her: her third grade teacher, Andrea Macksood. Continue Reading…
Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the surgery that changed Sammi’s life.
This morning, in an effort to remember a particular detail of that time, I logged into the hospital’s patient information system. I clicked aimlessly, seeing everything with the eyes of experience and after-the-fact understanding. All these test results — why didn’t I read them in detail back then when they could have done something more than remind me of how late I put my research skills to work?
The real answer is that I didn’t know how to access charts, back then. They weren’t online. They weren’t sent to us by mail. All we got was the occasional placating phone call. Oh, and a stack of bills.
Now here, in the charts, are all the comments and clues that make sense in retrospect. Like re-reading a mystery after I already know who the killer was, I am seeing the telltale signs in notes on test results and procedures: muscle visible in her esophagus, tonsils visible on a chest x-ray, no mention of her abnormal aortic arch on that first diagnostic endoscopy. The information was there for anyone to find: here is why she is always sick, here is why she cannot eat, here is why no doctor can explain her idiopathic results.