Free time! The kids had gone to school and my husband wasn’t back from the U.S. until Thursday. I could do whatever I wanted, which is why I opened the folding chair and set it in front of the glass doors that lead to the backyard. I placed a bottle of coconut water in the holder because that was the only liquid that still tasted good. I put the home phone, my cell and my wig on the sofa right next to me so I didn’t have to get up if the phone rang or someone came to visit and I picked up The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.
The book starts with a three-year-old boiling hot dogs and getting burnt which was strange enough, but as I kept reading, I started feeling uncomfortable. If the story was fiction, I wouldn’t mind but this was a memoir. It was about parents who didn’t know anything about parenting, a mother who was bipolar and obsessed with her painting while the father was an alcoholic who couldn’t hold a steady job.
At times the descriptions were so vivid that I would cringe as if it was happening in front of me. The poverty, the neglect, the abuse – it was a miracle that the children didn’t turn out like their parents, at least most of them. That’s what I liked best about the book, the siblings. They stayed close, helped each other till the very end and never gave up.
One of the most painful parts of the story is when the Walls family moves to their grandparents’ in Welch, West Virginia. The state of the family is so horrific – I couldn’t believe that grandparents and uncles could be so … rotten.
When I came to the part where the kids have nothing to eat except some food with maggots in it and the mother tells them to just pull them out and eat the food, I actually gagged. Once there is nothing in the house to eat and the mother eats a bar of chocolate, all by herself. The last straw for me is when the dad takes Jeanette to the bar and uses her to gamble with his friends.
I shut the book and pushed it away on the sofa. I held my head in my hand, trying to take in what I had read. I took deep breaths to ease the nausea and took some sips of the coconut water.
What was I thinking? I’d been diagnosed with cancer and was now undergoing chemotherapy. My hair was all gone, my nails had turned black and here I was sitting, reading a heart-wrenching memoir of childhood abuse and neglect! I was taking strong medication to stop the nausea from chemo yet reading a book that was causing me to feel like throwing up. Couldn’t I find something better to get my morale up?
There wasn’t much to do during chemotherapy because of my immune system was depleted, as was my energy, so I had pulled out the list of memoirs that I had received from one the workshops done by Brian Henry. The Glass Castle was one of books on that list.
I looked out at the green grass in the backyard and began to think about my family, my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and my in-laws. Each one of them had called me on the phone, on Skype, on Whattsapp to talk to me or had emailed me to check if I was okay. They’d all cried for me and prayed for me. Even though I was alone at home fighting cancer, I wasn’t alone.
What a blessing! My hand reached forward not to the book but to my cell phone and I dialed a number.
“Assalam-o-alaikum,” Sana said, picking up the phone, “Peace be with you, older sister.”
“Walaikum us salaam. Peace be with, you too” I said. “Are you busy?”
“Nothing. I just realized something and wanted you to know. I’m reading this memoir. If you get a chance, read it.”
“Oh yeah, what’s it about?” she asked.
“The author had a terrible childhood with abuse and neglect, and reading it I realized how blessed I am to have a loving and caring family. I can’t thank God enough for all of you. If you ever have any complaint against anyone in the family, just read this book and be grateful.”
We both cried as we talked about our families and compared them to Jeanette’s family.
After, I hung up with Sana, I looked at the sky and said a prayer for Jeanette and her siblings and for my own family. Then I reached for the book to finish reading it and to continue my quest for unknown blessings.
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Shazia Afzal is an elementary and Montessori teacher. She has a very weak stomach and reading uncomfortable graphic material results in nausea. She hopes to write about her cancer journey so that it would be beneficial for others. You can read another of her pieces here.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops, writing retreats, and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Alton, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Ingersoll, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.