Book Report: “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

“I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I’d wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her, but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could full. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”

— Cheryl Strayed, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Back in February, my blog post “Don’t Disappear from the Pictures,” which I had cross-posted on The Huffington Post, was well received.  Much to my surprise, it received thousands of likes, and the blog was shared more than 1,800 times.  When my friend, Julia, read it, she messaged me on Facebook, and highly recommended I read the book “Wild.”  She promised I would love it, and I would relate to it 100 percent.  She then assigned it to me as a book report and get back to her in two weeks.

Yeah. . . it took me three months to finish, though that had nothing to do with the book itself.  Sorry Julia!

Cheryl Strayed is an amazing writer.  Hands-down, this is the best memoir I have ever read.  (Right now, I’m reading “Orange is the New Black,” and I’m noticing a difference between showing, not telling – Piper Kerman tells and Cheryl Strayed shows.)  I highly recommend everyone should read this, especially if you’ve experienced a profound loss in your life.  Even though Cheryl’s situation was different than mine – her mother died of cancer when she was in her early 20s, and mine died of cancer when I was only 7 – the emotions and the ache for your mother when you need her the most is the same.  I related to her anguish, sorrow and determination to figure out her life without her mother in it.

When I came across the above passage, I re-read it several times, just letting the words soak in.  “She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill.  I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”   The loss of my mother has defined me – the motherless girl.  She died at an age where I never fought with her.   I didn’t rebel against her or done any other teenage-angst daughter stuff that mothers endure.  Since she died when I was seven years old, she was frozen in time as the Ideal Mother.  She was my fantasized “what if” world.  When I reached adulthood, I began viewing her as a real person, someone who was far from perfect but loved her family very much.

When I reached adulthood, the loss of my mother defined me again – I had to get annual screenings for the same disease that killed her.   I didn’t have her guidance or knowledge as I navigated breast cancer myself.  I never felt as alone or as empty as I did during chemotherapy.   I had to keep filling my bowl, so speak, by befriending others going through this as well.  I didn’t have her, but I wasn’t alone.

“Wild”  inspired me.  Her story made me even more determined to work on my story, and make it count.  To show, not tell.   To pour my heart into my story, just like Cheryl Strayed did.

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To the Nurse Practitioner at St. Clair Hospital,

Remember me?  I am the woman who came to be with her boyfriend, a stubborn man who would rather be anywhere else in the world except a hospital, and you dismissed the two of us like a pair of hypochondriacs.  I have never encountered a nurse, doctor or nurse practitioner as rude, condescending and dismissive as you were today.  I am a professional sickie, and I encounter nurses and doctors all the time.  You, whoever you were, were insufferable and rude.

A grown man, who until recently has been the picture of decent health, came in and said he had been sick for going on three months and hasn’t been able to fight any virus or infection in the last couple of months.  He said he has been light headed and have been feeling pain in his shoulders and lower back.  He told you that he has been to a doctor as well as urgent care in the previous month, and he keeps getting worse.  What do you do?  You order a chest xray, a flu swab and a CT of his sinuses.  When all of that came back clear, you came in and had absolutely no patience at all with any follow up questions.

Why are you in the healthcare field, which involves helping people, if you’re such a bitch?  I was not being rude at all.  I was being a concerned loved one for someone who has been sick for months.  You talked down to me, even talking to me SLOWER like I am learning impaired.

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I have never been so angry and furious in recent years.  My sick loved one came to get help, answers, and you behaved as if he was overreacting, like apparently it is NORMAL to be sick for weeks on end?  That’s not normal.  This is not normal.  He should be able to get better, and he has been consistently sick for a long time.

Commenting that you thought I wasn’t understanding what you were saying was rude, condescending and awful.  The look you interpreted as not understanding words, as if I am learning impaired, was the look of a girlfriend who wanted to launch out of her chair and beat you senseless.  You made someone I love and care about feel hopeless and upset, and hours later, I am wondering why someone like you is dealing with sick people if you hate people so much.

Worst worst patient care I have witnessed.  Congrats, St. Clair.  I’ll make sure to never visit your hospital.  I’ll keep my sickie ailments to Allegheny Health System.

My grandmothers

In my life, I have had three grandmothers.  When friends my age talk about visiting their grandparents, I feel a slight twinge of jealously.  My last grandparent died when I was in my early 20s, just barely into adulthood.  I’ve been thinking about each of these women and the roles and impact they had on my life.

Grandma

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This is my father’s mother, who my brothers and I just called Grandma.  She died when I was in my early 20s, so I luckily I have more solid memories of her.  Grandma wasn’t a very emotional person.  I don’t remember her being  excited or angry or any extreme emotion.   Whenever we visited her, Grandma never sat down and ate with us.  She stayed in the kitchen, and she was ready if you needed seconds or more tea or water.

Grandma was always there for my brothers and I growing up.  She showed up to graduations, confirmations, weddings, whatever she could.  She sent birthday cards and Christmas cards.  Grandma was there.  When my mother died of metastatic breast cancer, Grandma came up and helped take care of my brothers and me.  While she was not an emotionally demonstrative woman, I always knew that she cared and loved us because she was there.  She is why I believe that if you care, you show up.  If it’s not in person, you call or send a card.  You show up.

Granny

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This was my mother’s mother, who my brothers and I called Granny.  She died of lung cancer when I was three, maybe four, years old.  I have two very faint memories of Granny.  I’m not even sure if they are memories, maybe snippets.  Granny was the only one who called me Lolly, and when she died, that nickname died with her.   The other thing I remember about Granny was her gravelly, low voice, which said to me, “Give me some sugar, Lolly.”  No lie, she is the reason why I never wanted to smoke or became a smoker.  Her voice scared me as a child, and that fear never left me in middle school and high school when my classmates began smoking in secret.

However, Granny wasn’t just a cautionary tale for me.   I’ve gone through old photos of her, Papa and my mother probably hundreds of time.  Plus, my father has  been a historian of my mother’s side of the family, and he’s told me so many stories of her and my mothers side of the family.  Granny comes across as stoic and proper, like she would have been that old-fashioned Southern stereotype you see and hear about.   Beautiful and strong – I bet nobody messed with her, like I know nobody messed with my mother.  (Maybe I’m like them both?)  A couple of years ago, my dad gave me a huge pile of letters that Granny wrote to my mother and father in the 1970s.  It’s so neat that I have tangible evidence of my grandmother’s love for her daughter.

Nana

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Nana, my stepmother’s mother, was an amazing woman.  Hands down, the absolute best.  I couldn’t, nor would I ever, say a bad thing about this woman.  When Nana came to visit, she would ask everyone what their favorite meal and/or dessert was, and then she would make it for you.  Whenever I’ve talked about Nana in recent years, I’ve joked that when Nana came to town, everyone in the house would gain about five pounds.  I used to spend hours in the kitchen with her as she baked dozens of cookies, and she would talk about whatever you wanted.  Nana was silly and joked about silly things, calling her bra “an over the shoulder boulder holder.”  Nana would also listen to you, and you always knew she cared.

The thing I loved most about Nana was that I never felt like a step-granddaughter to her, just family.  She made me feel included and important.  When she passed away, the world lost a wonderful light.  Whenever I bake cookies or cupcakes in my kitchen, I think back to the time I spent with her in the kitchen.  I like to think she’s in the kitchen with me, smiling and telling stories.

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I am very proud of the fact that I come from a line of strong and loyal women, like Grandma and Granny.  I also feel blessed that Nana considered me a part of her family.   Like I feel about my mother, I hope that I am making these three amazing women proud.