“You really need to write that book Denise.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone tell me this, I would have enough money to fund my next international adventure. My response until now has always been a smile and a polite, “Maybe someday…” But when my sister Mary Jane asked me to write, suddenly writing became a requirement – a necessary act of love I vowed to complete as a gift to her and my other sisters. To help you understand this, I need to tell you about my sisters, and how being part of our sisterhood has shaped my life. This may be a long story and I will do my best to keep you engaged as I get to the answers to the questions of why I have decided to start my blogging journey and what I hope to accomplish along the way.
I am the youngest of six daughters. My identity, my place in the world, has always been tied to being “number six,” the baby, the youngest “DiNoto girl,” younger sister of Susan, Mary Jane, Donna, Sandy and Caroline, one of Sam and Dolly’s daughters.
No matter where I go on earth, even to Australia, I have been approached and asked some form of the question, “Are you a DiNoto?” I’m not kidding about Australia. When I left my small hometown at the age of sixteen as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student I was thrilled to break away from the pack and ecstatic at the chance to be my own person, free from the others. I settled into the seat for my sixth and final plane on the long journey to Tasmania only to hear a man say, “Excuse me – are you Denise DiNoto?” It was a Rotarian from the club hosting me for the next year. He knew I was taking the same flight to the island and had thoughtfully changed his seat to the one next to mine so he could accompany me on the final leg of my 36 hour trek across the globe. Thankfully, when we write to each other now, we are able to laugh about the look I gave him 24 years ago – a mixture of “Are you KIDDING me?!” and “How on earth does anyone know who I am 14,000 miles away from home?!” Naive sixteen year old me had never considered that even if I wanted to be my own individual person, I would always be tied to a larger clan.
In my adult life, I continue to run into people who know my sisters even when I’m not at home or in New York State. Fifteen years ago I was visiting Donna in Florida and as we entered a store in a Tampa mall we heard, “Well, you never know where you’ll see DiNoto girls!” It was one of Caroline’s high school friends. Sandy and I live in the same area and when we go to events we often joke about who will know more people. She insists I know everyone, but I know she really has more connections. Either way, it is rare for me to introduce myself at an event and not hear, “Are you Sandy’s sister?” Last month, I was out for happy hour with some friends from work and as we started eating, a woman approached me and said, “You’re a DiNoto, right?” She is friends with one of my cousins and had seen “the DiNoto girls” at my uncle’s funeral two years ago.
My sisters are all strong women. This is not a surprise as we come from a line of strong female role models. We are each others loudest cheerleaders, our most honest critics, and sources of unconditional love even when we don’t agree with decisions or actions made by another. When something good happens to one of us, it is a victory celebrated by all. And when tragedy or difficulty hits one of us, it is a wound to all. Our sister network is a source of energy and now grounds me in the certainty of knowing I am part of something larger than me.
When Mary Jane was diagnosed with glioblastoma (malignant brain cancer) in 2010, it was the first time I considered the reality of six becoming five. Thankfully, her husband understood the bond we shared as sisters and welcomed our help, our visits, our calls, and our “sister weekends.” I have a hard time reading “sister emails” written then without breaking down in tears because of the affection expressed so simply by all of us. How fortunate we are to have this network, this blessing of abundant love. How could I ever have wanted to be separate from it?
Mary Jane outlived her original prognosis by several months. Per her wishes, she spent the last week of her life on earth in a local hospice. I was unable to visit her at home, because her house was not wheelchair accessible. I promised her once she went into the hospice, I would visit every day. When her husband called me on December 22, 2011, to tell me it was time for hospice, I left work immediately. Over the next six days, I fed her soup, read to her, held her hand, watched her visit with former students and friends, and got the nurse every time she told me she needed more pain medication. On Christmas Eve we listened to carols as the nursing staff attended to patients. Christmas evening we listened to Handel’s Messiah with our hands clasped, me singing the alto part.
Our last conversation of any length was Friday, December 23. Her husband had just gone home for dinner and we were alone when she said, “Did you know I always wanted to write a book?” She went on to tell me she had always intended to write about our sisters, what it was like to be part of our family, and what she had learned from all of us. I sat with tears streaming down my face, her strong hand clasped in my weak grip, listening to her talk about her writing dreams. Then she asked me to make her a promise.
“You have to do it for me. You have to write it. Promise me you’ll write the book. And stop crying!”
