It was 2008 and I heard a buzzing all around me. I had gone to the doctor and was misdiagnosed as having dementia but I discovered later that I had had a nervous breakdown. I said to my grown daughter, ‘What is this thing called Obama?’ and she replied, ‘Obama is a black man and he is running for president, Mama.’ ‘Oh my Lord,’ I said. ‘My mama had told me this day was coming and now it was happening.’ Then I realized that I had to pull myself together. I had to watch this historic moment take place. -Jean, 77
Jean, a 77-year-old black woman, uttered those words in a room full of about 20 white people at a senior center in a predominantly white working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. I was there to do a reading from my book Tea Leaves, A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012), and then to lead a discussion and conduct a writing exercise. I looked at Jean. My mother’s name was Jane. She was 74 when she died and she had been misdiagnosed as having arthritis by an HMO doctor who prescribed Extra Strength Tylenol. My mother found a new doctor but it was too late. She was correctly diagnosed with fourth-stage cancer of unknown origin and six months later, she was dead.
It has occurred to me, as I go around reading from Tea Leaves and listening to people’s stories, that in writing about my mother, I have not only written her story and my story and my grandmother’s story. I have touched into a deep, mostly untapped vein of writing the story of many women — and men — whose lives are often overlooked not only in literature, but by society in general and by the medical system in particular.
Another woman in the group talked about being misdiagnosed and, as a result of her untreated illness and the wrong medicine that the doctors in the hospital had given her, she went down to 87 pounds and nearly died several times. She got better and then felt she had wasted her life up until that point — in pettiness, in pursuing things that didn’t matter.
The group met in a 55-plus senior center, but most of the people in this group were in their mid-seventies. I have taught creative writing through the years to children, teenagers and adults of all ages, but have always recognized that my older students are the ones with the best stories to tell. Everyone in the room was brimming with stories — one man wrote about being placed in an orphanage at age 4 because both of his parents died of tuberculosis. He then went on to serve in the military but afterwards was denied entrance to college based on low math scores. An extremely fit woman in the group — who works out every morning in the center’s gym — wrote how her husband became frail and ill and how one day she came home to find that he had not been able to get out of his chair all day. She gradually became his caretaker. The hardest part was learning how to be the strong one and not let her grown children know how terrified she was.