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Why I write

For years, I wrote poetry, legal briefs, and Christmas letters, but never prose (except that one short story in college that was so bad I vowed never to write prose again). But circumstances and people change. I remember exactly what propelled me into writing stories.

In 2003, I had a serious flare-up of an existing thyroid condition. I spent six months in bed and another six months regaining my strength. Often, before drifting off to sleep, I prayed I would wake in the morning. During this time, my life changed in many ways—I became more appreciative of family and friends, of sunlight, of the ability to walk, of grass and birds, of anything that made me laugh.

I also realized I was not 100% happy. I’d been ignoring my creative side for too long. I’d made a lot of progress in my life—overcoming childhood trauma and a failed first marriage. I’d been an excellent mother and provider for my son—home schooling, meeting all his needs–including piano lessons and helping him fulfill his gift of touching people’s souls with music, but somewhere in the process I had neglected my own soul’s needs. For me, writing was like breathing. And I’d been holding my breath too long.

I vowed to spend more time doing what I loved. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write, and I didn’t have much energy, so I started by writing down the vivid dreams I had every night I was sick. In one dream, I was walking through a hospital and met a beautiful long-limbed Haitian woman who asked me to follow her. We walked and walked through shiny hospital corridors, pebbled lanes, and dark twisting alleyways until we finally came to the water’s edge where the moonlight cut a path far out into the sea. She stepped aside and motioned with her hand as if she wanted me to walk across the water.

“I can’t walk on water,” I said. “Only Jesus can do that.”

“Yes, child, you can,” she said. “The weakest and the littlest can do what the strongest can. We are all the same.”

When I began to protest, she just smiled and stared into my eyes with so much love that I began to cry. I woke up sobbing, my pillow drenched. I felt as if I’d met an angel.

By the following August I was better but still recovering my strength, when my mother, who lived alone, developed vascular dementia. In a matter of six weeks, she went from being totally independent, driving her little Nissan wagon all over town, to being totally dependent. She could no longer drive or cook for herself. She needed to be monitored closely or she might forget she’d already eaten lunch or dinner and proceed to gobble a whole tray of deviled eggs or a two-pound bag of apples.

Marilyn Carol Howey Smith, 1938-2012

As I took Mom to doctors’ appointments and test after test, I began to talk to her about our past—mainly testing her memory—but also wanting answers to questions she’d never wanted to talk about before. Questions about Dad mainly, about their life together, about why she stayed with him through all those years. But what I discovered was that Mom couldn’t remember being married to my father. Instead, she called up memories of her father in his place.

It was during this time that I began to see how every human being is a collection of stories, how we all have stories that need to be told and shared. I decided I wanted to tell my mother’s story since she couldn’t tell it herself anymore. And I began to write.

I started to make notes and jot down memories when, a few weeks later, Mom disappeared—she walked away from home in the middle of the night. For three days and three nights, four counties of Search & Rescue and various police agencies searched for her and fortunately found her. She was trapped in a thicket of blackberry bushes three miles from home, barefoot and unable to walk.

After her release from the hospital, she moved in with me and I began to witness up close her daily decline, how the memories slipped away from her. One day, she’d remember the name of my horse when I was younger but not the name of the cat I currently owned. Another day, she’d remember the time her father took her trout fishing at Lake Shasta, but not the day she was married or any day thereafter. Through all this, I became more and more determined to tell her story. This is how I started to write prose. And this is why I continue to do so: to honor the life of the person who gave me life.

Because I developed such a passionate motivation to write, I know that nothing can stop me. Whenever I feel dejected or rejected, I ask myself: Why do I write? And I remember.

My mother, Marilyn Carol Howey Smith, spent the last 7.5 years of her life lovingly cared for at Martha & Mary Nursing home. She passed away on February 22, 2012.

I will never stop writing, Mom. I love you.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ruth #

    Carol, this is very touching story. My thoughts are with you at this time of loss. I am a cousin to Carly Sandifer, your wonderful writing partner.

    February 24, 2012
    • Thanks, Ruth. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you! Thanks for helping Carly so much. 🙂 She’s always telling me how much she appreciates you.

      February 24, 2012

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