It’s an Amy (Aimee?) weekend

February 8, 2010

Another Amy short story writer whom I love is Amy Hempel.  I first read her story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,”  when my mom was in the intensive care unit at UCLA due to complications from her leukemia. At first, I hated it and for awhile I put down the short story collection of hers that I had been enjoying. The story opens with the line, ” ‘Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said. ‘Make it useless stuff or skip it.’ ” We find out that the narrator is at her best friend’s bedside,  visiting her in the cancer unit of a hospital for the first time in two months. Slowly, we learn of her fear and her guilt for just wanting to run away and not come back. At the time, I hated the narrator and I couldn’t understand why it would be so difficult to be completely present for a dying loved one.  It wasn’t until after months of living with a cancer victim that I, almost shamefully, returned to that story. I related so strongly to the narrators defeat, to her uncertainty and to her desire to just fly away. Back in 2008, this story was a huge inspiration and almost an enabler for my story “Pull Away”. I’m not sure if I would have been brave enough to write about this moment with my mother, a moment in which I didn’t want to take care of anyone anymore, in which I just wanted to be a child again, without having read Amy Hempel. (Also, Hempel’s story takes place in Los Angeles, and my mother was a patient at UCLA.)

I learned today that Hempel was a student of the famous literary editor Gordon Lish, and it turns out that this story was a result of an assignment he gave to write about your worst secret, something that has the power to dismantle your sense of self.

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