Telling Stories to Help You Through Hard Times




by Carol Orsborn

When my dad was in the hospital, seriously ill, there was something simple about my love for him. I knew what I wanted from him: I wanted him to get better and let life go on the way it had been before. I wanted him to tell me what a good daughter I have been: that the good outweighed the bad and that all is forgiven. I wanted him to admit to his shortcomings and to assure me that they were not meant to sting. I wanted to hear him sing his songs again. In fact, I didn’t want to miss a thing. Suddenly, I was full of questions about his parents, his childhood, his training as a physician during hard times. When he was alert, I begged him to tell me again how he eloped with mother. Remind me of the words to the poem he wrote for Harrison High and the story he used to tell me about the lions and the chrysanthemums when I was a child.

Dad loves to tell stories almost as much as he loves to sing. They are often the same stories, told so often they have become family ritual. After some time in the hospital had already slowly passed, the physician decided there was no other option than to operate on Dad. I did not expect a story from Dad. Neither did I think Dad had any new stories to tell. But I was surprised on both counts.

Despite his discomfort and the effort it obviously took, Dad wanted to share a story with me about something that had happened to him during World War II. Stationed in the Philippines, far away from home, he had bonded deeply with his companions. Medics, sent to care for those injured and ailing on the front lines, he and his companions lived through dangerous times together.

Then, for no apparent reason, there was a lull in the fighting. Shortly after, a dispatch arrived, offering the medics much-needed R&R‚. The boys were free to take the day and go to swim in a lake nearby. Dad readied himself for the celebration, but soon a second dispatch arrived. This one contained orders that Dad, only, was to be shifted later that afternoon from his companions to a new battalion many miles away. He would have to say goodbye to his friends while he awaited transport to arrive to take him to his new assignment. His friends hugged Dad an emotional farewell then boarded the company’s Jeep. Dad stood there a good long time, listening to their laughter and singing fade into silence, feeling alone and abandoned. Every moment he waited for his transport to come felt like an eternity. And of course, the transport was hours late. When the driver finally arrived, he apologized, explaining that there had been an accident and the road had been closed. “A Jeep, carrying a group of medics, careened off the road and over the side of the cliff into the lake below. All had been instantly killed.” Dad paused to take a deep breath, then went on to finish his story quietly.

“I would have been on that Jeep, having nothing more serious on my mind than going swimming with my buddies at the lake.” I know what Dad was saying to me. He did not explicitly use the words “Life is precious” or “Every day has been a gift.” But these words, and more, were in the squeeze of his hand before he drifted off into sleep.

As I stood there beside him, thinking about his story, my mind wandered back to the sunny afternoon over forty years ago when Dad had run beside my wobbly two-wheeler, teaching me to ride. As long as his hand made contact with my arm, the bike stayed upright and I felt like I was riding on my own. But the moment he withdrew his hand, the bike would suddenly careen and crash. Eventually, of course, I pedaled faster than even he could run. Until this moment, I had not remembered the last time I felt his hand on my shoulder; I had only remembered the first time I took off down the road holding strong and steady. I had taken so much for granted in my life. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for it all. There were no words to communicate my feelings, so we just kept on telling stories and sharing memories — until the very last moment they came to get Dad and roll him away to surgery.

The stories and memories we shared were simple and sweet, And yet, just being together — sometimes sharing our thoughts, sometimes sitting in silence, some kind of completion was taking place that went far beyond the words that were being spoken.

Perhaps this is something of what Ivan Pavlov, the father of behavioral psychology, experienced while he lay in bed, consumed by fever. Before the discovery of antibiotics, few held hope for his recovery from a life-threatening infection. Seemingly delirious, he instructed his assistant to go down to the river near his home and return with a bucket of sun-warmed mud. Humoring Pavlov, the aid duly brought the bucket of mud to his bed. Shaky and weak, the great psychologist dipped his hands into the bucket and started to play with the oozy brown clay. Within a few hours, Pavlov’s fever had broken.

After his recovery, Pavlov was asked to explain his odd behavior. He answered with a story about his childhood. He explained that when he was young, he had often gone down to the river with his mother. While she did the laundry, he enjoyed playing near her with the clay of the riverbank. As he played in the mud, she would tell him wonderful stories.

The mud he had asked to be brought to his bed represented the time in his life when he felt most peaceful. As he lay ill in bed, he reasoned that if he could recreate this favorite time in his life, he would give his body the best chance to recover. His healing began the exact moment he thought to request the mud.

On the good days, Dad’s stories and my memories wove together in a tapestry of love that was palpable. Regardless of the prognosis, there was something deeply healing about what we shared. When I was with him, time slowed down. A cup of coffee became a sacrament. Flowers sent by family friends recreated Eden. The nurse’s gentle humor was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Even the orderly who emptied the bags of fluid did so within our sacred space. Without trying, the stories and memories we shared carried with them healing, love and resolution.

From Nothing Left Unsaid by Carol Orsborn. Copyright © 2001 by Carol Orsborn. Excerpted by arrangement with Conari Press. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-685-9595 or click here.