3 Memoirs That Completely Changed My Life

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I love books. Some books I love more than my family. In my 30’s I’ve found myself asking a lot of big questions about life, death and grief and these books have been my saviours. The connective tissue between them may be death but if anything each one of these memoirs make me believe in the beauty of life itself.

Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

In 2014 I was raw from grief and on the verge of a mental breakdown when I found Cheryl Strayed’s book during my sleepless nights Googling “how to cope with losing a parent.” My grief had alienated me from my friends who didn’t understand how to deal with my suffering and I needed reassurance that I was going to survive this despair.

I was immediately gripped by Strayed’s story of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 and how that journey helped mend her broken heart, over losing her beloved mother Bobbi and the end of her marriage. Whole passages of the book could have been plucked from my own brain as the realization dawned that I wasn’t alone. The memoir echoed my own experience of a family torn apart after losing one of our own, “without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope.”

In the years following her mother’s death, Strayed hit the self-destruct button hard, something I can relate to. On the adultery that contributed to the end of her marriage, “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal.” Some parts of the book were painful to read because the sense of recognition made me weep and I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy.

The book taught me a lot. That it’s ok to forgive yourself, even when you’ve hurt people you love. I learned that grief is messy and painful but you will survive. Just getting up every day and taking tiny steps to be kind to yourself can help rebuild the hole in your heart.

Late Fragments: Everything I Want to Tell You (About This Magnificent Life) by Kate Gross

Late Fragments started life as a blog chronicling the last two years of the author’s life following a terminal cancer diagnosis aged just 34. In different hands the book could have been mawkish but the joy comes from Gross’s way with words, she explains her predicament without endless medical jargon and with little sentimentality. I’ve lived with a dying relative so know the reality of impending death can be as life-affirming as it is heartbreaking. Gross wrote the book for her twin sons, who were only five when she passed away on Christmas Day 2014. The dedication alone had me in tears, “There are two adult hands which I hope will hold a battered paperback when others have long forgotten me and what I have to say. I write this for Oscar and Isaac, my little Knights, my joy and my wonder.”

Despite the bleak diagnosis Gross finds happiness in her limited time left on earth: “For starters, there is a feeling of being alive, awake, which powerfully reasserts itself in the moments of wellness that punctuate a long illness. I have experienced joy – perhaps even the sublime – in an unexpected and new way.” Gross tells her life story with elegance, wit and just a touch of bitterness (anger would be my primary emotion if I found out I was dying in my mid-thirties).

Although Gross’s life was short it was extraordinary. She spent four years working for two British Prime Ministers in her twenties, then founded a charity rebuilding essential structures of government in post-conflict Africa. Thankfully her legacy lives on – not only in print but in the fundraising and building of the inaugural Kate Gross Community School which opened in Sierra Leone in 2016. Many of us could live to 100 and only hope to leave such a legacy.

The book never fails to inspire me with its spirit and determination to embrace life (however short) and on the days when I am moaning about being tired/in pain/have a cold I glance at the cover on my Kindle and tell myself to get a grip. I’ve read the book on multiple occasions and gain new insight every time. And the postscript, written by Kate’s mother Jean following her death always make me howl with emotion.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

A life story with a difference, one told entirely through near death experiences. I was so captivated by this audiobook I devoured the memoir in a single day. The narration by Daisy Donovan was spellbinding and at points I found myself listening with my eyes closed so I could fully immerse myself in the words. I’ve since listened to the book again and now own a hardback copy with my favourite passages highlighted.

The book is broken down into episodes zig zagging across decades and destinations, beginning with an encounter on a remote path that chilled me for days afterwards. As O’Farrell observes we are all closer to death than we may realise: “We are, all of us, wandering about in states of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.” The book is thought provoking and conversation starting – while our stories may not be book worthy a cursory count in my close family unearthed 13 near-death experiences between five of us.

O’Farrell is a natural storyteller and skilfully describes everything from devastating childhood encephalitis to an encounter with a machete wielding mugger with a lack of sentimentality which allows for more empathy than a constant stream of self-pity. There were stories that made me hold my breath, moved me to tears and filled me with rage.

The final section – Daughter – is set in the present day and is one of the boldest and most startling chapters of a book I have ever read. O’Farrell’s daughter was born with a severe immunology disorder and the threat of anaphylaxis means her fight for life is something the family are faced with on a daily basis. The final chapter ramps up the sense of danger and urgency and whilst O’Farrell may have downplayed her own struggles you cannot help but feel the passion for her child leap off the page. It’s a book that makes you appreciate your every breath and be thankful that the author managed to survive this long to tell her tale.

