Sponsored by ASA’s Legacy Corps, this is the first story to run from the ASA Storytelling Project, which invites you to reflect on your personal and professional lives, especially as they intersected with aging and ASA, by writing stories. We encourage all ASA members to submit their stories of 250–1,000 words, with a 25–50 word bio, to ASAstorytellingproject@gmail.com.
“Vulnerability is not weakness,” says Brene Brown. “It’s our greatest measure of courage. People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”
A dozen years ago, I listened to a program about caregiving by Gail Sheehy. At the time, I thought it was just a memorable conference session, but as it turns out, it was much more.
In her writing and speaking, Gail Sheehy shows up. She puts herself and the truth out there. Those of us lucky enough to read or hear her get a chance to experience the power of vulnerability and to see what courage and resilience look like.
Shortly after her book, Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence (William Morrow, 2010), was published, I heard Gail speak at a What’s Next Boomer Business Summit. She shared stories of her experience as a caregiver for her husband, magazine editor Clay Felker, during his 17-year battle with cancer. Here’s what I remember.
Gail’s caregiving journey was long, with multiple phases characterized by change, adjustment, more change and more adjustment. I’m not sure when the phrase “new normal” came into my consciousness, but I remember Gail describing circumstances that would have seemed unthinkable, but soon became the new normal, and how this cycle of “new normals” repeated itself over and over during the course of his long illness.
Gail described how they struggled to find ways to continue doing the things they both loved—for her, writing, and for Clay, teaching—but there were day-to-day things as well. Dining out was a favorite event, but as a result of treatment for his throat cancer, Clay was not able to eat food by mouth. Planning ahead, Gail would make reservations and then visit the restaurant in advance. She would speak to the chef and explain the need for Clay’s food to be pureed so it could be fed through his feeding tube. Unthinkable before his illness, but later, the new normal.
As Clay’s illness progressed and he eventually needed assistance with personal services, they fought to preserve their relationship as husband and wife, not as patient and caregiver. They hired outside help so Gail would not have to perform these services.
Gail’s stories were incredibly personal. It was hard to believe she was sharing such intimate details with us. There was absolute silence in the room as we sat, mesmerized and humbled by her willingness to relive these experiences so we could learn from them. If sharing vulnerability makes someone a badass, Gail Sheehy was the queen of badasses.
This made it all the more surprising, when I ran into Gail in the women's room after her program.
“Do you think my scarf is all right?” she asked as she retied the knot.
“Wow,” I thought. “She’s a badass and a real person.”
This might have been the end of my story, but as it turns out, there is a coda. Because after hearing Gail speak, I took a new approach when I presented to audiences. Instead of offering tips and advice, I began sharing personal stories and experienced first-hand the palpable connection of storytelling and vulnerability.
Years later, when I wrote my own book, Squint: Re-visioning the Second Half of Life (Extra Step Media, 2021), I chose storytelling as my vehicle for sharing wisdom and experiences, and discussed personal topics that most consider rocky terrain. Yet, these deeply personal stories are my biggest accomplishments, and what I am most proud of. To this day, I remain committed to personal storytelling.
What do we expect when we attend a professional meeting? Networking opportunities? Growth strategies? Program ideas? All of these, perhaps.
I hadn’t expected a conference session to change my life, but over time, it did. I listened to a literary giant wade into discomfort and vulnerability to tell the truth about her story and it transformed me.
By sharing her story with bravery and grace, Gail Sheehy showed me how to be a badass storyteller.
Margit Novack is an author, entrepreneur, thought leader and industry founder in Senior Move Management. She lives with her husband and three dogs in both Philadelphia and Maryland.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/sematadesign