Kurt Vonnegut Saved Me – by Laura Barber

Three surgeries, five hospital stays, several months of intravenous food, a digestive system that gave up the ghost. A year off work—a terrible way to win an extended vacation.

And then gradually I was restored—I could walk a block without resting, then two blocks. I could wear clothes, drive a car, put on makeup. I could walk around the mall without a wheelchair. I went back to work.

But my mind was slower to recover. A jar of pasta sauce on a shelf and suddenly I was emptying the ileostomy bag, also mostly liquid with floating chunks of onion and hard-to-identify herbs and spices, trying valiantly to minimize the splashing, the unruly bag tagging on my abdomen, bubble rising to the top, always filthy.

I came back to myself, where I stood frozen, facing the open cabinet. I turned the bottle of sauce the other way.

Hijacked by my most disturbing moments—waking up in a white noise of pain after the first surgery, sadly poking at my plate of Cinnama-sation at Miss Shari’s after the colonoscopy that confirmed my diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.

I wanted to write about it, set it all down, a non-magical Pensieve that could remove these memories one by one and stack them up neatly anywhere but in my own head. But I couldn’t figure out how to start. I kept trying and failing. Every sentence needed to be explained by so many other sentences, and all those paragraphs were so boring, so clinical, so not what I really wanted to say.

Then one Tuesday afternoon I had an idea as I lay resting, thoughts busily whirling in the darkened living room in the ten minutes between my peanut butter and honey sandwich (toasted) and advisory study hall, while the timer ticked, in between thoughts of classes and students and assignments, and I saw clearly how I could write about Crohn’s, hospitals, ileostomy, the last three years. I began writing it in my head, and it sounded compelling and engaging and even, of all things, easy to write. I started a couple of sections in my thoughts, wishing I could cancel my afternoon classes and just start writing.

And the document I started that Saturday morning at the Mad Hat Tea Company was titled “In the Style of Kurt Vonnegut.” It eventually grew to 175 pages. I realized I could tell a story out of order, one vignette at a time, jumping around just as much as I liked—or really, as much as I needed—and it could be beautiful and compelling, and in the end, the whole story would be told. Just like Kurt Vonnegut would do.

This was my first vignette:

“I remember the time I stopped by the principal’s office one afternoon, and another teacher was there, and a student dropped in, too, and she asked me where the ileostomy bag was, and I said, “Right here,” and poked it where it lay on my thigh. I had known I should empty it before running down to see the principal, but I hadn’t, so it was half full, but I didn’t think the lump really showed through my pants. “You can touch it,” I told her, and she poked my leg, but on my knee, so I knew she hadn’t really felt it. “No—right here,” I encouraged, and she tried again. As her finger pushed into the bulging bag of intestinal waste, her face looked startled, and she suddenly seemed embarrassed. I was glad, though, to have somebody take an interest. After she left, the teacher said, “If they ever give me an ostomy, I’ll throw myself off a cliff.” I stood there astonished. Did he mean he thought I’d be better off dead? I felt hot and said nothing.”

I didn’t know how I would know when I was done. I had lists of stories I needed to set down, and week after week, I wrote them, for three years. It was painful, hard to re-read; I often cried while I wrote. But the pressure inside my head lessened. Sometimes the writing seemed beautiful and powerful. One day I wrote the ending, and it was this:

“It gave me a cold feeling inside my arm when the liquid food went in. I had to wrap up in the cozy purple blanket that Chrissy gave me back when I first got sick.

I just realized that that very blanket lies folded neatly beside me right this moment in the salon of our boat. It’s soft and warm, and we use it for bedding, not at home but on the boat. For a while, I avoided even looking at it in the closet because it reminded me of being sick. But now it’s just a blanket again.”

Laura Barber Bio: Laura Barber has written an assortment of free-lance articles, columns, and poems for various publications in Missouri, Colorado, and Washington. She currently teaches high school English at an all-girls’ boarding school in Tacoma, WA, where she occasionally teaches students how to use writing as healing. Her last surgery for Crohn’s was five years ago, and she received an excellent report from her gastroenterologist at her most recent checkup.

INTERVIEW WITH LAURA BARBER

In your essay, you state that you started writing “In the style of Kurt Vonnegut.”  What do you consider the most prominent aspects of his style?

I realized when I saw this question that I knew exactly the salient feature of Vonnegut I intended to imitate, but that it is by no means obvious to anyone else! I also felt suddenly self-conscious to claim to imitate the inimitable, but it was more an act of desperation than a conviction I could live up to his style. The aspect of Vonnegut that suddenly cleared a path into writing for me was his structure. I remember reading my first couple Vonnegut novels in college and thinking partway through, when is he going to start telling the story? Because he kept jumping around from the end to the middle to the beginning and back to the middle. Then I got to the end of the book and realized, Oh, he did tell me the whole story! It just didn’t feel like it because it was so mixed up. I can’t claim to have done it as artfully as Vonnegut, but that day on the couch when I rested in my free period, I suddenly saw that that was the only way I could get my story out. My months of medical trauma were so confusing as I experienced them, and the random moments that kept getting triggered by jars of pasta sauce or wall fans or the movie The Proposal came at me in mixed up order as well. And to tell the story, I couldn’t tell it like a doctor or an omniscient narrator–it was too raw, too personal, too much about the emotion and confusion and not the facts.

What was the first Vonnegut work that you read?  How old were you when you read it, and what was your reaction to it?

I admit, I felt like a poser when I read this question, too.  As much as I am a Vonnegut enthusiast, I don’t gush over him the same way I do, say, Jane Austen. I think the first Vonnegut novel I read was The Sirens of Titan, probably in high school, and I liked it fine but thought he was just a sci fi writer. Then eventually I went back and read a bunch of his books and realized how much more to him there was. The book I loved most was Cat’s Cradle. Then one day I was chatting about that book with a friend of mine who is the smartest person I know. He said, “I’m surprised you like that book so much since it’s so anti-Christian.” I was flummoxed. If it was anti-Christian, I completely missed it. I loved the bumbling genius of Felix Hoenikker and the absurd insidiousness of ice-nine. Suddenly, I felt like I had misunderstood my favorite book.

Do you have a favorite Vonnegut novel or story?

Definitely Slaughterhouse-Five. I’ve taught it several times to freshman, who like that it’s short. Also, it’s packed with time travel and aliens. But I like that there’s so much more to it: “so it goes” and the ingenious structure that seems random but sneakily does fit a traditional narrative arc. And I love to think that just maybe Billy Pilgrim was right and the Tralfamadorian zoo and time travel was all real.

I think possibly the thing I like best about Vonnegut is the combination of his utterly unheroic protagonists who are so relatable combined with the calm, knowing narrative voice that seems to see and understand everything. I find it comforting to read about a character who makes nothing but mistakes being watched over by an omniscient, endlessly tolerant presence.

It seems like a perfect model for the humanism that Vonnegut preached in his own life. I saw him speak once when I was in grad school. He said there is no God, but there are humans watching out for other humans, and there is literature to help us make sense of it all.