on beauty, death, and the power of a notebook

When I was 23, I bought a notebook.

An ordinary red spiral-bound notebook. And my creative life began.

I had just left the home of a mother who had, earlier that week, buried her toddler daughter. I was a teacher and case manager for young children with disabilities, and though I spent most of my days with late talkers and preemies, occasionally I served a terminally ill child. *Shelby’s odds were not great when I met her, but she was a happy baby, and the spark of life she carried left us all hopeful for her future. For over a year I’d sat in her living room alongside therapists and her mother, helping her learn to sit up, clap her hands, use basic sign language. I loved that little girl, and I loved her mother, who was as upbeat about her daughter’s health as she was devoted to her care.

But hope alone can not make a defective heart beat, and eventually Shelby’s little body just couldn’t keep up. Shelby’s mother was my last appointment of the day. I needed to see her one last time, drop off the card the therapy team had all signed and close her file with our agency. When you work with children with special needs, occasionally children pass away. But the final home visit never got any easier.

I walked into her living room for the last time, and I was struck by its emptiness.  There was no baby blanket spread on the floor, no light-up toys in the corner, no oxygen tank humming softly.  And her mother was as empty as the room.  Shelby had been an only child and a sick child. For over two years, every single aspect of her mother’s life had revolved around caring for her little girl. Now her child was gone, and she had no baby to fill her hours. The house was too clean, too quiet.  Her hands were fidgeting, constantly reaching for something else to busy them.  I sat with her for a while, listening to the story of Shelby’s last days, because I knew her mother needed to tell it. Then I hugged her and said good-bye quickly, hoping I could make it to my car before I started to cry. I drove away, weeping more for her mother than Shelby. Shelby was at peace, no longer fighting against her body’s frailties. She was finally comfortable and free. But her mother … well, her mother was lost, and who knew if she would ever find her way again.

A few minutes later I gathered my composure, stopped by a drug store, and bought a notebook.

Because I didn’t want to forget.

Shelby’s spark of life, the thrill of teaching her new things, the emptiness of her mother’s eyes … I didn’t want to forget any of it. I was invited into a sacred part of this family’s life, first by helping them care for their child, then by sharing, even for a moment, in their grief. I wanted to write it all down, the beauty and hope and sadness and holiness. I wanted to capture the beauty I saw on paper.

But first, I had to do something important.

In fact, it was one of the most important things I would ever do. If I was ever going to create anything, if I was ever going to share my experiences with others in any sort of meaningful way, I first had to let go of my fear of failure. I had to stop trying to measure up, to reject the idea that perfection was the only acceptable standard. If I was ever going to create anything good, I first had to be willing to be bad at it, too.

As a child and young teenager I had always enjoyed writing. But when I was sixteen I read something that paralyzed my creativity. Emily Dickinson, it seems,  only published 7 poems in her life. Her remaining volumes of poetry were all found in her home after she died. When I read that bit of history as a teenager, I thought, what if I die, and someone finds what I’ve written? What if they hate it? Or, worse, what if they PUBLISH it?  That same day I’d cleaned out all of my old journals and files, and for the next seven years I only wrote what was required by a teacher. I was so afraid of being exposed as a failure, I stopped trying altogether.

But now Shelby was gone, and the sacredness of the moment I’d just experienced outweighed my fear. I realized beauty mattered more. I could spend my life avoiding failure, or I could spend my life experiencing beauty. God gave us sacred moments to draw us to Him, and to deny the power of those moments was, for me, to deny God himself. And for what? To avoid a little embarrassment?

What a waste.

So I bought a notebook, an ordinary red spiral bound notebook. I took it home, and, sitting on my porch, I opened it to the first blank page. I started to write. “A mother without a child is the emptiest, saddest person in the world. And today I looked in her eyes …”

And my creative life began.

(Today’s photo was taken by the beautifully talented Jesse.  You can find more of her work here.)

Stephanie Gates

I am Stephanie - mom to four beautifully rambunctious little kids and wife to a guy who still makes me smile. I recently moved to Colorado, where I am falling in love with the mountains and the Anglican church. If you have ever abandoned religion in search of faith, ever had to leave your hometown to find your home, or ever climbed to the very tip-top of a jungle gym to rescue an overzealous toddler, come sit next to me.We'll talk.

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About Stephanie Gates

I am Stephanie - mom to four beautifully rambunctious little kids and wife to a guy who still makes me smile. I recently moved to Colorado, where I am falling in love with the mountains and the Anglican church. If you have ever abandoned religion in search of faith, ever had to leave your hometown to find your home, or ever climbed to the very tip-top of a jungle gym to rescue an overzealous toddler, come sit next to me. We'll talk.

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