Writing out of my comfort zone

My last book, a memoir My last book, a memoir

I think of myself as a reflective writer, someone who is at her best in the overlap between personal essay and memoir. I am not a journalist, as I learned decades ago during an internship at High Country News. My temperament leans more toward listening and sympathizing than asking hard-nosed questions.

I usually eschew political subjects because I detest our current mode of “discourse.” It so rarely involves thoughtful articulation, reflection or careful listening.

Richard Cabe sitting outside the VA Hospital in Denver with Molly, after being treated for catastropic brain-swelling. Richard Cabe sitting outside the VA Hospital in Denver with Molly, after being treated for life-threatening brain-swelling.

When the scandal broke about the secret wait lists at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Phoenix, I read the first few articles. I happen to have quite a bit of experience with VA healthcare because of the guy in the photo above. After reading, I went back to work revising my new memoir.

Not my issue, I said firmly to myself.

As the reporting took on a more sensational tone and the comments grew more vitriolic, I became more uncomfortable.

I recognize that the bureaucracy administering the VA healthcare system needs fixing.

Richard in the surgical ICU at the VA the day after brain surgery number three. Richard in the surgical ICU at the VA the day after brain surgery number three.

But the VA I know from Richard’s two-plus-year journey with brain cancer is not the bureaucracy; it’s the dozens of skilled, compassionate, and dedicated care-givers who worked with my love through four brain surgeries, one emergency brain-drain procedure, six hospitalizations, a course of radiation and adjuvant chemo, and two courses of chemo by itself, one requiring monthly half-day infusions, and finally, palliative care.

In all the appointments, procedures, hospitalizations, consults and other interactions, the people at the VA were invariably respectful and knowledgeable. They listened, asked questions, and checked to see how we were at each step along the way. In short, they cared.

I thought about how hard the VA-bashing must be for all who gave the man I love such outstanding care. These people–the real VA–don’t deserve to be vilified. They deserve our thanks for caring for 8 million veterans in hundreds of hospitals and clinics nationwide on a budget that is too small for the job.

Richard the week before brain surgery number four, six months before he died. Richard the week before brain surgery number four, six months before he died.

So last Monday, I wrote a commentary about the issue. I read the first version out loud, blew my nose and mopped my eyes, rewrote, blew my nose again, read aloud through tears again, cut out another hundred words, and finally ended up with about 550 words of what I hoped was concise, clear, and thoughtful essay.

Then my doubts returned: Do I really want to wade into this ugliness?

I went outside and watered the pots of flowers and edibles on my front deck. I looked at the peaks rising over town, the view Richard admired every day, even when admiring it meant I had to power up his hospital bed to raise his head and rotate the bed to face the sliding glass door.

I really do. I came inside and wrote a careful email to Barb Ellis, the editor I had worked with when I was a Colorado Voices columnist at the Denver Post. I read the email, edited it, attached the file with the commentary and hit “send.”

Then I worried about what I’d gotten myself into.

On Tuesday afternoon, Barb wrote back to say she loved the commentary and would try to find a place for it.

Wednesday she emailed with a couple of questions. I clarified one fact and added a sentence to another place.

“Do you have a photo of Richard we could use with the commentary if we have space?” she asked later. I picked one of my favorites and emailed it.

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved "ambassadors of the earth." Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved “ambassadors of the earth.”

This morning over breakfast when I opened the Sunday Denver Post, there was my commentary on the front page of the Opinion section, with Richard’s face smiling out at me. I read my own words through tears.

Thank you, Barb Ellis. And thanks to all those who have responded with appreciation. You remind me that compassion and thoughtfulness matter.

I’ll write out of my comfort zone more often.

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