An Open Letter to My Evil Doppelganger Who Doesn't Know I Exist
Dear Nora McInerny,
One night my husband excitedly told me that he'd recorded something on TV that he thought I would love. When I sat down to watch, I saw a 30-something blonde from the Twin Cities being interviewed about the book she had written about her husband's illness. She was smart and funny and quirky as she spoke about how it's okay to struggle, to laugh, to be honest in the midst of caring for and then grieving the loss of a spouse.
As I, a 30-something blonde from the Twin Cities whose husband has had a bone marrow transplant, all the cancers, and is 8 years past the median age of death for his illness (which sounds like a gift and a miracle but feels like a ticking clock), watched this interview, I should have felt sisterhood, camaraderie, excitement to find someone who spoke my language.
But I didn't.
You see, the reason my husband thought I would love to see your interview is because I have been talking for years about writing a book about my life as a wife and caregiver. The focus of my writing is how there is so much there in the negative space, the unseen, the unnoticed, the unappreciated, the not talked about parts of caring for a seriously ill partner. I want to dig in to why it is that we so often just say, "Fine, thanks!", to encourage all of us to say instead, "Terrible, thanks for asking!" (as you so beautifully put it), and to model doing this through putting in writing the hard stuff about my own experiences.
In that moment, watching that interview, the not-so-supportive part of my mind told me that you got there first. You filled that gap. There was no need for my story to be told. "My" words had already been put out into the air. The world doesn't need more than one blonde Minnesotan with a sick husband.
When I dared say those thoughts out loud, the people in my life rolled their eyes and shushed me, assuring me that of course I could still tell my story, of course there was room and need for the both of us. One of them even sent encouragement in the form of this sweet greeting card.
And so, I started to believe them. I started writing more and working on a website so that I could share my writing publicly.
On a road trip, my husband and I were listening to your podcast. After hearing you say throughout that we should talk about the hard stuff, he looked at me with big eyes and said quietly, "Oh. I see what you mean. She is kinda doing exactly what you wanted to do."
My daughter and I were at Target and when she saw this onesie on the rack she said,
"Mom! This is just like what you're writing about!"
I took a deep breath and explained that the message on this onesie is basically the title of your book.
"Oh," she said sheepishly, pushing the shopping cart quickly away.
Even when I dipped my toe in the writer's water by posting something on Facebook about why we, as a culture, have a hard time admitting that things are hard, one of my friends made this comment:
The closer I came to making my writing public, the more you seemed to appear.
-Posters in bookstores (Anne Lamott? Come on! Why am I even trying??)
-A waitress wearing a STILL KICKIN t-shirt
-Friends RSVPing to your events on Facebook
It was like when you decide to give up sugar and suddenly there are Dairy Queens on every corner and donuts on every table.
Even when I was studying website designs and "About Me" pages and had your site up, my daughter walked by and said,
"Whoa, that woman looks like you."
I have to admit that I was starting to not be your biggest fan. (How's that for a passive aggressive sentence?)
Jealousy was taking over. I may have referred to you as my "evil doppelganger" once...or twice...or more. You were out there doing the things that I had imagined I would do and it was making me feel like I had missed my chance, like my story didn't count because yours was told first, like this thing that I had been excited to do was no longer an option, like my words couldn't have an impact because yours already had.
And then, in addition to seeing you everywhere,
I began to see messages such as these sprinkled throughout my days. These messages told me loud and clear something I had clearly forgotten, something that the not-so-supportive part of my brain had been blocking out:
Women need to stick together.
This jealousy thing, this thing about needing to be the one and only, this thing about not having room for all of us in this world,
When these quotes kept coming across my path, I realized that I had been wasting my time and energy. Instead of lamenting your successes, seeing them as a sign that my own may never occur, I should have been supporting you and learning from you. Instead of assuming that there is nothing left to say about hard things, maybe I should just put myself out there and see what happens. Maybe (gasp!) these two blonde writers who live in the same town could meet, connect over their commonalities, support each other, and add to each other's "loyal tribe of loyal and honest women."
Because here's the tragic twist that recently slapped me in the face:
There are lots of us.
By "us" I mean women whose partners are ill, dead, or dying, women who are going through hell each day as they watch their partner suffer or as they do what they can to live in the fog of grief. I realized way too late that the tragedy is not that there are so many of us who have stories to tell that the literary market will be saturated. No. It's that there are too many of us who have stories to tell, which means that so many of us are living these lives. I finally emerged from my jealous, intimidated, insecure stupor and remembered embarrassingly late that any extra ounce of energy that we warriors may have should be spent not on envy or feeling defeated, but instead on lifting each other up, in our common story, in our writing, in our lives.
Tonight I'm going to a local bookstore to hear you speak, something that I can do because we live in the same town. I'm going there to learn from you, to support you, to be part of your loyal tribe. I'm going there refreshed, having gotten off my chest in the form of this letter the unflattering, unhelpful, embarrassing, childish feelings that have been swirling around in my negative space. Is it scary to put out into the world these true confessions? Absolutely. Was it the right thing to do? Well, a wise woman that I highly respect and support once said in reference to a book she wrote, "...for people who aren’t sure if they’re saying or doing the right thing (you’re not, but nobody is)."
See you tonight Nora,