A Moment Seared in My Mind

Category: Crafting Life Stories

Crafting Life Stories is a memoir-writing workshop designed to help people discover and tell the stories only they can tell – and to do so in a supportive environment that encourages even beginning writers. With a background in journalism and fiction, instructor Joan Motyka offers journalistic tools and literary techniques to help people explore the significance of people, places, and events in their lives. Using readings, prompts and writing assignments, she helps students draw stories from memory, organize them into a narrative and polish them through revision.

Joan Motyka is a writing coach and former longtime New York Times editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Westchester Review and other publications. She has been leading memoir writing workshops in Westchester and New York City since 2007.

These are some of the stories written by students in her classes at Greenwich Library.


“Mom, can you come here for a minute?”

I followed my daughter’s voice and found her standing in front of the large well-lit mirror of her bathroom.  She had rolled her shirt up to expose her two newly formed breasts.  With her head tilted to one side and her gaze quizzically fixated on her reflection in the mirror, she asked:  “What do you think?  Do they look even?”

Though surprised at her question, I tried my best to match her forthrightness, and so I looked both at her reflection in the mirror and then directly at her bared breasts. Realizing that Lisa’s concern may well be justified, I wanted nothing more at that moment than to tap into my allotment of motherly wisdom before I answered.  I hoped I could manage both honesty and support in my response.  And so I hesitated and my hesitation defied my intent.  Ultimately, it was Lisa who found the right words to fill the gaping moment.

“Oh, well.  It’s a work in progress,” she said as she pulled her shirt down with a shrug and a small smile and stepped out of the bathroom.

Two months earlier Lisa had received a diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of thirty-nine, and now standing in her bathroom, I was once again finding myself the beneficiary of her strength and humor. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Initially, it was believed that Lisa would only need a lumpectomy on her right breast.  Subsequent tests, however, revealed not one but numerous cancerous sites scattered throughout both breasts. Three highly regarded doctors concurred that a bilateral mastectomy was the proper treatment.

As the diagnosis evolved over the course of the summer, I saw our family as reluctant voyagers, traveling to an ever-darkening destination, at times at a breakneck pace. While forced to learn and use the language of this strange, unsolicited land, we also found ourselves using familiar words in previously unfathomable combinations – daughter, wife, sister, cancer.  I wanted desperately to change direction.

Fortunately for us, Lisa’s optimism and clear-mindedness served as our guide.  “Listen carefully to the doctors, ask good questions, make informed decisions and trust in God,” was her mantra throughout the summer.

I, on the other hand, had with fear and anger questioned God’s wisdom.  “Really, God?  Lisa? Why not me?  I’m old.  Let me be the one undergoing core needle biopsies, remaining still during MRIs, enduring over seven hours of surgery, guiding family members through procedures of post operative care, waiting patiently for drains, reminiscent of hand grenades, to be removed and after scheduling trips to the plastic surgeon to inflate tissue expanders.

While I berated God, Lisa moved in a forward direction with grace, creating for us multiple images of, as well as lessons in, courage, faith, dignity and kindness: smiling and waving to us upon leaving the recovery room, mischievously sharing a naughty little video of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon while still recuperating, wincing only slightly when drains were finally removed, supporting fellow patients and so inspiring Heather, the plastic surgeon’s P.A., that when asked at Thanksgiving what she was grateful for, Heather responded, “Lisa’s presence in my life” – a prayer our family says “Amen” to each and every day.

-Anonymous