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Transcript

Episode 25: The Strongest Women in the Room, With
Kitty Sheehan

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix:

Hello and welcome to another episode of Now that's a Great Story, the podcast that takes a single story from a single artist in a way to reveal an artistic worldview, and hopefully inspire you to do your best work, too. I'm your host Paul Kix. Today I'm joined by Kitty Sheehan, writer and editor and author of the recent personal history The Strongest Woman in the Room, which Long Reads published. It's a sort of beautiful aching story and one of those that is just crafted so very perfectly that I just thought we have to have Kitty on to ever discuss it. So first off, Kitty, thank you for joining the show.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Thank you, Paul. I'm thrilled to be here.

 

Paul KiX:

If we could, I'd like us to start at the beginning. And this is a personal history, but it's told from, it's told from an omniscient point of view. In the first line, “Betty Sheehan pushed the eight-track cassette into the player and backed Dan’s car out of her driveway.”
It opens with the perspective of your mother, Betty. So how did you how did you pull this off? Is the day you're writing about July 27, 1978, a day that your family has sort of long since discussed?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

That's a good question. If my family has long since discussed it. Being an Irish family? No, we did not discuss it very much. Since then, I'm the one who has spent a great deal of time thinking about it and going over it. So, it's my view of that day. And my feelings about my mother's view of that day. 

 

Paul KiX:

And this is what I love about it, because it's a personal history but it has… You are a third person character in it, Kitty. Betty is a third-person character in it. Your father is and your brother is as well. Craft question for you: Why did you decide to take this approach to this sort of story?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

I had been working on a way to sum this up for a long time. And every time I wrote about it from my point of view, to me, I came across as a victim. And so I tried to figure out a way that I could stop having people feel sad for me. And I thought, you know, I… I plus I wanted to explore my mother's feelings during this day and so I just got the brainstorm of writing it from her perspective, from her point of view,

 

Paul Kix:

Fairly high up you write, “Dan was her son,” her son being Betty so, “Dan was her son who might be dying in a hospital 60 miles away. She was using all her energy to deny this and to keep those around her from believing it, especially him.” I'm wondering if you could sort of just let listeners know why exactly you thought to say so high up that Dan was sick but exclude what exactly he was sick from?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Well, thank you for your kind words. I was going to reference back to when you said how did how did you pull this off? I'm just taking that as a validation that I did pull it off.

 

Paul Kix:

This thing went pretty viral pretty quickly.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

It did. I'm just stunned and I'm so excited. I will answer your question, but I I also want to tell you that I've been working on this story for about five years, and I live in upstate New York, but for a brief time in the last five years I had moved back to Minneapolis, and I was working on this story then. And I joined a writing group there, and this is what I offered to be critiqued, and it was torn to shreds by this writing group. They said it was too sad. They said you can't write in third person. They were all very confused. And I put it away. Until I sent it to Long Reads, I hadn't looked at it again since that that writing group and so when I took it out again to look for it for Long Reads, I've been teaching editing classes since then. And so to answer your question, I edited this within an inch of its life because I wanted every sentence to keep the reader moving along, and I wanted to do to not stop reading so in that sentence, “Dan with her son who might be dying in a hospital 60 miles away,” I left off on purpose from what so you would have to keep reading.

 

Paul Kix:

It's a pretty novelistic device and I'm wondering, are there certain writers that inspire you?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

No, just what I believe about editing really inspires me and I really believe that you need to eliminate as many words as you can to have your voice come out. So, yeah, I just I really strongly believe in cutting out the junk words, I guess. You know, Elmore Leonard is a big inspiration because he's very span with what he says and he's big on keeping the reader moving. And so that that's just always my goal.

