Allow me to tell you two stories of failure — my failure.
Nine years ago, after my grandfather had the fall, that led to the hospital stay that led to the bed in the nursing home, my family and I sat around the dinner table and planned. It was my parents, my sister and I and both our husbands. All the signs were pointing to this being a journey towards the end, rather than a pit stop on his way back home. The wine was flowing, eyes were filling, and my father said:
We have to get a video camera. We have to go to the home and sit him down and get him to talk. Talk about the war. About his childhood, about that one big mistake that would change all of our lives. We need to get him to talk about all the things he never wanted to talk about. I need to hear those stories.
Yes! we all said emphatically. That is a great idea! It’s perfect. Who has a video camera? (This was 2006 — a camera in every pocket wasn’t quite the thing yet). How do we get him to do this anyway? He was the man who, in my recollection, spent most family gatherings sitting in his armchair staring at the TV while the family lived around him.
I’m a reporter, I said. I can do it. You get the camera, and I’ll do it.
There was more wine, and a bit of hope. This exercise would erase some of the pain of knowing that my grandfather, the quintessential introvert and loner, was living in one room, with a roommate, zero privacy and no power over how he lived his days. He complained of being cold, and the blankets I bought him were “lost” when he was moved to a different room. He craved salt for his meals, but his medical team forebade it. If you want to get out of here, I told him, no salt. No sugar! He hung his head, muttered one of his trademark “ahhhhs” or “hmmphs.” He defined “man of few words.”
Each visit to his bedside became harder and harder. Words unsaid filled the room, suffocating the space. You probably won’t get out of here. You’re not getting any better. You can’t walk more than a few feet. The pain of knowledge made asking those questions, “So tell me about the war, Pa,” impossible to move from brain to lips. To ask would be to admit that the end was near. To ask, somehow, now felt hopeless.
Then came the morning, February 2. My father’s voice was unnaturally high-pitched and broken. “Pa is gone,” he said.
So, too, was my chance. Me, the reporter — I’d failed to get the story.
Five years later, in 2011, my uncle was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. One day my phone rings, and for the first time in my 38 years, Uncle Richie called me. Another loner, he too treated words as currency to be spent sparingly. So his reason for calling blew my mind.
I have a lot of stories to tell and you’re a writer, so I was hoping you could write them down for me.
He was in a hospital in Manhattan. I had a 3- and 6-year-old to care for at home. I told myself that on the weekend, I would go visit him. The weekend came and went. Then he was discharged to the nursing home for rehab. When my mother saw him, she told me not to come. Whoever that person was who called me surely was not in the mood for talking now. He was angry about his situation, in pain and defiant. Within a few days he had defied doctor’s orders and left the nursing home. He flew home to Florida. He chose to spend his final days the way he wanted to spend them. Within weeks, he was gone.
And so was my other opportunity. There was a call, and I did not respond.
Both of these experiences weighed heavily on my mind then and now. But as I explored them, I realized something. As a journalist for 20 years, I know how to write down other people’s stories. I have walked into stranger’s lives and gotten them to relive their most harrowing experiences, to explore their own emotions and answer questions most people would think rude or intrusive to ask. So often I’ve had people tell me, “I read that piece about my mother and you got stories out of her that I’d never heard.” Or, “I feel better having spoken to you — you ask the questions that no one else does.”
This made me realize that, while I am the writer in the family, that did not mean I was the right person to write my own relative’s stories. In the reporting world we know that the worst person to report a story is one who is connected to it. This is because there are inherent conflicts of interest — you are going to be hesitant to ask someone you know well the tough questions. You come in with your own experience, which clouds your objectivity. You hold back because you know your source and subject too well.
I believe that’s exactly what happened with my grandfather and uncle — I was too close to the story.
But I am not the type of person who believes failures make you a failure. In fact, I believe strongly that it’s our mistakes that teach us the greatest lessons and show us where we need to go. The experience with my uncle gave birth to an idea — what if I could be the conduit for other people who have stories they want to tell? And what if I could do that outside of my current paradigm, which was to sell them to a magazine as a profile article? What if I could create a direct-to-consumer publishing model that allowed me to write people’s stories, solely for the people who want them written?
Whenever I thought about this idea, my heart raced. I spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter, then 10 years as a freelance writer, and I really missed those newspaper days. I missed connecting with people on a personal level, telling their stories for exactly what they were — the good and the bad, the uplifting and the devastating. I missed all that I learned from being the catalyst that brought people’s stories from minds to lips to paper.
I started talking with my great uncle John, the last living connection to my ancestors, to get his stories. I compiled photos. I did genealogy charts. I was figuring out how to become a memoirist. Then, on Oct, 29, 2012, the time for dreaming and planning came to an abrupt halt. My house was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. It was not unlike a car wreck where the vehicle is totaled but you and your family and unhurt. You are incredibly grateful that everyone is fine, but damn, now there is so much clean-up to do and hassle to deal with, and you have to put the car back together all by yourself, piece by piece, and you have no idea how to build a car. It took us nine months to get our house back into a livable state, but I feel it took us three years to fully heal the scars: emotional, logistical and financial.
And now here I am. My kids, now 8 and 11, are at a wonderfully self-sustainable point in their childhoods — old enough to not need me every second, but young enough to not be scaring me with their independence. My husband is my rock, as always. I have turned those failures into the future that they were meant to be.
In 2016, I launched a memoir-writing business called Memoiria Publishing NYC. Owning my own business scares the here out of me and thrills me to the core, simultaneously — which says to me that I am on the right track. I hope that in writing other’s stories, I’ll discover my path. Feel free to join me for the journey.
Previously published on Cynthia Ramnarace, November 12, 2015.