I’ll never forget the moment I found out my mother’s diagnosis. ‘Your mother has the classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s,’ the geriatric psychiatrist said.
What a relief! After months of increasing concern about her memory lapses and being told by doctors they were a result of her depression, my siblings and I finally had the answer we’d suspected all along.
Amidst the flurry of finding a suitable care facility for her, the realization seeped into my already grieving mind. It was too late now to fill in all the gaps in her life I didn’t know, to delve more deeply into the stories she’d already told me, to appreciate more fully what had made her the person she was.
Mum loved giving presents, and even when we were adults she always went that extra mile on our birthdays and at Christmas to give us something special she knew we’d appreciate. If only we’d known at the time, the most valuable gift she could have given us was the story of her life.
Of course, I knew bits and pieces – over the years, she’d shared memories and anecdotes of various events in her life. But as a teenager and young adult I only listened with half an ear, absorbed as I was in my own life, and subsequently forgot many of the details.
When I married and had my own family, life was hectic and I never had the time – or if I’m honest, the inclination – for long, in-depth conversations. I took Mum’s good health, constant presence and support for granted. Until the staunch, independent woman with the quirky sense of humour faded away to become a helpless, confused shadow of herself, frustrated at her failing memory and jumbled speech.
As a professional life story writer I’ve witnessed the reaction of families when presented with their loved one’s story, whether a completed manuscript or a published book with photos. Delight, appreciation, gratitude.
One client, Doug, was in the early stages of dementia, and his family asked me to write his life story before his cognitive function declined any further. He’d already lost some significant memories but I was able to fill in the gaps with the help of other family members. His wife and daughter published his story themselves and were delighted that they had this permanent tribute to him. Doug was estranged from some of his family and reading his life story helped them to understand him better.
Another client, Bob, a WW11 veteran and a pioneer in his profession, told me there wasn’t much his son didn’t already know about his life. But the process of telling me his story got his memory firing on all cylinders, and produced numerous anecdotes that up until then he’d completely forgotten. His son was thrilled with the result. ‘I’ve learned so many new things about Dad from this book,’ he said.
The published book enabled extended family members to learn more about their beloved Bob, as well as the wider public to appreciate his life and contribution to society.
Had I encouraged Mum to tell me more about her life and recorded her stories, I may have better understood the constantly simmering rivalry between her and her older sister, how being brought up in a strict Victorian household affected her development and how much being unable to pursue the career of her choice or marry the man she loved because of her mother’s disapproval contributed to a lifelong history of depression.
I can speculate and make assumptions, but I don’t know for sure. And will never know.
Your life story will not only benefit your immediate family, but generations to come. Think of it as your own little piece of immortality – you will not just be a name on a family tree. Your descendants will come to know you as a person and how life and world events shaped you.
They may even find out more about themselves from your story, as thoughts and emotions expressed in it resonate with them. Our desire for a sense of belonging means we have an innate need to know where we fit in our family history, our place in something bigger than ourselves. It’s one of the reasons genealogy has become so popular.
The gift of your life story is a gift of yourself, in all your human glory – your strengths and weaknesses, the adversities you’ve overcome and the wisdom you’ve gained. And that’s the most precious gift of all.
Robin Storey is a ghostwriter specializing in life stories and memoirs. She also offers a mentoring service for those who wish to write their own. Contact her at https://www.storey-lines.com/ghostwriter-life-story/ for further information.