Remembering through stories

The events of Sandy Hook Elementary and other tragedies have me thinking again how storytelling can help heal. Twenty-four years ago, I lost my best friend to gun violence. Naomi was a bright soul extinguished at twenty-one and for a few years after her death, her mother and I met occasionally to check in and reminisce. Then one day I received a letter. Naomi’s mother explained that she had spent the better part of a year writing a small booklet, and would I like to receive a copy. She had written her daughter’s story, she said.

Her daughter’s story. At first, the phrasing rankled. Surely one story couldn’t possibly suffice. Furthermore, the attribution seemed wrong. In English, we have a convention of naming a story that is about a person after the person, but any writer knows that a story first belongs to the teller and once told becomes shared property. Finally, it seemed too definitive. Where was the room for my point of view?

I hadn’t considered, until I reacted this way, how invested I was in keeping the stories alive, in their shared importance, and above all in not having one person’s truth eclipse my own. When Naomi died, my instinct was to gather the stories. In my grief, I hungered for their telling. The repetition of old ones provided solace but I yearned for new ones too.

It was as if her life was a beautiful flower, and her presence in the world the fragile but complex stamen at its centre. During her life, my stories and others were the petals that surrounded and adorned her, but in the nighttime of death, well, our petals had to curve inwards and close tightly around her. I wasn’t ready for those stories to die, and this booklet of her mother’s felt so final.

Fortunately I came to understand that she was only doing what she had to in order to grieve. She wasn’t trying to own Naomi’s story; she was merely assembling the chaos and randomness of her death into a narrative that made sense. Just as we all had tried to do. When we remember our loved ones, we breathe of life into loss. Our stories say, His gifts are worth sharing. Her words are worth repeating. His contribution is worth remembering. Her love is worth celebrating.

We had tea in my kitchen. I thanked her for the gift of her booklet, and she said, “I’m glad you liked it. Some people have told me that I romanticized my daughter.” Then, tentatively, looking down at her hands, she asked, “Do you think they’re right?”

“Maybe a little”, I answered. “But she was your daughter–and that was your story. It’s your right.”

She smiled, glad I had understood.

“We all have our own story of Naomi,” I said. “If you’d like, I’ll tell you one of mine.”

She looked up, with anticipation and gratitude. Her gaze relaxed into mine, waiting for me to begin.  And together, we remembered, and we celebrated her daughter’s life.