 

Paul Kix:

The rest of this opening section describes who Dan was as a young man and who he’d been as a boy. For the listener who hasn't read this essay yet, could you help fill us in who exactly was Dan as a young man and then who was he is a boy?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Dan was 18 months older than me. We had a very interesting family My father was an all-American baseball player at Notre Dame. And then he got a job as a player manager of a semi-pro baseball team in Carroll, Iowa, so she was a transplant to Iowa and he met my mother. And when she was the hostess at a dining room where his team was eating one night. And my mother is this feisty twin with a twin brother known then as a tomboy and she was an athlete, too. And so we grew up in a family that was very sports centered and Dan was part of that. He was a catcher like my father. My father just really, really adored him. My mother and I were very much alike so we were at odds, a lot. So, by default, she adored him too. And he was just this likeable, tall very handsome man a few words that people gravitated towards. Just one of those guys that no one ever said a bad word about. And I'm kind of the opposite of that. I say whatever I think and don't really worry about the consequences and he wasn't that person. So for me to reflect on him in this essay was very interesting and very telling about the four of us in our family. I say that there were a lot of parties in our little house when we were growing up. And that's an understatement. And I left it kind of to the reader's imagination. My parents were very hungover, I'd left that to the reader's imagination. I don't know if you picked that up. or not but..,

 

Paul Kix:

I was sort of left to wonder, yeah. Maybe that's what you were talking about.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

They were sleeping in was my was my polite way of saying it. So my brother and I, back in the 60s parents were taught that give your kids a vitamin every day and it doesn't matter what you feed them so vitamins were big at our house and in order to give kids a reason to eat a vitamin they tasted like candy and they looked like candy. And just one morning, my parents were still sleeping and I brought a bottle of vitamins in to my bedroom where my brother and I were playing and I dumped them on the rug and they were multicolored so it was fabulous. I mean, it was like pre Willy Wonka and, you know, joy, and I decided we could eat them all and it would be not a problem. And he did that with me, and this is such a microcosm of our relationship: he did this with me and then he realized it was probably a dumb thing to do so he went and told our parents that we had done that. And woke my mom and told her, and she completely freaked out and called the doctor. My father, on the other hand had no idea what we were talking about when we said Chalks and need to know that Chalks were vitamins and it was just, you know, this crazy scene on a Saturday morning, the doctor of course said no, no that'd be fine. And we were. But I did go on to repeat that scene with my brother a lot, we would do things together, that were usually ill advised and usually my idea, and he would end up either abandoning me halfway through the escapade or deciding he should tell our parents.

 

Paul Kix:

You have this great way, because it's… what's so much fun about this is there's this moment in the piece where you're saying, say so, “Tom comes in and he goes, What's going on? And then your pump goes these two just thought it'd be fun to eat an entire bottle of Chalks. And he goes, What the hell are Chalks? She goes, vitamins. Vitamins are called Chalks. Why don't they just called vitamins? Jesus, Tom. Get out of my way. So she brushes back into the wall phone because she's got to call the doctor.” So I say all that because the beauty of this anecdote is not only you get a sense for how you two operate, you and your brother, but then we get the sense of your father, right, and the vitality that he has too. Is that anecdote somewhat reflective of who he was as a man as well?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Completely. Yes, thank you, thank you for picking that out. Yes, completely he just was so funny and so I'm kind of clueless sometimes, and so smart about other things but he would just ask questions like that all the time. He loved double talk, and he loved crazy words, and so I just I wanted to put a sentence in there that kind of honored that, too, that he left wordplay.

 

Paul Kix:

Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I mean, this is a this is a story that's pretty somber but there are these liner notes in it, and it's another reason why I just thought it would be so much fun to have you on the show today. So if we can go back to the main narrative short time after that you bring us back to the main story and back to Betty on the road and then back to Dan’s illness and all of this is just reading so very seamlessly. And I'm wondering, you've kind of alluded to this already but is this something else of you just sort of relentlessly editing this to get this draft right so that it's reading like this? Was there any part of that just sort of flowed?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

The back and forth, the flashbacks, get really flow for me when I was writing it. And yes, I, edited and I used a lot of just one sentence paragraphs. I wanted to pull you back into the car after the vitamin story, so I used a sentence that said, “thinking about this now, Betty was unable to breathe. And so I wanted you to know that, where we're at, is far, far away from that political vitamin story.

