July 10, 2013

The Stories We Tell

Twin fawns I came upon in the road the other day
Yes, I am still up in the middle of nowhere, writing and editing and revising. But I'll tell you something, it's hard. Not because of the work of putting words together, which while exhausting and invigorating and terrifying and frustrating, is something I have always loved. No, it's the remembering.

I try to spare you, my lovely readers. I do. I don't blog all the biggest downers, the darkest moments. I do that not only for your benefit, but for mine. It's hard to have your friends and family suddenly know the deepest, most personal moments of your life. Their concern can be cloying, their sympathy can be stifling.

And there is not any reason to publicly write about some things as they happen. When you air our your personal laundry, there are consequences.

Let's suffice to say, there is a darkness in this book that I never come close to on the blog. NEVER. And that is a conscious choice. But for the book, it is essential. So day after day, I am digging into my most visceral memories of the worst days of my life.

It is, as you are probably imaging, difficult. It occasionally involves sitting and crying in front of my husband's laptop, typing through the tears.

This is all a preface to tell you somebody else's story, though. You see, I needed a break from this. I needed a break from the constant emotional exhaustion. And so I took our car to the shop.

As I always do, I made small talk. And as one of his mechanics fixed up our car, the manager sat me down and told me his story. I don't know what made him decide to tell me, but I sat and I listened and I did my best to understand what went unsaid. What follows is my interpretation, embellishment, and retelling of the story I heard while my car was repaired, and for the next quarter hour beside.


James* and his twin brother John* were the best of friends. They weren't identical, James was broader shouldered, taller. John was lithe of limb, his hair lighter. But they were brothers, as close as boys could be.

From their earliest days, they were inseparable. Nobody could understand them as well, share as much compassion and empathy. They were two halves of a coin.

But it was a troubled life they shared. Their father, a barber, was strict and demanding. John rebelled by falling into alcoholism, James by joining the army and shipping out to Grenada as a mechanic. When his days in the service came to an end, he moved to northern Florida and bought a small house. He got a job at an auto body shop. On his first visit back home, he and John laughed over their haircuts. Their father had cut their hair the same way their whole lives, the family haircut. But at the first opportunity to control their own heads, both James and John had chosen the exact same style.

James didn't talk with his brother often, visited even less. Their father had long passed away, but John lived in the same small, northern Michigan town. He married a girl they had known in high school. He cleaned up his act, gave up the drink. He always said it was his lovely bride, Elise*, who had saved him. She always smiled and politely refused to contradict him. When people said he reminded them of his father, he would become nostalgic. Old animosity had yielded to love. Forgiveness. Not so for James, who built his new life far away from his past.

One day, John called the home of his vaguely estranged twin brother, and announced that he was dying.

"Pancreatic cancer, Jim," he said. "It's all that drinkin' back in the day. Got a couple of months left."

Six months, to be exact. That was the prognosis.

James hopped the next flight to Detroit. He spent nearly a month living in his sister-in-law's home, watching John's bones slowly work their way to the surface. Watching the laugh lines thicken and deepen, his eyes widen and brighten. He couldn't see it happen, but day by day there was a shadow that lingered behind John's face.

After those weeks ended, James bought John a ticket, and took him back to Florida. They spent their days fishing, sitting on a boat with a lemonade in hand (even the early onset of death couldn't un-save John), sharing the tales of every day that had passed in the fifteen years of their separation. There were so many hours to recount, so many stories. So much laughter lost. So little time.

After another month, John and James went back to Michigan together, and James stayed with his brother and with Elise until he was certain he would lose his job at the northern Florida shop. He went back to Florida, but promised John they would talk every night.

And every night, they did. As the sun set over the gulf, James would laugh and listen across the distance to a faraway house, where the same sun would dawn over Lake Huron, and wake John for another day. Each night, James heard the voice of John as it slowly diluted, thinned, until it sounded like paper etched with the memories of two little boys, plotting the destruction of their mother's kitchen in a language of their own invention.

James was secretly charting them, the six months, counting down day by day. Fourteen, eleven, six, two, zero.

On that day he spoke with John, and went to bed with a weight in his heart made of hope. How could he possibly dare to hope?

Ten hours later, John was laying in his hospice bed, weak and frail in his living room, and he called for Elise.

"Get me the phone, couldja hon?"

Her eyes filled with tears, and choking back a sob of grief and regret and the horrible aftertaste of jealousy, she grabbed it, dialed James without having been asked, and handed the receiver to her husband.

More than twelve hundred miles away, James's phone jingled in his pocket. Before he could check the name on the ID, the tears had come.

He knew. He had known he would know.

James and John talked small talk, as much as there could be such a thing at a time like that. For a few moments, it was just a call.

But as the tears fell in Florida, it became much more.

A confession. An apology. All the words you could ever regret having been left unsaid. All the petty arguments, forgiven. Every empty call to faith, suddenly filled. Desperately filled.

Forty five minutes later, James hung up the phone. The call had ended the only way it could have. John stood still in the middle of the shop, there on the Gulf side of Northern Florida, his face in his hands.

Twelve hundred miles away, there was nothing.

So after six months and a few hours, James packed up his life. He moved back home, where he could be a shoulder for Elise. Where the old timers would see him and tell him how he looked like his dad, and he would feel no animosity. John had looked like his dad, and every reminder of their likeness was a pain, but a tender one. A reminder that James had once had a brother, a confidante, a best friend and the closest of allies...

And now he had the empty spaces to fill as John would have wanted them. With community. With forgiveness.

With love.


As the mechanic sat and told me this story, as the other customers lined up behind me, as the phone rang, and my keys sat on the desk before me, my car fixed, ready to go, I kept asking myself... why is he telling me this?

It wasn't just because I had mentioned the twins. It was more. It was that every person has a story, and I think that as I write my own, I invite more.

I listened to him tell me his tale, and I realized why I'm writing this book. I'm writing it because I'm the same- I also want somebody to know, to listen, to share my pain and my joy. I also believe that some stranger is going to care, to give me their time, in the hope that I might help them understand something deep and true about their own lives.

I also have a story to tell.

...do you?

*not their real names


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  1. You have me in tears. What a beautiful story. I really got chills. It seems the universe is giving you a sign that you are on the right path in telling your story. Sending love!

  2. You have such a beautiful way with words.

    We do all have a story. I've found that I'm not so good at sharing my worst pain when I'm going through it. I need time to process. And I need to be able to say "I'm okay" when someone asks me about it, as the sympathy in the moment overwhelms me.

  3. Beautiful story! Sometimes people just need to share and know that another person is listening. :)

  4. Great post! I do believe that we all have to story, though some are just not so memorable. I also believe that the darkest of things are likely the ones that need to be shared, because someone's sitting out there, wishing they could relate to someone in their shoes.

  5. what a beautiful story, thanks for hooking up to the Hump Day Hook Up

  6. Beautifully written. Some of the best stories to read are the hardest ones to write. Visiting from MBC! Have a great week!



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