“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill- the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill- you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
-Morpheus, The Matrix, 1999
When I tell my children bedtime stories, I often finish with saying “the end.” From personal experience, I think the end arises more from a parent’s desperate desire to get some sleep than it does from a child’s need for closure. And despite saying many “the ends,” I have never started a tale with “in the beginning.” I think even very young children reject the idea that a narrative exists only within the story. The three bears had many bowls of porridge before Goldilocks chanced upon their door. Cinderella cleaned many an ash pile before earning her name and walking on glass.
We happen upon characters while they are in the midst of their tale. Time is often compressed and decades are spanned within phrases. Sometimes the tales are of crises and some are adventure or romance. The clock chimes midnight and time has stopped. The linear reality of our life has falls away. These are the moments of fairy tales; and fairy tales are sometimes happy but are often quite dark. I find a medical crisis within a family feels very similar to the dark primal terror of the fairy tale. Like Alice in her rabbit hole, we are falling with no end in sight. When we finally reach bottom, do we drink the potion? Do we take the red pill or the blue pill? And sometimes for the story to move forward we must first remember what life was like when we were very small.
When I was very small, my Mother told me stories. Often her stories were from the Bible. Sometimes she told us fairy tales. But I liked the stories of her own life most of all. I loved to hear about her ten brothers and sisters. I cherished the nights she would tell us about growing up on a farm in rural Oklahoma. Some nights she would tell of her adventures in Colorado Springs when she was a waitress at the Stage Coach Inn. And rarely, for the bloom of love was fading, she would tell us of how she met our Father and they fell in love.
My Mother met my Father in a hospital room. She was the youngest daughter in a large family and being unmarried at 33 she had become the caregiver of her elderly parents Ella and Reinhardt. She was attending her father during his hospitalization in the 1960's. My father, Gilmer McCanless, had been in a motorcycle accident and was recovering in the shared room. They began to talk and her care began to include both men. Slowly, amid white sheets and medicine their love began to bloom. I suppose some might say this was the Nightingale effect, for my mother was nothing like my Father’s prior loves. My Mom was sweet and attended Church regularly. Dad spent most of his time in beer joints and was prone to easy anger. But something grew between them in that hospital room; something that was once love and became heartbreak.
So if the story of my life has a beginning, it started with care giving in a hospital room. And my life, as I knew it, ended many years later in another hospital room. At the age of 37, I was the caregiver. My husband was the patient and he was slowly dying. And I found out something about what my Mother must have once felt. For the love you feel as a caregiver can melt the heart of the hardest of men. And that same love can break the heart of the kindest of men, as well.