 

Paul Kix:

Can you help us understand who your mother was on that day, I guess, and maybe the better way to ask this is why exactly is she is she choosing to drive Dan's car there, because I think that's sort of instructive in its own way.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

She… We were 60 miles away and like the story says in our hometown from the hospital, and we went back and forth a lot because he was spending a lot of time there. I myself would go back and forth as an escape, because it was just very, very traumatic for me to be there and so being 21 years old I’d find reasons to split off here there and on this day we had both gone home to change clothes, get some more clothes and she decided to bring his car back to the hospital so that when he came home, he could ride in his car. And she had rarely driven his car. I never drove his car. And so that in itself to me was the opening to the story and then to kind of go back to one of your other questions, as I wrote about her driving her car, something that happens along the way, popped into my head while I was writing and I hadn't thought about that event in probably 30 years.

 

Paul Kix:

As she's driving, something happened on the road, and she has to… the muffler, like falls off. Right, am I, describing that correctly? In fact why don't you just take us through this. And so the muffler just falls off?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Now, you know, we all drove cars like that then, but anything could fall off of at any moment. I mean I know I did. And on this day my mother was focused on just getting back to the hospital, and when that happened, when the muffler fell off, she saw it in her mirror. She pulled over, to get it. You know mistake number one, and then she kicked it to the side of the road. And then bent down to pick it up, which is something I think a lot of us would do without thinking. And the minute she did that she realized that she now had burned both of her hands and still had to drive to the hospital so just thinking about her doing that. It was the first time I really examined in my mind what that must have been like for her in the car because I fear till the other end, after she had had her hands bandaged. 

 

Paul Kix:

Yeah and help me understand this Kitty. What sort of… Was her first goal to try to fix the muffler herself, or was it just to move it from the side of the road?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

I'm thinking that the person she was, she was probably going to put it in the trunk and think, to save money they could just put that old muffler back on that would been her first thought.

 

Paul Kix:

And then the more amazing thing about that anecdote is she burns her hands, they look to be… It sounds as though it was pretty severe. At no point, apparently does she consider, oh, I should turn back around or whatever. Like I if anything I need to get to the hospital now even quicker, but not to attend to my own issue just to get there to be there for Dan. I found that remarkable.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

That is definitely who she was. On this day, that is definitely who she was. Yeah, there would never have been any, any thought of turning around. I mean his car was already pretty loud. So, losing the muffler, just made a little bit louder.

 

Paul Kix:

Okay, so it's around this time of the muffler incident that you in your story reveal what it is exactly that is ailing Dan. Could you tell the audience?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Sure. Dan was diagnosed with cancer a year earlier than this day. He had a lump on his cheek and didn't have looked at for a while, and then it was discovered to get be tumor in his salivary gland. And this is 1977 so treatment then for something like that was quite a bit different than it is now. And that to me is an interesting point of the whole story. this essay doesn't bring that out as much as some further writing that I want to do about this, but there weren't resources for treatment nor were there resources for parents, going through this with their kids. So, that explains also some of my mother's determination and her just her blind theory about everything that was happening. She didn't have anybody to talk to about it. So yeah, so now he's in the hospital. A year later, the cancer had spread to his lungs and he had chemo which reduced him to looking like a very skinny… not itself at all with no hair, that's the point he was back in the hospital when she was headed back there,

 

Paul Kix:

And Betty is trying feverously to get to the hospital because… Is she awareness moment that things are turning bad?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

I think she was aware of the time where things were and she kept it from the rest of us, just because it was important for Dan to not feel like he didn't have any hope. So she kept us all buyoued with, you know, he's just needs to eat some more and he’ll be better and we just have to do this and this, but I do believe she must have known, where things were.

 

Paul Kix:

What about you in this point in time your essay, this is another remarkable thing about this story for a personal essay. Kitty herself is, I would say, a minor character in it, even not so much in this story but I just want to understand more about who you were at that time. The story takes place in Iowa. I am a native Iowan. So, and you are too, so there's that. And you're attending the University of Iowa at that time is that right? 

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Correct. 