What choice did I have? My older sister, who had shown such courage and strength throughout her cancer journey, who had never asked anything of me in my life and always gave so generously to others, was asking me to share her story, our story, with the world. From her hospice bed. No pressure!
I wiped my tears, and promised I would write the book. She smiled and closed her eyes, squeezing my hand and thanking me.
The next fourteen months I now refer to as “the year of death.” Not only did we lose Mary Jane, but six months later Mary Jane’s husband lost his own cancer battle. We said goodbye to my uncle and our brother-in-law’s father. My best friend’s mother died suddenly, as did my friend who was the CEO of the company where I had just started working. I became a pro at funerals – attending services for another friend’s father, the brother of a college friend, a former colleague, and a mentor from my college years.
I forgot about writing. I was too busy helping others deal with grief, and dealing with my own losses to think about being creative. Then in the spring of 2013, I faced my own health concerns when I learned I had to have gallbladder surgery.
What should have been a routine outpatient procedure ended up as ten days in the hospital, with me unconscious and on life support in the Intensive Care Unit for four of those days. I had developed pneumonia, and the morning I was to be discharged the nurses found me unresponsive and not breathing. My sisters and family gathered once more to sit vigil, this time at my bedside. When I woke from my coma, I saw my sisters gathered around me and knew instinctively I would be alright.
Having been given more time here, knowing there must be a purpose behind my second chance and remembering my promise to Mary Jane, I began to write. At first I tried to journal, an exercise I had always enjoyed and found therapeutic. However, the mild brain damage caused by my reduced oxygen and coma made the physical act of writing difficult. My hand didn’t react quickly enough to the words pouring from my head. I became frustrated when I couldn’t make the pen create the thoughts I wanted to put to paper. I had never used a keyboard for “my writing” but now the computer was the only way for me to capture my thoughts at a pace matching my brain. I have always been an excellent typist and thankfully the fine motor muscles needed for this were still working up to par!
I have always performed better when I have others to hold me accountable, so I registered for a local memoir writing class with the brilliant Marion Roach Smith – The Memoir Project. I have always been comfortable in front of an audience and have performed and spoken in front of people from a young age. Yet I was terrified the first time I had to read my work to the class. I was asked to be vulnerable, to honestly share thoughts and ideas I had kept hidden from the public and only allowed my inner circle to witness. I could share my writing with those I loved, but to share it with strangers?! I thought of Mary Jane, of my promise, and knew facing my fears was necessary for me to fulfill my vow.
One night in class, Marion mentioned Jeff Goins‘ blog. Jeff’s eBook You Are A Writer (So Start Acting Like One) was the kick in the pants I needed to allow myself to declare myself a writer. And writers write (DUH!). I would need to practice writing, and blogging would help me while giving me the accountability and motivation I needed. Someone, somewhere, will see I am blogging. I may or may not know that person, but just knowing someone will receive an email when I hit “publish” is enough to keep me on task.
Now I am part of the Intentional Blogging Challenge, and I am being guided through exercises designed to help me focus my writing and my blog. I mentioned yesterday I find these tasks are overwhelming. I didn’t start this blog with the intention of growing an audience. I’m still writing for me, to develop a writing habit. If others are moved by what I write and enjoy my work, it is such an amazing vote of confidence and more than I ever dreamed would happen.
Right now the answers to the questions I posed way back there in my first paragraph are simple. I started blogging because I view it as good writing practice. I need to allow myself to be a writer and to actually write if I am going to make good on my promise to my sister Mary Jane. I will never write the book I vowed to write if I don’t view myself as a writer, and as I said before, a writer writes!
I hope to clarify my writing voice, to gain discipline and spark some conversations along the way. I only allow myself to look at blog stats once every 2 weeks because I don’t want to get distracted. There will come a time when those statistics matter, when I will care about what is resonating with my readers. I’m not there yet, and I’m grateful those of you who are reading have been patient with me while I explore. I am reading each and every comment – and do my best to reply to all within a timely manner. It’s only fair that I do my share of communicating if I am asking for your input.
Yes, I need to write that book. I promised my sister I would, and a vow between my sisters is sacred, not to be ignored. In the meantime, I will use this blog to continue to share my writing. I wrote this in my first post, and it bears repeating here – thank you for letting me be what I used to be too afraid to be, a writer who shares her writing with others.