The Stories Behind the Story By Jane Shemilt

The Stories Behind the Story By Jane Shemilt

Almost everything I saw in general practice I had seen in my own kitchen: with five children I’d coped with my share of colicky babies, then the sudden terrifying childhood illnesses that come and go so quickly they don’t even have a name. Accidents in plenty: falling down the stairs, off our home-made zip wire, off bikes, into frozen puddles, noses and fingers have been broken, cars have been crashed. I’ve steristripped wounds and when one son dislocated his shoulder being dragged by a sibling, my husband put it back on the sitting-room floor. One of my children ate Granny’s heart tablets because it looked like a Smartie, another swigged a bottle of Calpol in its entirety. Later, teenage angst and ageing grandparents coincided: when patients came to me with the complaint of being tired all the time, even before I requested the appropriate blood tests, I could empathise completely. I knew exactly how it felt to be so tired that even talking to your spouse was difficult and how much you would have to forgive and be forgiven. The bedrock of home life eased me into general practice and, later, helped me write Daughter.

The narratives in general practice come from the heart; they can be told so quickly you almost miss them or take so long it’s easy to lose the thread; as Jenny did in Daughter. Everyone’s stories are unique but the themes that emerged were similar and some of them found their way into the book some of them were actually why the book was written.

Inevitably grief and loss are woven into many stories; sometimes they become the story itself.

There is the grief that can be pinned down to a specific loss, often overwhelming: the loss of a child, from a rapidly progressive and untreatable condition, is sideswiping, parents take on the dazed look of wounded soldiers in battle who have lost everything. The wife or husband who dies leaving behind the empty chair in an empty room, in a life that has become utterly blank. Others losses can be unexpected: the loss of femininity a woman feels after a mastectomy or a hysterectomy; or unpredictable: the man who has lost his piece of mind with the sudden onset of untreatable ringing in his ears.

There were losses less easy to define but still devastating: depression, nameless, often profound, can destroy jobs, marriages, lives. Even if the cause can be found, the treatment is difficult. In the practice where I worked, we often saw immigrants; mothers with young children who had suffered multiple dimensions of loss. Isolated from their networks of family, friends, the community, and unable to communicate, these women wanted to go home, but of course that wasn’t possible.

The stories go on, until you realise almost everyone carries loss of some kind.

But the story that really interested me was the story beyond this, not the loss as much as the resilience; the way people carried on. How could those parents for example, crippled by the loss of their beloved child, continue their lives, continue buying bread, putting out the rubbish and walking the dog? How does the widow or widower manage day after day after day? How does that work, I used to ask myself. How is the seemingly impossible achieved by so many people? Is it because they have to, because they look after others and their lives don’t permit escape, or because the alternatives were too difficult? Or was it that over time they got stronger, and though the loss didn’t change, it became easier to carry? In Daughter, I wanted to write a book that would explore loss and look at how it is that we carry on. Jenny, the protagonist, loses almost everything that defines her: family, marriage and career and yet she carries on.

But although that fascinated me, I knew I needed a plot to drive my story. I wanted to explore deeply but I wanted to make my reader turn over the pages too. For that I looked to the other part of my life, the most precious part, my own family, and then I played the game of What If. What if one of the most important people in my life vanished without a trace? How would that feel? What would I do? It already felt familiar, what mother hasn’t waited for a child to come home and as the hours tick by allowed those irrational fears to begin? This was the start of another kind of exploration, which meant exploring beneath the surface, far from safety, deeply into the unknown. This was hard work because Jenny’s story isn’t mine and nor are her children; this time I was in the territory of my imagination, learning how to handle the wonderful, tricky power of making it up.