Dear CC

broken-heartI am so sorry I didn’t say goodbye properly. I found out you were really sick on Friday and by Saturday night you were gone. I wrote a short message that didn’t even begin to explain how much I wanted the news about your failing health to be an ugly rumour. I needed to tell you how much you meant to me and how much you will be missed. You were my first real friend. Two doors down the street and born three weeks apart, it was almost inevitable that we would be buddies, especially given how close our parents were. Inseparable during their pregnancies, our mothers were delighted to give birth to two daughters in the same month that would grow up together.

We weren’t just friends, we were family. We called each other’s mothers “Mum” and became the sisters we both craved so much (I was big sister, you were little sis). We spent weekdays together at nursery, then school and at weekends had sleepovers at each other’s homes. You had a Christmas stocking and an Easter egg to look forward to every year at my house. I put more time and effort into our friendship than I have with any subsequent romantic relationship. Although we looked so different we always dressed alike and I laugh now looking back at pictures of your long slim body in the same outfits as my short round frame.

I still remember the day 26 years ago when I broke your heart (your words, you always had a flair for the dramatic). I told you I was moving house. Not very far away but enough of a distance to move school and for everything to change. We both wept and vowed to be friends forever, in a way that only nine year olds can. I promised to phone every day and write letters every week to tell you what I was up to. You told me that no one would ever replace me. We continued to have sleepovers, although they went from weekly to monthly and eventually stopped altogether.

Neither of us wanted to admit we’d outgrown each other. When we met up things seemed strained and we couldn’t just pick up a conversation where we’d left off, there was so much explanation of “who’s who” in stories that it was too much effort. Also, the differences in our personalities became more apparent as we got older; you loved a party and I loved staying in with a book, you looked like a model and loved fashion, I looked like a hobbit and was sporting hand me downs (from my brother).

We went years without speaking and I regret not making more of an effort. There were times I would see you on a bus or on the street and I would hide behind a book or scarf to avoid your gaze. Your life always seemed so fabulous and glamourous. You travelled for a living and I was stuck in the same city in a dead end job. I thought being around you would make me feel like a lesser human.

I thought of you often and when I joined Facebook in 2009 you were one of my first friends, just like when we were born. You ended up amassing 10 times as many friends as me and I do admit to the odd pang of jealousy. We exchanged the occasional message, particularly in times of crisis. When your dad passed away I had to let you know I was there if you needed to chat and you were one of the first people I heard from when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget the kindness of you coming to mum’s funeral when you didn’t even live in the same country as us anymore.

I was speaking to dad about you just over a week ago. We were both wondering aloud how you were, you had been uncharacteristically quiet on social media and I hoped it was because you were loved up and enjoying life offline. I didn’t know you were fighting for your life. When I found out on Friday night what was happening I wanted to give you the biggest hug. I wanted to kiss your forehead the way our mums did when we were sleeping over at each other’s houses. Or I wanted to make you laugh, you had a bloody ridiculous snorting laugh and I can’t believe I’ll never hear it again. I also can’t believe I am referring to you in the past tense. I am so sorry.

Love always, BS (Big Sister)

I run like a girl…try to keep up

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In June 2011 I took part in Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life 5km event with my mum. As we wandered round the beautiful course we talked about entering the event in 2012 and perhaps upping the distance to 10km. I had a more ambitious target, I wanted to run a half marathon. Not just any half marathon, I wanted to take part in the Great North Run. For years I had watched the event on TV and been inspired by the runners and their stories. I turned 30 at the beginning of 2012 and it seemed like an excellent goal to kick off a new decade. Despite not being a runner my mum was sure I would be able to complete the course and told me she would be there cheering me on.

I entered the GNR ballot in 2012 and was unsuccessful. I wasn’t too disappointed, I had entered the Race for Life again and with a group of work colleagues trained to run the whole 5km course. Mum had decided that running might be a bit too ambitious for her so was going to be there as a cheerleader.

On 5th June 2012 life changed forever. A simple diagnostic test revealed my mum had an oesophageal tumour. On 15th June we were told the diagnosis was terminal and any treatment would be palliative. Despite the dire prognosis my mum came to cheer me on at the Race for Life just 48 hours later. On an exceptionally emotional and rainy day my team of six completed the race in good time and raised over £1000 for Cancer Research.Read More »

Nobody told me

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Image source: http://www.bloggersforhope.com/2012/06/grief-mathematically-speaking.html

I lost my Mum to cancer in September 2013. I wish someone had warned me about the range of emotions and reactions I would go through in the subsequent days, months and years so I knew that what I was experiencing was perfectly normal. Information on grieving can be conflicting and confusing so I decided to detail my own experience.Read More »