 

Paul Kix:

And is your interest then to, you know, of course, there's a great Iowa Writers Workshop. Is your interest that to become a writer? Are you studying English at Iowa? What are you doing?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

I was studing English. I was actually in the education department. I was, I became a teacher… to the University of Iowa with every intention of joining the journalism department. And this was 1975. And I walked into the Daily Iowan newspaper and the editor who shall not be named looked at me and he said, Well, what do you think you want to write? And I said, I want to read about sports and he said well first of all, we don't have women write sports, and we don't have people from a small town like yours working on the paper. 

 

Paul Kix:

Wow.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Yes. Welcome to the 70s. So I turned around and left and didn't have enough fortitude to keep at that. It just blew my whole plan. And I wasn't sure what I was going to do, and a couple of my friends were becoming teachers so I said I could probably do that. And that's what I did for the longest time

 

Paul Kix:

For 25 years you're a teacher? Okay.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Yes, I taught in Minneapolis. I taught in Northern Iowa for a couple years and then Minneapolis. So I always wrote during that time and I loved teaching about writing. And it wasn't until 2000 that I stopped teaching and decided to see what I could do with some writing, and it's been amazing since then. I've actually made a living as a writer since then but it wasn't easy.

 

Paul Kix:

I’ve had to go ahead on guests in the past and some of that some of the fun of the story that we end up talking about is actually the author's own story of their biography and how they got to that point where, you know, they could do a story like this. And it's a lot of hard, hard work to get to that point where you're publishing something that gets a response in your case like this, this essay has gotten.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

A lot. A lot. I don't want anybody to ever think I just sat down and wrote this because I… you know, I told somebody the other day, it took me 40 years.

 

Paul Kix:

As your mother… let's go back to the main dominant narrative here. So there's this portion of the story that describes the first time that your parents got the news that Dan had cancer, and that it is not getting better, in fact that the doctor wasn't able to remove everything. And I'm wondering if you could just share with the audience some of what you wrote.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

As the doctor spoke she looked at Tom, to see what he was thinking, there was no color in his usually ruddy cheeks. He was shaking. He was looking at the floor. He didn't look up as she stared at him. Neither heard a word the doctor said about the tumor in Dan’s salivary gland, as they laughed, they did not speak to each other. They did not speak in the car from most of the way home. Tom drove like always. She stared out the window at the cornfield seeing nothing. The only noise was from her lighter, as she chain smoke. Finally, she said, I'll have to call kitty and tell her.

 

Paul Kix:

And it just sort of keeps getting worse. Radiation, there's a seven inch scar down Dan's left cheek from surgery. Pulled teeth because Dan was going to lose them to radiation anyway. Betty keeps working in the recorder’s office back in Carroll, Iowa. While that's going on, though, while Dan is sick she stopped sleeping. And she starts this mantra that Dan would be fine, and you write that Tom and Kitty were surprisingly easy to convince of this, which helps convince Betty herself, which then helps convince Dan. And I'm wondering if you could describe for us what your mother was like in those days of unflinching optimism.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Gosh, it's funny to hear my mother referred to as anything to do with unflinching optimism because she was the opposite of an optimist, but you're, you're describing it correctly: she just kept saying he was going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. They, they took him for second opinions to Rochester and to MD Anderson in Texas, because they had this great doctor in Ames that recommended that they do that and so she was just caught up in doing everything the doctor told her to do. Every single thing. We’ll go here, we'll do that, we'll try this, will try that, and she was relentless. You know I don't, I don't know if it was optimism, as much as it was a litany of like a refrain. You know I don't, I don't… I never knew if she didn't believe it, but it definitely was the daily refrain.

 

Paul Kix:

Why does she feel that she had to keep repeating that that Dan would be fine? 

 

Kitty Sheehan:

I think, you know, another part of her character that I really wanted to bring across was she didn't ever… she’s the epitome of the “don't ever let them see sweat.” And so, in order to not let anybody see her fear or her sadness, she just focused on moving ahead, moving ahead and moving ahead and she never made time for that. There was never a lag time to be sad for for any of us to actually feel about what's happening to us, as it was happening.

