Thursday, 2 February 2017

A Family of Doers

I come from a family of doers. Whenever I make this observation, people around me—if they know my family at all—often goggle their eyes and say something like, “Yeah, you’re not kidding."

My maternal grandparents, Charles and Grace Hostetter,
outside the house that their family built, c. 1990.
When people say this, they are almost certainly thinking—I am, too—of my mother’s family of origin, the Hostetter side of the family tree. Hostetters (I hope none of them mind my saying so) have a spark of the zealot about them. They are workers by instinct; more specifically, they are fearless helpers. If they meet someone homeless, they take that person into their homes; if they see a car accident by the side of the road, they’re likely to stop and help out. When they were younger, my Hostetter uncles and aunts got together and with their own hands, from the ground up, built my grandpa and grandma a little green-painted house in Hickory, North Carolina.[i]

Of course I’m generalizing—it’s a huge family—but this is the impression I’ve received since childhood of the Hostetter family. The Hostetter characteristics are deeply familiar to me; when I was a kid, one or another of my mother’s brothers, my Hostetter uncles, were living in my parents’ home; when I was twelve, my mother’s parents, my Hostetter grandparents, moved into that little green house, right next door to ours.

And the jump-to-the-rescue, jump-up-and-do-whatever-needs-to-be-done energy that I’ve seen flowing through most of my Hostetter relatives has always been alive in my mother. As a child, my impression of housework came entirely through her, and it seemed like a battleground: a field to be attacked with every implement available, with a firm lip and fast-flying hands.  

My sisters (Sandy, Cindy, Linda) and me, near Chicago,
c. 2008
As a child of a mother like this—as the sibling of three sisters who all, more or less, share these Hostetter traits—I have benefitted hugely from this can-do, hop-to-it zeal.[ii]  It came in handy for sure when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2014.

It was already an unusual year of my life, even before that diagnosis. I was spending half of each week in Madison, Wisconsin, where I had a one-year fiction-writing fellowship; I commuted by bus from Chicago, where Dave and I had an apartment, and where he remained all week long, for his job. My health insurance that year was with the University of Wisconsin; my diagnosis of breast cancer came through the UW medical center. For this reason, my first months of cancer-related consultations and treatments also took place in Madison—a three hours’ drive from Chicago and Dave, and much, much farther than that from my parents and brother and sisters, in Virginia and North Carolina.

I was, however, incredibly fortunate in my Madison friends. Before I got cancer, another fiction-writing fellow at UW with me—Janet aka DJ Thielke—had already been letting me sleep on her couch when I came up every week for three days. After my diagnosis, as those three days stretched into four, five, six, DJ volunteered to let me stay with her through my first chemo treatment and after—when we both expected I would feel sick. She made jokes about how I should feel free to be sick in her house: “You and me in our PJs, throwing up in the trashcan,” said DJ. “It’ll be just like we’re in college again.”
The creative writing fellows at the University of Wisconsin, 2013-2014:
Me, Jennifer Leonard, DJ Thielke, Timothy Welch, Jesse Damiani, and Matt Modica

Two days before my first chemo treatment, I reported this joke on the phone to my sister Linda, back in North Carolina. Linda was not satisfied. “Taylor,” she said—in our family, that’s been my nickname for ages—“Taylor, I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough. I don’t think you understand how wiped out by chemo you’ll be.” She did not yet know DJ nor how wonderfully supportive DJ would be through it all; moreover, Linda was worried that Dave could not get to Madison from Chicago to be with me through my first chemo.

In sum, Linda thought that I needed help, extra help. And she was the person to give it. With less than two days to plan her trip west to me, she bought the cheapest plane ticket to Wisconsin that she could find. It would take her as far as Milwaukee; from there, she’d rent a car and drive across half the state to Madison.

Linda and I on the UW campus, March 2014
Never mind that she was the mother of three teenaged and pre-teenaged children; never mind that she lived a two hours’ plane ride away from me (plus another two hours’ drive, as it turned out). Never mind that it was March in Wisconsin, the ground still covered in snow, Lake Mendota still frozen solid and the snowbanks along all the sidewalks still as tall as my head. The very next day—the day before I started chemo--my sister Linda rang the doorbell of DJ’s apartment and came in looking wild-eyed.

“Y’all, I just drove across the prairie,” she said, “in the tiniest car I’ve ever driven. The wind was whipping me from side to side all across the highway, and all I could see for miles were these cows standing around in the snow.”

And yet: there she was. In the flesh. My sister, Linda. She stayed with me for the next four days and nights. By day we went to my various appointments with doctors; she sat with me during my chemo and during a fitting for wigs. We also went to the movies together, took short walks around the UW campus, and ate Thai take-out food on DJ’s couch.

In short, she  accompanied me.

I did not feel too bad after that first chemo treatment—they got a little bit harder to take, over time, but the first one just made me feel woozy for a few days—and those four days with Linda were almost like a mini-vacation. (With more winter’s-end ugly snow and hospital visits than you might associate with a vacation.) By night she slept beside me, the way we had done when we were kids sharing a double canopied bed, on DJ’s big fold-out couch.

Linda and I in 1973: about the ages we were
when we started sharing a bed
Even though I technically did not need rescuing, I still think of it sometimes as Linda’s rescue of me. Not in an enfeebling or codependent way—not at all. Rather, she stepped up for me. She stood by me. She perceived a need and addressed it: straight-on, smack-dab.

