Monday, March 23, 2015

The Literature of Caregiving: Lucy Grealy and Ann Patchett

Welcome back to the monthly series: The Literature of Caregiving

This month for “The Literature of Caregiving” I bring you two great memoirs and two great writers who happened to also be two wonderful friends. The writers Lucy Grealy and Ann Patchett met in graduate school at Iowa and lived and wrote and struggled and laughed and grew together. They bonded over all the things young women friends do: school, writing, ambition, clothes, men, parties, worries, money and what do be when they grew up. They both decided on Writer.

When I teach Lit of Caregiving or a memoir class I like to assign pairs of books for students to consider and Lucy and Ann are the perfect pair to examine subject and style and content.

Both are wonderful writers and both –eventually—wrote about tragedies. Lucy’s tragedy was in her own life and Ann’s tragedy was her friend Lucy’s life.

Lucy Grealy’s story is cancer—Ewing’s sarcoma at age 9 leading to years of radiation and chemotherapy and then a long series of reconstructive operations, most of them unsuccessful. Her face was destroyed and recreated and lost again as many of the bone grafts didn’t “take” and her facial bones were gradually absorbed, then rebuilt and then gone again. 

Lucy’s stunning book, “Anatomy of a Face” is about her cancer experience but much more about her experience of having and losing a face. She wrote about beauty and how we
perceive it and how it is to be attractive and then to not be and then maybe …and not again. The book describes the physical pain and the emotional pain but primarily she wrestles with meaning and beauty.

Ann Patchett met Lucy years after the original cancer but in the midst of Lucy’s repeated surgeries and reconstructions. (There were 38 operations altogether). She was Lucy’s roommate, neighbor and later—for many years—her caregiver.

That is a caregiver model we don’t often talk about—the good friend who is a caregiver --sometimes in person and sometimes long distance and who goes through the medical crises. But also—as in this story as Lucy’s life devolves into alcohol and pills and ultimately heroin, a caregiver of someone with the disease of addiction.

We forget sometimes in our caregiver world that caring for someone with an addiction or a mental health diagnosis also counts. Those are not the caregivers asking for Family Leave at work or raising their hands at conferences for caregivers. There is still too much shame and stigma. But those may be some of the hardest working, most stressed-out caregivers.

And that is all in the story that Ann Patchett tells in her book, “Truth & Beauty—A Friendship” about her years of being Lucy’s friend and then her caregiver and then having to survive Lucy’s death to be her eulogist.

Incredible stories yes, but also extraordinary books because this pair of books are written by a pair of stunningly talented writers. Lucy was also an award-winning poet, and Ann’s many novels include: “Bel Canto” and “The Patron Saint of Liars” among others.

The incredible testimony to Patchett’s book and to her writing skill is that even though the subject matter is harrowing, “Truth & Beauty” is also uplifting and inspiring as it examines friendship and love and the lengths to which one might choose to go in being a caregiver.


To read more installments of The Literature of Caregiving see past posts on December 8 2014, January 16, 2015, February 2, 2015. And sign up to receive this blog-Love in the Time of Cancer in your email.

1 comment:

Sandra Hutchison said...

I love Patchett's book, but it hadn't even occurred to me to read Lucy's take on it. Thank you for the reminder that I should!