Like many people, I remember when ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff was struck by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq in 2006. The handsome husband and father of 4 sustained a severe brain injury that nearly killed him. The story was all over the news for some time. But it was only recently that his wife, Lee Woodruff, came on my radar, first because of an essay she wrote for Real Simple, then because she came to my town to give a talk at a local college.
Partly because I am always eager for a grownup, intellectually stimulating night out — on a college campus, no less! — but mostly because I wanted to hear what this writer and mother had to say, I grabbed a friend and we went. I immediately connected with Lee’s honesty and humor. While she talked a lot about brain injury and recovery, a subject I know little about, she also talked more generally about dealing with a medical crisis and the challenges of being a caregiver when you are also a wife, mother, daughter, etc.
Most of us don’t face a crisis the magnitude of Lee’s. But I think we can all relate on some level to many of her experiences. I know I could. The feelings of helplessness, uncertainty, overwhelm, even guilt. Woodruff talked about the worst things you can say to someone in crisis: “You’re so strong” and “You’re so lucky” are among them. The first one forces the person to maintain a brave face, lest she show weakness or vulnerability and let you down. The second implies, “What are you complaining about? It could be worse. At least your loved one is still alive.”
“Mom guilt” is a big issue for many women, including me. I’ve said before how annoyed I get at the people who urge you to take care of yourself, put on your own oxygen mask first, let the little things go, but really mean only when it doesn’t inconvenience them or cost them anything. People will say “Let me know how I can help,” without considering that having to ask for help is sometimes harder than just doing it yourself or doing without. Lee said how grateful she was for the people who simply dropped off a meal or gave her kids a ride home from soccer practice without being asked.
After I heard her speak, I picked up Lee’s book of essays, Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress. She is also the author of In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, a NYT bestseller she wrote with her husband about his ordeal, as well as a new novel, Those We Love Most, that’s also on the NYT bestseller list.
As an avid reader and writer of essays, I can tell you that the difference between a real writer’s essays and a celebrity who happens to have written some essays is vast. Reading the latter is sort of like having wine and leftover Halloween candy for dinner. (To use a, ahem, hypothetical example.) It may be fun at the time, but afterward you’re left feeling a little sick and craving real sustenance. Whereas a real writer’s essays have layers and depth, and leave you thinking about them for days.
Perfectly Imperfect spans such big subjects as marriage, motherhood, friendship, and loss, and such small ones as costume jewelry, saggy knees, and lame gifts from husbands. Several chapters made me laugh out loud, such as “Mothers and Sons,” in which she describes trying to talk to her teenage son in the car: “Most times it was like being the driver for a mob boss: you kept your head down, didn’t speak until spoken to, and went where you were told to.”
One of my favorite chapters was “Swimming Through It,” about how swimming has always been the author’s refuge and way of coping: “Anytime I want to simply escape life’s gravitational pull, I dive under and open my eyes at the bottom of a pool, pond, or lake and make the world go away. Swimming is my own indulgence, my chance to turn inward and feel connected to another element, the comforting quilt of the water.”
For me, reading has long been one of my own indulgences, which is why I’m always happy to discover a new-to-me writer. I hope you’ll check out Lee’s books, essays, or blog for yourself.