I’ve told this story before, but it’s come to me again because I’ve been thinking a lot about illness—illness, specifically, as a metaphor for the current political malaise in the U.S.—and what in the world we can do about it. For this still is my response, my gut level, knee jerk response, whenever I hear about the latest atrocity committed by the D.T. administration: What can I do about it? I’ve been trained long and well to think that the best response to any new crisis is immediate—often dramatic—action.

“But here’s the thing,” Linda told me last night on the phone: another long-distance phone call, this time between North Carolina and the North of England. “The thing is, with the D.T. administration, I don’t know what to do about this.”

By this she meant the barrage of bad news coming out of the White House these days: the banning of Muslims from the U.S., the firing of the acting U.S. Attorney General; the ongoing cabinet appointments in which the appointee stands against the concerns of his cabinet. “I felt so energized after the Women’s March,” Linda said, “but since then I feel like I’m just casting about for the next thing to do. It feels like a shitstorm, just one terrible decision after another coming out of the White House, and it almost paralyzes me.”

For any woman with the “doer” Hostetter blood in her veins to feel frozen— deactivated—by current events: If that’s not a sign of a country in crisis, I personally don’t know what is.

“I feel like I’m in a hole,” Linda said. “I’m so depressed and angry at the same time, I almost can’t move. Or it’s like I’m in a box, and the instructions for how to get out are printed on the other side.”

Of course, she’s not alone. All I have to do is open Facebook to feel the D.T.-related distress of friends all over the world. My Facebook thread consists mainly of posts from people in throes of despair or panic:

“I can’t turn it off: I can't do anything but read / watch the news.”

“I’m so busy keeping up with each new horrible thing D.T. is doing, I can’t work / write / make my art anymore.”

“I think my news feed is literally making me sick.”

One writer friend asked, despairingly, “Are any of you writing anymore? How are you managing to do it? How do you stop freaking out—how do you get your work done?”

For lack of a brilliant response of my own, I’ll quote Muriel Rukeyser again. I may need to keep reciting her poem about once a month, during the current U.S. presidency:

Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less inane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go of the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

-- Muriel Rukeyser

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I said earlier that I’ve been thinking about illness because of the current illness in the U.S. body politic. And that’s true. But another reason is that I’ll be having major surgery in about a week—surgery that, in a manner of speaking, is a result of my illness, the cancer I had, three years ago. I mention this partly because it may affect my keeping up with this blog in the near future, and also because I’d be grateful for any good thoughts or prayers you want to send my way next Friday, on the 10th of February.

Linda and me, a few days after my LAST
major surgery
(a double mastectomy, y'all).
The surgery—spoiler alert: it’s gonna get a little bit clinical now—is a hysterectomy, done for preventative measures. Since I’ve had breast cancer, I’m taking a hormone-related drug called Tamoxifen daily; while Tamoxifen is excellent for preventing a recurrence of breast cancer, it does mess with other parts of my bod. In particular, it has thickened my uterine walls and caused a small fibroid to become fairly large. I’ve already had tests showing that I do not have uterine or ovarian cancer, thank God, and my doctors are confident that the fibroid is not cancerous, either—that it has grown as a direct result of taking Tamoxifen. But it has grown, to the extent that it’s distorting my uterus, and my doctor says that in the long run, the hormone-related impact of Tamoxifen on a fibroid can sometimes cause cancer.

All the more reason to take it out now, he suggested, and I fully agree. Not to mention that, as someone who had early-onset breast cancer, I am now more at risk for ovarian cancer as well. Take it all out, I say! Ovaries, uterus, fibroid: the works.

I know that major surgery is never a walk in the park and that I will not be my best physical self (perhaps not my best emotional self, either) for the week or two following February 10th. But on the whole I am glad it is happening. On the whole it feels like a relief.

Also, this experience will no doubt give me material to use in future blog posts: what major surgery in the U.K. is like as compared to in the U.S. I’ll keep you all posted for sure. While one difference I already know of is that my family in the U.S. can’t hop on a plane to reach me this time, I do love this anecdote: When I first told my siblings about my upcoming surgery, my sister Sandy said to her husband, Steve, “Hey, maybe I can use my vacation time to run over there and be with Taylor while she recovers.”
Cindy and Sandy doing yoga
with me in Chicago, summer 2014

Steve had to smile and remind her that her current "vacation time" is actually a maternity leave; Sandy now has a two-month-old child.

But isn’t it a great instinctive response, nonetheless?

Someone's in need. What can I do?


[i] My father’s family, the Kings, is peopled with artists and dreamers; with pioneers and fishermen, with musicians and storytellers. I’ve been lucky, I think, to have both kinds of families—both broad orientations—in my family tree, in my life.

[ii] Wally King, I love you with all of my soul, but I think you’ll agree that you are generally more laidback than your sisters.


  1. Love this. So true. I am grateful for your life and the joy and inspiration you bring to me!

  2. Thank you, Linda! Thanks for letting me share parts of your story. Thank you for YOUR life, and your inspiration to me. We are lucky to have each other and all of the fam. (Also, weren't we some darn cute little girls?)

  3. I love reading your blog. Your words are an inspiration to me. Thank you for sharing them.

    1. Thank you, Brenda! That means a lot to me. All best wishes to you.

  4. You are such a brilliant writer. I will think of you on the 10th. xoxo

    1. Aw, Judy, thank you! Such kind words from someone whose own writing I admire so much: thank you. (And for thinking of me on the 10th.)

  5. Thanks, P—every day I wish I could talk to you in person!

    1. My pleasure, P. And hey, if you want to talk in person, we could at least arrange a phone call. Email me, and we'll work it out.

  6. the pix of you an lsk in l973-- makes me love your story all over again-- mom