Story Time

July 7, 2006 at 2:25 pm (Uncategorized)

Andrew has a new favorite story.  “Tell me the story of Our Really Bad Car Accident,” he pleads at dinner, in the bath, while we’re driving, at bedtime.  But he still has the remnants of his stutter, so it comes out, adorably, as, “Tell me the story of our really bad car axe, axe, axe-ident.” Andrew already knows the story by heart, and if I should forget one of the details of our car wreck last Friday, he is quick to interject, “You forgot the fire engine” or “You forgot Grandpa coming to the hospital.”  But if I am feeling lazy and try to shirk my role as raconteur and punt the narrative back to him by asking him what happens next, he’ll immediately say he doesn’t know.  I’ve come to realize that what’s important to him is the process of story-telling, of hearing seemingly random (and traumatic) events woven into a seamless narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  Of course, it helps that the Andrew of Our Really Bad Car Accident is a brave little hero.

The story of Our Really Bad Car Accident is actually a sort of sequel to the story of Daddy’s Really Bad Car Accident, which recounts the circumstances of Jay getting rear-ended on a snowy road en route to Big Sky, Montana, for a ski weekend with my family.  I’m not sure what it says about our son and his relationship with his father that, up until Andrew had a car crash of his own to mythologize, his favorite story, the one that calmed him when he woke from a nightmare or bonked his knee, was one that described his father’s wreck.  “Tell me the story of Daddy’s Really Bad Car Axe, Axe, Axe-ident,” Andrew would beg through his tears and his snot.  By the time we reached the ambulance arriving and Daddy getting his head bandaged, Andrew was thoroughly soothed.  What Oedipal issues?

I’m certain that Andrew’s desire to turn life into story is primal.  I have a theory that what distinguishes humans from animals isn’t language (anyone who says animals don’t have a language clearly hasn’t had lived with a cat or dog) but the ability to craft narrative from the raw data of life.  Stories give meaning; stories place us in time and space; and stories explain who we are and how we got there.  Stories make us and our experiences coherent.

I shouldn’t be surprised that Andrew is taking the unpleasant reality of car accidents and converting them into structured narratives.  When I was chuckling about it with Jay the other night after Andrew had gone to bed, it occurred to me that with this blog I am doing exactly as my son is.  I am taking the random blight of illness and trying to make something (whether it is art or not, I can’t tell) out of it.  By writing these almost-daily updates from the front lines of chronic illness and motherhood, I am attempting to make these events have a meaning – for me, and for others.  I am telling the story of it all.

As a writer, I often “process” things by putting them down on paper.  Unless I write about something troubling me, it often just swirls around in my head and my heart like a poisonous fog.  This is how I was for the two or so years after my diagnosis, swirling and whirling, unable to see the shape of my life, the outline of its story.  I can see how Andrew needs to go through a similar process.  Naming and shaping the events of last Friday make them something that he understands.

More importantly, as I see it, it makes them something orderly that he can control.  At least that’s how I feel about the narratives I construct from my life.  There is something about the act of relating a personal story that provides me with some much-needed distance.  By telling you about chronic illness, I can move from a purely interior reality to one that is open to fresh air, new perspectives, external light.  It’s almost as though by creating a narrative, I’m able to look at these events as an outsider would.  And there is a lot of relief in getting distance from some of this stuff.  To focus on helping you understand this keeps me sane.  I think Andrew also appreciates the distance that the story of Our Really Bad Car Accident provides.  In fact, he prefers me to refer to him as “Andrew” in the story – not as “you.”  (This is all fine, now, but let’s hope he doesn’t follow too closely in the footsteps of Bob Dole and start referring to himself exclusively in the third person.  I don’t think I’ll find an announcement that “Andrew Stanfel needs to poop” all that cute.)

Whether Andrew and I are embodying some fundamental aspect of human nature with our story-telling is, ultimately, irrelevant.  It’s the way we are – we tell, and respond to, stories.  I’ve gentled him through several otherwise turbulent dinners by entertaining him with the adventures of Tiney the Fork, a gutsy little utensil who loses his tines in the sandbox and has to undertake a Homeric quest to find them. Wow.  Now that I’ve written that down on paper, I wonder if I should worry about what I’m doing to my son.  Of course, if he turns out a little odd, we can always make up a story about it.

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