After the shock, learning how to cherish

June 01, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

"Inside an examining room at Mercy Hospital, the doctors told us they had found a brain tumor on the right side of Jim's head. It would change everything we had ever known." Just how the tumor would change things is the subject of Ellen Uzelac's pain-wracked memoir, "Lost & Found: A Journey Through Grief."

Ms. Uzelac is a former reporter for The Sun. Her memoir describes her husband's and her mother's battles with cancer, and how those around them were affected. The book's title calls it a journey through grief. Although the book is full of grief, it is not bleak; as Ms. Uzelac describes it: "Grief isn't a detour. It's a path."

I write this review having walked the same path. Several days ago, I also sat in Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center -- outside an examining room -- waiting for a dear friend who was being told that she had a tumor and that this circumstance would change her life. Several years ago, I sat waiting for my father under similar circumstances.

So when Ms. Uzelac writes, "Nothing like serious illness and death forces us to examine the contents of our heart," I understand. I am examining the contents of my heart. My thoughts about this book (in which Ms. Uzelac undertakes a similar examination) will be colored by those contents.

But I'm not alone. Grief binds people together just as much as love. Grief, Ms. Uzelac writes, is the mirror of love. Look in the mirror to see them both. Reading this memoir is like looking in that same mirror.

"What struck me is how ordinary we all are," she writes. "I was humbled by the thought that this had happened to so many other people -- that this ache that was gnawing through each of us at the table had claimed so many other families."

For Ms. Uzelac, the ache began Dec. 8, 1986, when her husband, Jim Thomas, an editor at The Sun, collapsed and was taken to Mercy: "I sat on the edge of the trim hospital bed, staring blindly at the large wooden crucifix in the sterile hallway. . . . I felt forsaken, alone, and strangely out of breath. It seemed like the air had been sucked out of the room. . . . Brain tumor. Brain tumor. Oh Jesus, brain tumor, I recited to myself. . . ."

The ache continued, as several years later Ms. Uzelac's mother was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus: "Mother looked like she had been in a street fight -- and lost. Her face was swollen, and someone had written "DON'T MOVE" across her nose on a strip of tape attached to the plastic tube that was sucking out the green gastric juices from her stomach."

Now, nearly seven years later, the hurting has stopped. But the grief continues. Ms. Uzelac's husband died May 29, 1987, six months after he was diagnosed; her mother lives. Yet, Ms. Uzelac writes, "Grief pushes me still to explore this day, this moment. It has taught me that this moment is all that I am certain of having."

It has taught her other things, too, such as the meaning of love. The book has an almost indescribable warmth to it. Some of the most moving passages occur as you watch Ms. Uzelac care for her husband and mother: "During those days, I massaged Mother's legs, gave her bed baths, carried her to the toilet and sprayed her hair with the same dry shampoo I had used on Jim. Mother practically purred when I rubbed her scalp with her pink hairbrush.

"It is odd that something so brittle as a life-threatening illness should create such tenderness among its attendants, but as my family watched over Mother, a language of cherishing returned. . . ."

This book is written in such a language.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Lost & Found: A Journey Through Grief"

Author: Ellen Uzelac

Publisher: WRS Publishing

Length, price: 140 pages, $16.95

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