 

Paul Kix:

Dan however keeps getting worse. And now we go back to that July day in 1978 when Betty arrives at the hospital with her hands. What, are they are they first degree burns? Her hands are not in a good way. Those last few miles, she's having to drive with her fingertips, right? Because she can't even put her hands on the wheel.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Exactly. But the worst thing about that to her was that she couldn't figure out a way to smoke while she was driving with her fingertips. Yes, she had big blisters on her hands and she went running in the hospital and the nurses, we had gotten to know them really well because he had been there, almost a month by this point, and he was a young person, handsome, with a very, very sweet attitude and so that's every nurses dream, you know. And they, they all fell for him and they were all doing whatever they could. I mentioned in the story that a couple of them even drove to see him when he was at home for a brief time so they were all very tuned in with our family and one of the nurses saw her with these blisters on her hands and immediately sent her off to get the bandage. And so, my mother had bandages on both of her hands. Then she runs into the doctor who sits both of my parents down and tells them that Dan is not going to get better. And they needed to prepare for that. And basically, they would just keep him comfortable, and I'm not there yet I'm still doing whatever I was doing and

 

Paul Kix:

Just real quick, Kitty, do they phone you at this point to say you should probably get here?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

No, I was on my way back anyway so my mother..

 

Paul Kix:

You were on your my way back to Iowa City or are you on your way to the hospital anyway?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Yes, back to Ames. Yeah, I was on my way because I wasn't aware

 

Paul Kix:

Of those of you who aren’t aware of Iowa towns and cities -- and shame on you for not knowing -- but Ames is Ames, Iowa, home with a great Iowa State University and the hospital there, so yes.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Exactly, exactly Mary Greeley hospital. 

 

Paul Kix:

Still standing!

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Exactly, exactly! Um, so yeah, she knew I was kind of right behind her that day. I had stopped to get my hair cut and then I was coming back there. But in my mind it was just for another visit and then who knows where I might go out partying that night at Aunt Maude’s. You probably know Aunt Maude’s if you went to Iowa State.

 

Paul Kix:

I do indeed, yes.

Kitty Sheehan:

And so you know I had a nightlife going there because I knew people and I just, I didn't know how things had gotten and she had to pull me aside in the hall after the doctor talk to them and said, listen, he's not going to get better. This is serious. And I still remember her saying this is serious and like taking me by the shoulders and it was the first time since he’d been sick, honest to God, that it occurred to me that he might not make it. That moment in the hall that day was the first time I actually had to look at that. 

 

Paul Kix:

And how do you respond in that moment?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

I just said, what, what, what? Really? And then went in his room to see him, and it became very clear when I went in his room that things had taken a turn, and it was not something I'd seen before. The way he looked.

 

Paul Kix:

What does he look like?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

He looked… he was so sweaty and really just had this translucent sort of glow. 

And I since then, seen people who are dying, and they all sort of share that same… It's, it's a different look than they've had any other time. And I know now that it's the sign that death is coming soon but at that time I had clearly never seen anything like that and I just was very drawn to going and brushing the sweat off his forehead and still some part of me thinking, he’s got to okay. This can’t be what it looks like. But I knew that it was. He had a friend there. But he was the most faithful friend and in the years that followed incredibly faithful, but he was there too, so it was a five of us.

 

Paul Kix:

What is your mom like in that moment?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

In that moment, she has no idea what to do with herself. She's extremely angry at the world at the situation, especially. Then a priest that none of us had ever seen before came in to do the last rites. We, at that point, were I guess identifying as Catholics. So they sent him in and my mother said, Well, I'm not watching this and she bolted from the room so she left my father and I there to watch that. And my biggest takeaway from that was having to see my father go through that moment. And then he verbalized it afterwards too, he said that's not something that you're supposed to never have. And I guess it was that, that little moment of his saying that that I realized wow my parents are going through hell right now. I saw what hell was for a parent. My dad was somebody who was very forthcoming about his feelings as they were happening. So for him to actually say that out loud was kind amazing.

