My sister Diana and I decided to collaborate on our memoir, The Kids Are All Right (Harmony, September 2009) by accident. I had been trying to write my story for several years, haunted by one friend's comment. "Great," he had said to me, drinking a cup of coffee in my kitchen, "another memoir about a mother who dies from cancer."
I wanted to punch him, in part, because he was right. What made my story different from all the other tragic childhood memoirs out there? I'm one of four kids -- Diana was 4 when our dad died, Dan was 11, I was 13 and Amanda was 16. Our mother, a well-respected soap opera actress, was diagnosed with terminal cancer one month later, and lived another three years. I had been reporting the heck out of my past, gathering my mother's medical records and my father's financial ones, interviewing everyone who knew my parents, and applying my magazine writing techniques to my life story, but every attempt I made came out flat.
So I decided to send a chapter to Diana, by then a 28-year-old writer living in Austin, Texas. I thought she'd read it and make notes. Instead, she wrote back. I thought, 'Bingo!' The book will be letters between sisters, a la The Delaney Sisters' Having Our Say, but set in Bedford, New York in the Eighties. But Diana wanted to push it even further.
When Liz sent me her memory of the night Dad died, I immediately knew that I had to write mine. She was aware of everything -- the cop coming to the door, Mom's reaction to the news, the way the house felt the next day, the food, the flowers. All I could remember was Mom's silhouette in the doorway of my bedroom, partially blocking the golden light of the hallway. "Where's Dad?" I asked, unprompted. "In heaven," she said to me. "Oh," I replied, and flopped back on my pillow and went back to sleep. Simple.
In writing my version of the story and comparing it to Liz's, I first became aware of the differing perspective that age can give. I also realized that there is so much more to the story than one person can remember. For instance, Liz remembers so well the day following Dad's death. Everyone was crying and carrying on. I was sitting in my mother's lap at the dining room table. "If Dad's in heaven," Liz recalls me asking, "why's everyone so sad?" The sage wisdom of the young: I'd been told that heaven was this great place, and so, logically, we should have all been pleased that our dad had gotten to go there. Right? Makes sense to me now, but I have no recollection of it, whatsoever.
It was then that I realized that, in order to properly tell our story, we'd need to tell all our stories -- Liz, Dan, Amanda, and me. Luckily, Dan and Amanda were totally game to relive their darkest moments and trusted Liz and me to tell their stories in their voices. We couldn't have written the book we ended up writing without their willingness and bravery.
Then we had another epiphany: Stories belong to those who tell them. So, what about all the people we've referenced in ours? What would they have to say? We created a section of our website called YOUR STORIES, and invited a folks we wrote about in the book to tell their side of the story.
Karen Kayser, our mom's friend who took in Dan after she died, wrote about how she wished she had been more honest with our mom about the fact she was dying. B Chatfield, Diana's best friend in elementary school, wrote about how well Diana handled getting a particularly bad haircut in the 6th grade. Liz Subin, my best friend, wrote about her family's offer to take me in after my mom died, and why she thinks I said no.
And those are just the folks who knew us.
Heather Hauser, a woman who none of us have ever met, lost her mother to cancer. She shared with us her memories of watching Search for Tomorrow with her mother when she was a kid. "Reading your story makes me miss my mother so and also makes me so sad that you all were going through so much while we, "the fans" at home, of course had no idea of your or her huge private struggles," she wrote. "It makes me happy to think that if our mother's have met in the afterlife, that my mother has absolutely bored your mother with lots of soap opera trivia."
That totally blew mind! Total strangers were writing in to share their stories with us -- before the book had even come out. That's the beauty of opening up the past to everyone who was there -- you never know what you will find.