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Saving It

During her last days, Mom began saying nothing but “save it.” For some weeks she’d had difficulty finding the words to complete sentences; but now it was only one sentence, two words—“save it.” Hour by hour, sometimes repeated end-on-end in a near whisper like a mumbled prayer or mantra; sometimes a stare-in-your-face exclamatory, “SAVE IT!”

What needed saving? Her life? We got her what she said she wanted – more tests, chemo, nursing, trips to the emergency room. My brother? Wouldn’t she have said “save him”? We asked about a spectrum of possessions, old documents, lost friends and family. She shook her head no, and just said again, “save it.”

About all we could save was the memory of that refrain, “save it,” that will forever mystify and haunt us. There was something we missed, something she wanted us to know or understand. Something now lost.

Still seeking the answer, I’m learning from care-giving friends, hospice nurses, airplane seatmates, and nearly anyone with a timely perspective, that countless stories get buried in silence, notwithstanding listeners aching to hear them

Whys

There are as many stories as storytellers— which is to say, everybody. The elderly, both familied and unfamilied, certainly have tales at risk of being lost forever; nevertheless, familiarity may engender shyness or shielding instincts. Often overlooked, younger folks may have stories untold for want of opportunity, audience, encouragement, means of expression or other resource. Some may be “secrets”—a life trauma (the wounded vet) or triumph (the teenage cancer survivor); an unfulfilled dream or unrequited relationship (the talented grade-schooler eclipsed by her busy and famous mom).

Most storytelling seems to be therapeutic, whether intended or not. Other stories may be just a thank-you unsaid, a poem smoldering, a “gee I wish” unfulfilled, a getting in the last word. Virtually everyone harbors some “whew!”, “ahah!”, “yup”, or “amen” tale:

Whew! Many of us have felt our hair bristle, had some close-call with danger or illness or accident, and recognized the God, faith, guardian angel, friend, Samaritan, or serendipity that helped us survive intact or improved.

Ahah! Life’s pathways are littered with wonders, self discoveries, surprises, insights, unanticipated meetings and connections that may only later reveal themselves entertaining or instructive for others and thereby justify the sharing.

Yup. Learning—whether via parents, schooling, work, or life events—instills beliefs and moral affirmations around which our passions and efforts rally. As do teachers, people may feel compelled to share what they know and value to inspire, persuade, or guide others.

Amen. Though many people feel intimidated by thoughts of finality and death, postponing acknowledgement only risks never being heard. At 20, just out of Notre Dame, I felt compelled to document my last wishes and messages, divvying up my limited treasures and affirming the people I considered important. Wills, “ethical” or material, are legacies that monument one’s days and accomplishments and dreams. They can offer family and friends thanks for past blessings, encouragement for ongoing efforts, and hopes for the future. Delivered to the living, the note of forgiveness, affection or explanation may comfort both the donor and the beneficiary. And even a message left on a gravestone can provide closure and release from years of anger or pain or emptiness.

Who?

Once the intention is recognized, how to proceed? Who is to be the beneficiary of “com-memoration” (recollection shared)? Of course there are current relationships, kids and kin. Often however, golden-sagers seem reticent (or perhaps burned out) from communicating with their first line of progeny and prefer to skip a generation to grandchildren. 

Another potential audience may be someone from the past, a faded friendship, former colleague, lost love, unmet hero. Alumni, for example, have a built-in audience ready to share and remember the people and events that once brought them together or shaped their lives. When the story is essentially a historical perspective or time capsule of events and characters, the audience may be even broader— that nebulous “general public”.

Because some messages or revelations may be sensitive for the historian as well as identifiable parties, delivery must perhaps be anonymous or via intermediary (magazine; audio/video tape recording; a bequest relayed by the lawyer-confidant).

How?

As English 101 has drilled us (echoed by “Quinnie” et al.) the form must fit the function. The message and audience— but most particularly the storyteller— must determine the fitting means. Is the style to be documentary (actual artifacts or photographs); historical (journal, witness testament); narrative (auto/biographic or fictional tale); or evocative (poetry, art, music)? What medium comes naturally? Words, visual expression, sound, dramatization, or some combination such as audiotaped diary, annotated photo album, or …?

When? 

The critical issue is initiation and momentum. Better late than never. Use it or lose it. Save it! So many lives in shadow, deserving the sun. There’s a mission there for those of us who can help “save it”: to hear accurately, understand thoroughly, express appropriately, and appreciate fully. So that whatever someone’s “IT” may be, it gets saved. Even our own.

Susan (Rakauskas-’68) Larson is a writer of technical and educational materials as well as an editor/personal historian helping people “find the write words.”