Reading Charlotte’s Web

Reading Charlotte’s Web

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Reading Charlotte’s Web

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

Anaïs Nin

I spent the critical five years following my breast-cancer odyssey inspiring other women. I’d written a book that seemed to move people, and I was invited to speak at luncheons, fundraisers and celebrations all over the country. I’d dress up in my high heels and stockings, my skirts and jackets, wearing the fancy clothes like a shield against the thousands of stories that looked up at me from the audience. You can have my story, I was saying from the stage, but I don’t really want yours in return.

People would rush up to me after my presentations wanting to tell tales of gloriously long survival or gut-wrenching death. I became expert at tuning the mout. Your sister died? I’m so sorry. Your mother survived? I’m so glad. You’ve just been diagnosed? Hang in there. I’d say the same platitudes over and over again, not connecting, not engaging, not wanting to be part of the masses of women fighting this disease.

There was only one kind of story that pierced my armor like an arrow. I had been diagnosed when my children were three and six, and the only stories that I really heard during that entire period of time, the only ones that had any true resonance with me, were stories about young mothers who had died. The whole idea of it—how unfair, how terrifying, how harrowing, how awful—made me, the speech-giver, speechless.

How could anyone bear to die when their children were so young? What, exactly, would you do? How, exactly, would you proceed? My ears became greedy for these details, even though the immediate danger of death was passed for me. I wanted to know, and if anyone was willing to speak, I was ready to hear. I heard stories of young mothers who had written letters to their children before they died, made videos to record their life stories, even secured wives for their husbands. But I never heard exactly what I needed. I never heard exactly what I might do.

Then one day, I had just finished a speech in front of an audience of nearly one thousand people in Anchorage, Alaska. I made my way through the sea of survivors and was sitting at a table signing books and repeating my mantras . . . I’m so sorry, I’m so glad, hang in there . . . when a woman approached the table and told me her sister had recently died, leaving her to raise two little girls.

I froze. I had two little girls.

“What,” I asked, as if it were the most natural thing to say to a stranger, “did your sister do in the end?”

The woman in front of me smiled. “She read her children Charlotte’s Web.”

Tears sprang to my eyes and to this woman’s, too. I pictured her sister propped up in bed, her little girls snuggled next to her, the room darkened against the day and the night. I heard her voice— raspy, exhausted, desperate and strong—spinning the tale of love, loyalty and loss, and of the imperative for children to go out into the world and make their way. She sounded wise to me, this ghostly stranger.

“That,” I said to the sister before me, “is exactly what I would do, too.”

Jennie Nash

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