Publication Bio

 

Personal Biography

hen I was a few weeks old, my father returned from World War II where he’d been stationed in Italy, fighting in the Apennine and Po Valley Campaigns. A newspaper reporter for the New York Herald Tribune before entering the service, he’d ghost written many of Roosevelt’s speeches. During the war, he wrote and published a military newspaper; he also led a battalion of men who swept the fields for land mines. Many of his troops were killed, and he was wounded, winning the purple heart and a bronze star for bravery. A year after his discharge from the Army, Dad experienced flashbacks and terrible nightmares, what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the same time, my mother suffered a recurrence of the TB that had plagued her in the 1930s. My parents decided I’d be safer in a more stable environment and so, when I was a year old, they sent me to live with their best friends in another state.

At an age when most babies are reluctant to leave their mother’s arms, I suddenly had a new, if temporary, family. I have one photograph from that time: my surrogate mother is lovely, her brown hair rolled in a chignon. Her daughter leans close by in a velveteen dress, and her son stands close to her knee. I am perched on her other knee. There is an autumnal tree in the background. Everyone smiles but me; I lean forward, scowling, as if I want to wriggle out of her grasp and pass through the lens. I have no conscious memory of this time. Everything is darkness.

I didn’t see my parents again until I was eighteen months old. (Had I forgotten them? Did I believe that my temporary family was my real one, complete with two siblings?) I recall the remainder of my childhood as magical, loving, and difficult—after that early separation, I lived with a shifting sense of place and a diffuse feeling of longing. When I was seven or eight, my father encouraged my writing attempts. He knew that we shared an “imagination of disaster.” Writing about people and events, he said, would provide a way to understand and hold on to them.

Now, when I write about my experiences with patients, I focus on reality, on what is actual and tangible. But always, somewhere in the background, there remains that childhood underbelly of fragility and loss, like the multiple, subtle tones in the scent of perfume. I’m still not quite convinced that those we love and care for won’t simply disappear.

That early separation from my parents and the various childhood experiences it informed gave rise to what poet Stanley Kunitz calls “key images,” recurrent ideas and themes from childhood that surface in creative writing, especially in poems. Perhaps my key images also played a role in my choice of a caregiving profession as well—because eventually, nursing and writing merged: poetry and prose became a perfect place in which the act of caring becomes a way of keeping, and the mysteries of our world can be revealed in the sensual reality of physical detail.

 

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