 

Paul Kix:

What happens next?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Um, shortly after the priest came. The nurses came and said that they wanted to make him more comfortable and we should step out of the room. And to this day, I still don't really know what that was all about. I've gone over it and over it in my mind, like, you know, did they know he was dying? I don't know what they what their rationale was for having us step out but when we stepped out of the room is when he died. We came back in and the nurse told us that he had died, and my mother was completely in shock. She said what? You know, I think she had pictured a moment to be sitting with him, possibly, all of us sitting with him but he died while they were, they told us they were going to change his sheets and make him more comfortable. So, I don't know if they thought they were saving us from something, but it just was a very odd circumstance that I don't think my mother ever recovered from. The biggest thing for her was, you know, she kept saying he died, he died, just like that? That makes no sense. She started to cry. It’s the only time in my life I've ever seen her cry. Before or after. And we were all very quiet and the first thing she said was well he never saw me cry. That lets us know what her priority was. That strength. All that matters.

 

Paul Kix:

Yeah, so it's a really powerful piece. How does this incident shape first your teaching career and then now your second career as a writer?

Kitty Sheehan:
Boy, I don't know if I know all the ways. My teaching career coincided pretty closely with this. He died in 1978 and I graduated in ‘79 so my first year of teaching was ‘79-‘80. And you know, I think for a long time. I just went numb. This whole experience was

really numbing, and my parents, again, referring to them being Irish, we didn't talk about this. I was gone. Thank God, is how I felt about being gone. And I partied my brains out. I was at the number one party school in the country so what else is there to do, right? And I did that several years. I had one friend who knew him really well and we would get a bottle of wine and we would talk about him, and cry and cry and cry and cry and so that was several years that I did that. Acted out in a lot of way. I was a really fun teacher for little kids because I only cared about them. That was the focus of my whole existance was in that classroom. That was the only time I cared about what was going on was what was going on with them. I think it was, what year to John Lennon die? Was it ’80?

 

Paul kix:

I think that’s right. Either ‘80 or ’81, yeah.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Yeah, things like that kept happening, and as someone who had experienced death, I wanted to talk about it with my class. And so, when he died, first of all I had to take a sick day the next day I was so distraught. And then when I went back, I had them all circle up on the floor and I played some of his music and I told them all about the Beatles, and I just wanted them to understand that moment in history. And then I completely forgot about that, and on his birthday a couple years ago one of the girls who had been in my class wrote me a letter, and, and said that she never forgot that and she thinks of me every year on his birthday, which is amazing. And so, you know, I guess I never really put those two things together until you just asked me that question. That's my answer. I spent a lot of time trying to express to kids that shit happens. You gotta deal with it, I guess was kind of my motto as a teacher.

 

Paul Kix:

You said earlier in the conversation that you spent a lot of time in the last 18, 15 to 18 to 20 years trying to figure out what sort of stories you want to tell as a writer. And it seems as though, Kitty, that this story is sort of central to what it is that you've wanted to say as a writer. Now that you've seen it published. Do you want to do it in a longer form? Do you feel a sense of satisfaction? Do you feel done with it? Like where are you right now?

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Boy. I’m getting comments and invitations and feedback from so many different places that I don't, I don't even know right now. You know a writer hates to reveal ideas so I'm hesitant to do that right now. But yes, I do have an intention of taking this further, and it's in the formative stages. But you are very correct that now that I look at this piece, it really does… It really does center on what I want to say as a writer in every way: It’s spare use of the language in its humor that's inserted. And just in how I portrayed my characters. It is my voice.

 

Paul Kix:

I want to thank you for coming on the show Kitty, again, The Strongest Woman in the Room. I'm going to post it to Paulkix.com, so you can see it there if you want. So thank you, Kitty, for coming on.

 

Kitty Sheehan:

Thank you. Thank you so much, Paul.

 

Paul Kix:

The music for Now That's a Great Story comes from Jeff Willett. If you liked this podcast please don't forget to rate and review it on iTunes or Stitcher, or whatever it is that you listened to podcasts. I'll be back next week. Until then, have a good one everyone.

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