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CIRQUE

Gretchen Brinck

Editing Leota On page 160 of my friend Leota’s manuscript, I read something that surprised me more than any of the previous unusual scenes: Unremembered moments floated to the surface. Suddenly I smelled fresh-dug earth. I was holding my mother’s hand and staring down at my shiny new patent-leather shoes as we stood beside the grave of my nine-month-old sister. I was barely two . . . . “Oh, wow!” I whispered. The book had presented several episodes of Leota and others kneeling on mattresses and beating stacked phone books with hoses, which loosened painful memories and enabled participants to overcome pain and rage. “Mat therapy” was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ version of primal scream, “A method of psychotherapy in which patients relive traumatic early childhood experiences and express resulting painful feelings, sometimes by loud crying or screaming.” Until page 160, Leota’s mat therapy scenes dealt with reliving her emotions when her ex-husband beat her and when a lover drowned. No trace of repressed childhood memories had appeared until now. Though surprised, I believed the graveside scene. Its vivid sensory details -- smelling fresh dirt, looking at her shoes, holding her mother’s hand -- are things a small child would notice. Leota’s next words added more authenticity: Great waves of guilt crashed over me. How could I have forgotten this baby sister? I fought to breathe. In my mind, I shouted, Of course you forgot! You were only two! The graveside scene would reappear later in a turning point I found impossible to understand. It would be one of many times while editing Leota’s book that I really needed to talk with her. We’d last spoken three months earlier in a peaceful hospice room whose doors opened onto a patio bordered by a flower garden. I jerked a heavy chair to

Leota’s bedside and fussed around shoving it into place. “Comfortable yet?” she teased. She hadn’t lost her sardonic humor, but her hollow eyes and bony cheeks told me she had little time left. I sat as close to her as the bulky chair permitted. After her one joke, she tried to make conversation but had trouble following the thread. “We don’t have to talk,” I said, so we sat in silence, holding hands. She died two days later. Many people loved Leota. My own relationship with her evolved gradually through the five years we knew each other. In summer 2010, at 68, I’d retired “to devote myself to writing” and moved from California to a small Arizona city loaded with writers and artists. When I joined an organization called Professional Writers of Prescott, one of its officers, Leota, was assembling critique groups. To discuss that, we met at The Wild Iris, a charming coffee shop within walking distance of my home. We shared our writing histories. She said she’d suffered strokes that left her unable to read or write. During her five-year recovery, she took creative writing classes though she felt foolish and incompetent. One of her instructors persistently reassured her that she was gifted and original. Leota kept working at it and was able to become a clear thinker and a writer whose non-fiction pieces were being published in various journals. Her ability to overcome such severe obstacles impressed me greatly. I told her about my short stories published in obscure journals during the eighties and my true crime book The Boy Next Door which was published commercially in 1999. After I gave her a copy, she never stopped telling everyone that I was “The Real Deal.” Embarrassed, I countered, “So are you!” Mutual admiration led us to share secrets and offer personal as well as writing advice over coffee and lunches. Then she invited me to join her “Saturday Group,” meaning a few writers who’d been critiquing each other’s work for several years. Often at these meetings, I heard her present chapters of the memoir she was writing. It focused largely on her work with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose 1968 best seller On Death and Dying revolutionized how therapists and medical professionals deal with that issue. As a medical social worker, I’d followed the Kubler-Ross philosophy. Until hearing Leota’s chapters, I hadn’t known that KublerRoss had also held conferences in which she conducted “mat therapy.”

Cirque, Vol. 7 No. 1  

A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim

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