Courtesy of Katherine Tomlinson.
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” my father always said, which was funny coming from him because he was the most truthful person I’ve ever known.
He was a born raconteur who charmed all of my friends even as my siblings and I rolled our eyes because we’d heard most of his stories before, so many times we could recite them ourselves. I was a grown woman before I realized that a lot of my father’s stories, which were long on personality and short on specifics, were vague on purpose.
His stories were the result of a particular kind of alchemy that allowed him to transform the terrible moments of his life—his mother’s death when he was a boy, the bad things he saw in the war, the death of his younger brother when they were only in their 20s—into something shiny and amusing that allowed him to live with those memories without going crazy.
I didn’t realize what he was doing until I began writing stories myself. And I found that there were some subjects I returned to over and over and over again. My father and mother died within a year of each other and though I’d been a “grown up” for a decade, their deaths catapulted me into adulthood in a way that the simple passage of time had not (It’s hard to cling to adolescence when you’ve picked out coffins for your parents.) I once read a comment that a boy is never a man until his father dies, and I soon learned that daughters are never the same either.
One of the first things I realized is that … nobody understood what was going on with me.
People wanted me to “snap out of it” when I continued to be sad after a period they determined was long enough to grieve. This wasn’t true of everyone, of course, but for people who have never had someone they love die—which is most people in their twenties and younger—the idea that you don’t just get over it is kind of a surprise.
Maybe it would have been different if my parents had been older, but because both of them had been heavy smokers, they died way too young. In fact, I am now four years older than my mother was when she died, and believe me, that makes me feel completely weird.
It doesn’t help that she died a week after my birthday, having, I am convinced, willed herself to stay alive long enough so that forever after my birthday wouldn’t be marred by sad memories.
Or at least that’s the story I tell myself.
And here’s another story I tell and it’s a true one that I think says a lot about why I miss my mother so very much.
I was at the hospital two nights before she died. I had the worst cramps of my life and honestly felt like I was hemorrhaging. It was hot for a September and incredibly humid and the hospital’s AC wasn’t working.
My mother wanted me to go home and I was reluctant to do so. I knew, in the way you sometimes do, that she wasn’t going to be there much longer and I didn’t want to say good night for fear it would be goodbye.
She kept fretting though, and finally I threw out some offhand comment about being old enough to know when to go home and then I added, “Once a mother, always a mother.”
She finished my thought just as I realized how totally inappropriate it was.
“A mother ‘til the day I die,” she said.
And then she laughed.
So I went home and slept for 12 hours and returned to the hospital the next afternoon to spend the rest of my mother’s life with her.
And then I went home and wrote her obituary.
I’ve written a lot of stories since my parents died and a little piece of both of them is in every one of those stories. And I’d like to think a little bit of truth is in each one of them as well, but a truth shaped by the story, which is as it should be.
Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She lives in Los Angeles and sees way too many movies. Follow her @storyauthority.