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The Van Angels

from Shenandoah


           It has been years since that August day, long enough for a lesser story to have faded, or to have outlived my need to tell it. That happens with most stories. Time dilutes them. We hold onto them for as long as we need them, then let them go. Other stories bear down on memory, gaining momentum with each year that passes. I’d hoped that this one would go away on its own, because for some reason I don’t fully understand, I didn’t want to tell it--and still resist its telling, even as I write these words. Why the hesitation? Maybe I’m afraid of losing the story, or, more precisely, of the story losing its hold on me. Survivors of trauma often testify to the power of storytelling. In the act of speaking, they say--or painting, sculpting, composing, or other creative act--the events are transformed. But transformation is a form of loss.

           Maybe I’m also afraid of telling it too soon. A Seneca Indian saying warns against telling a story before it’s ready to be told: “The bees will come and sting your lips.” Stories need time to ripen, and we need time to reflect upon their meaning, or, if meaning eludes us, time in which to explore their mysteries. And if we choose to tell our stories as nonfiction rather than as fiction, our task comes with an additional burden. Nonfiction almost always demands a reliable narrator: You need to believe that I’m not just making this up. I wish I were. I have, in fact, tried several times to create characters that vaguely resemble my niece and me, then strap them into a jeep and start the fictional engine. But I keep coming back to the facts, the story as it was given to me.

           My mother, who is wise and discreet in dealings of the heart, tried to teach me early on the value of keeping one’s own counsel. “Some people won’t believe you,” she’d say. “Or they’ll think you’re crazy, that such things couldn’t possibly happen.”  The year before I was born, she had experienced something that many say could not possibly happen. Until I wrote about her experience and published it in an essay, only a few people knew that while giving birth to a child who would die three days later, my mother had entered the tunnel that has now become a staple element in movie-of-the-week plots, complete with dazzling halo at tunnel’s end and the feeling of being tugged between two worlds, then the release of being pulled, almost against her will, back into life....


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The Van Angels
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