I rarely shy away from the hardship portrayed in memoirs. On the contrary, I have come to expect that setbacks are milestones on the road to hope. This uplifting quality of memoirs is summed up nicely in the Latin phrase my older brother penned on his tombstone. “ ,” meaning, “To the Stars through Hardship.” In my favorite memoirs, each author climbs to the best parts of themselves by enduring the hardship they encounter along the way.
However, my admiration for suffering was severely challenged nine years ago, when I began to read Sixty Five Roses by Heather Summerhayes Cariou. It was about the author’s sister, Pam, who had Cystic Fibrosis. Before I picked up this book, I had no idea a child could struggle so hard just to breathe. As I allowed my mind to enter the scene, I gasped for air.
Picturing that family, frantically caring for this suffocating little girl, overloaded my own emotions. It was too much. I set the book aside.
My reluctance to read the book presented me with a terrible dilemma. I would not be able to experience Heather Cariou’s triumph until I was willing to experience her pain. So for years Sixty Five Roses floated near the top of my reading pile, bypassed time after time by books which involved less suffering.
Recently, I grabbed a memoir, Trapped by Fran Macilvey, about a child who grew up with Cerebral Palsy. From earliest childhood, the author coped with her physical limitations. And after she came to terms with the cruel accident that damaged her body, she had to climb above the emotional scars that resulted from all those years she wished she could run, jump, and play with the healthy kids.
Fran Macilvey’s memoir is a journey of courage, of growth and change. Her frustration pushed me out of my comfort zone, where I felt the courageous shift beyond mere acceptance, to a lifelong search for dignity.
I didn’t want the book to end. So after the last page of Trapped, I returned to Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses. This time, I vowed to stick with the pain until it led me to the inevitable conclusion of compassion and courage.
I am so glad I did. This memoir of a young person trying to grow up in the shadow of her sister’s terrible disease was one of the most beautifully written of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read.
Knowledge of Death inspires life
This book also searches for the highroad hidden within the misery of circumstances. As Heather’s sister, Pam, inches closer to the early death expected for all sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis in those years, the family attempts to thrive. This terrifying situation creates an almost superhuman challenge for the author, of course. It is also terrifying for me, as I wonder with increasing urgency how the author will lead through death toward a strong, hopeful conclusion.
Heather pulls it off, showing how her sister and family looked squarely at death and defied it with a love for life. Thank you for sharing this lovely experience, Heather. You have lifted my heart and given me courage. Death and birth, sorrow and joy, effort and fear are flip sides of the human experience. Your sister showed us how to embrace both sides.
As a result, Sixty Five Roses does more than tell the story of a child’s suffering. It turns that valiant struggle into one of the most lyrical and uplifting memoirs I’ve read, taking me on a fearless journey to the shores of death.
Bonus of reading both memoirs
Because the family in both Trapped and Sixty Five Roses had to work so hard to ease the suffering of one child, the two books together provide a primer on the psychology of families with a special-needs child. In both stories, the healthy siblings learned early that their own problems are less urgent in comparison.
Reading the two books in sequence also taught me a surprising lesson about the influence of first-person versus third-person point of view on the way I was able to relate to the pain.
Even though Fran Macilvey suffered the terrible burden of a body that didn’t work right, one thing that made it easier to read was the fact that the suffering was told through her own eyes. After a lifetime of coping with her physical disability, she had learned how to create some distance from her own struggles. As a result, her own emotional tools allowed me to immerse myself in her situation while also remaining buffered from it.
On the other hand, in Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s story, the author had to witness the suffering of her younger sister. Her heart was ripped to shreds as she attempted to live her own life, and yet at the same time pour her compassion to her sister. Her aching heart completely opened me up to the pain.
I grew up reading science fiction. While standing on a crowded trolley car or subway in Philadelphia, I explored the galaxy. At the time, I didn’t realize that to a large extent I was reading in order to shut out the people around me. Decades later, I extended my exploration to include memoirs. By reading memoirs, I traverse the vast variety of human experience. It is truly the greatest and most exciting frontier, understanding of the people around me by reading their stories from inside their own points of view.
Thanks to frank, gorgeous writing such as Fran Macilvey’s Trapped and Heather Cariou’s Sixty Five Roses I no longer need to keep it outside my realm of experience.
In one of my favorite memoirs, Here if you Need Me, Kate Braestrup faces the death of her husband and ends up proposing an uplifting way to look at good and evil. Tackling these huge topics through Story is one of my favorite things.)
In another one of my favorite memoirs, Gary Presley in Seven Wheelchairs takes his search for adulthood beyond mere acceptance of life in a wheelchair, toward the inexorable search for dignity and self-worth.)
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