Words Really Do Matter

When not thought out – such as a carelessly worded e-mail, words can annoy, hurt or wound the spirit. When they are spoken or written with the full feeling of our hearts, they can heal and even transform. That was what I’ll remember most from attending the third annual Wellness & Writing Connections Conference on Oct. 23 at Georgia Tech.

The conference’s keynote speaker was someone who touched me with her sincerity — a “sister in spirit” — author, journalist and 33-year writing professor Julie Davey. A two-time cancer survivor, Julie gives back by teaching cancer patients how to use writing to heal at the City of Hope Medical Center in Los Angeles.
To our group of 100 writers, she shared the stories of some of her students to demonstrate the power of directed writing (as opposed to journal writing) for people needing to face their sadness, fear, frustration, pain.
She told the story of Linda Bergman, a famous Hollywood producer with 26 films to her credit, who got cancer on her 50th birthday as she was filming “Michael Landon: The Father I Knew.”  Julie recalled how Linda was about to give up with the chemo treatments that weren’t making her better. She was ready to check out of the hospital and go home to die. Her family and oncologist at the City of Hope convinced her to try one final trial. Four months later she was cured. Linda donates one day a week at the City of Hope, serving as an anonymous greeter to arrivals at the cancer center. Linda wrote about her victory and how much she loves serving others facing cancer in “Free at Last:”

I have reached my goal – I am no longer the victim.
I am assisting those who have come behind me.
I see it on the patient’s faces when I get the opportunity to say, ‘Oh you have leukemia. I had that, too.’
I see the light in their eyes as they search mine for answers.
No, we don’t always have the same disease, but they know I speak their language.
They know I can be trusted.
They know I have faced the demons and lived to tell about it.
They know I am disease-free and standing in the midst of the storm, shining a light to them.
They know I love them because I am them.

Julie also spoke about her favorite student of all time – Violet Wightman, who began taking her writing classes at Fullerton College at age 91. Violet’s ice-breaker introduction was that she was a friend to both Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and the famous aviator Amelia Earhart – statements that she later proved were true. Violet was a former concert pianist who raised her four children alone after her husband, a Hollywood dentist, died tragically in a car accident in Europe. Always outspoken and colorful in class, Violet had aspirations to write her life story. Upon learning she had terminal cancer, this desire became urgent. Julie and others at the college helped Violet pull together her writing collection, Sitting on a Cloud, before her death.

Each of us attending Julie’s talk got to experience directed writing. We were given an envelope with the message, “Please wait to open.” When it was time to open my envelope, it read: “The day I would like to relive (or live over) would be the day….”

I didn’t have to think for long. I wrote, “The day my terminally ill mother asked if I could spend the day with her because it was a good day (she was feeling okay), and I didn’t because of work deadlines. I thought there would be more days but they became fewer in number as her condition deteriorated. I would love to have that day back, because she’s gone and the work wasn’t important.”

My mother died on Aug. 3, 2004, three weeks after my son was born. This brief episode in my mother’s nine-month struggle with stage four lung cancer has always haunted me. I bitterly think about my absorption in work –and I hated myself for not taking a break from the daily grind of client expectations to realize that time was short – that soon I would no longer have my mother to talk with, share confidences with, to be with for those mother-daughter moments that were such a fabric of our relationship. I admit I cried as I wrote those words. Getting them down on paper helped me accept that I am human and most importantly, that my mother knew how much I loved her…that our bond is unshakeable, unchanged no matter how many years pass.
I did my own form of healing through narrative by penning A Breath Away: Daughters Remember Mothers Lost to Smoking 10 months after my mother’s passing.  I poured out my pain through my own remembrances and those of other daughters who lost their mothers too soon, using my skills as a storyteller and interviewer. It was a healing experience, and one I hope to continue as I explore adapting some of these stories for the stage.
So, how do you get started? Consider these exercises, suggested in Julie’s book, Writing for Wellness, when you have a quiet moment and want to get in touch with your feelings:
Tribute Letter
• Write a letter to someone missing in your life. Write about the good times you shared and describe why you miss them today. Share your letter with a person who knew or was related to your loved one or friend.
Unfinished Business
• Is there some event in your life that still makes your angry or sad? Finish this sentence: When (describe the incident) happened, I felt….
Lessons Learned
• What lessons have you learned so far in your life? Make a list of five to ten – explain in a few words how you learned these lessons, or finish one of these sentences:
I learned the hard way that….
I wish my parents had told me…
I would like to tell my children or friends to always…