My mother-in-law Vivian likes to read popcorn Christian romances. You know the type. There’s a swooning woman and a shirtless guy on every cover of the stacks of books she keeps close at hand. God is always a player in these stories so they are not exactly Harlequins — but they aren’t far off.
Once I picked up a book with a title something like Breaking Love and read the first chapter. The writer knew what she was doing with an engaging opening scene and tension that made me wonder if Priscilla was ever going to unfreeze her heart after that last horrendous breakup with Jonathan because she needed to in order to save the farm.
I always thought these book were just silly things that Vivian read until my father-in-law Jim got sick. A retired home health nurse, Vivian took care of him for about two years as his health got slowly worse and worse from diabetes and cirrhosis caused by medications.
As he sunk deeper and deeper he became less and less engaged in the world around him. I could see Vivian becoming more and more alone in caring for him 24 hours a day.
One day I asked her about this. She said yes it was lonely but she often lost herself in her books. I could see how much those stories of Pricillas and Jonathans meant to her.
The writer in me perked up. Sometimes it feels as though the job I do with words is not worth much to others. People often ask me to do it for free. It is a vital piece of what I do in my paid work but not recognized much for its own worth. I work with student nurses who will likely save physical lives in their careers. The value of what I do is not nearly as clear cut.
But a story that could ease my mother-in-law’s burden. Now that was worth something. I honestly believe those silly plot lines saved her sanity and helped to heal her breaking heart in a way that no pharmaceutical could have.
Recently, I heard another story in a Radiolab podcast that reminded me of Vivian and her books.
In this a father desperately wanted to do something to help his premature daughter as her translucent body slipped back and forth between life and death. She was born at twenty three weeks and 6 days and was not at all fully formed.
A baby much healthier and older than the one in an incubator whose father read to her.
He started reading her Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The mom and dad noticed that her oxygen saturation levels went up whenever he read — unless he tried to act out Hagrid’s voice. Then her numbers went down. His wife made him stop scaring the baby but he kept reading.
Maybe the little girl was not reacting to the story. Maybe that is not a medically sound analysis. But it was clear to me that the dad needed to read it like he needed her to keep breathing. (She lived and is now a five year old ready to begin kindergarten.)
I realize what I am saying here contradicts what I said last week about writing for myself and not worrying about the interest or approval of others. I have found that most good life answers have an opposite side to them.
I do need a reason to write outside of myself. It can’t be my everything but when I hear how much stories matter to others it helps me to keep going.
In fact, I am such a sap that the story about Harry Potter and the baby made me cry.
That’s why I do this, I told myself. I don’t know that it will help a grieving widow or a desperate father. But what I do is for me and it’s also for others who might need the story I’m writing as much as they need any other kind of medicine.
I don’t know that what I write will work for them. But it’s worth a shot.
May you find your own story medicine-