In one of my earliest memories, I’m leaning against a window in a white-walled room while surgeons removed a tumor from my baby brother’s brain. I assume at least one of my parents was probably also in the room, but in that moment, I remember being alone. During the winter days my family spent in this Kansas City hospital, I began to read Dr. Seuss books and Highlights for Children magazines. For my birthday, my parents bought me the Cat in the Hat stuffy that I had seen during daily visits with my mom to the hospital gift shop where we purchased tiny Tootsie Rolls for pennies. I remember the feel of the cold glass window against my face, the sight of the tiny cars in the parking lot below us, the taste of the Chips Ahoy cookies my father bought for our hotel room treat. Each night he made up stories about jelly beans or teddy bears named Julie to help me sleep. Soon families of my own imaginary animals became my companions in clinics and hospitals, entertaining me with conversations, as my brother’s medical treatments continued. From the beginning, I learned how stories sustain us.
The world became blurry at a young age. Soon my glasses prescription grew thicker and thicker, because I stayed up too late in bed reading library books, or so my eye doctor said. I loved field guides of North American mammals and Nancy Drew mysteries. In school I discovered that I also loved creating stories, scribbling my awkward handwriting across multiple pages, eager to share with any teacher who would read my imagined adventures featuring puppies or horses or witches. As a young writer, I didn’t believe in mapping plots, only moving paper or pen against paper. I loved alliteration and adjectives, the serial curves of commas, the urgency of gerunds. In math class I made up stories about the numbers. Scientific equations represented relationships. I considered studying medicine. There was a story to explain the large railroad track scar along the back of my brother’s skull. There was a story to explain why my parents divorced but I didn’t know what it was or which parent to believe. I watched my mother immerse herself in psychology books and religion. My father read Russian novels in his new apartment. In the summers, my grandmother brought us to the Pacific Ocean where we marveled over fragments of shells, enchanted by mysteries hidden and washed in salt water.
Looking for stories to sustain me, I read the Bible and devoted myself to following instructions other people had written, seeking connection, hoping for holiness, wanting some revelation or reasons. I fell in love with a man I met at church, and then I devoted myself to my children’s stories. From infancy, I read them books and books, staying home with them for years to turn the pages. Some of the books we read together are still here on shelves — Phantom Tollbooth, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, To Kill a Mockingbird — but the children are suddenly gone, now adults, all three moved out in the past year, living hundreds, thousands of miles from our home on a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest. And now in this transition, in this new pandemic emptiness, it’s my turn to focus on making my own adventures and discovering the stories that will sustain me through this time.
Julie Jeanell Leung received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Bellingham Review, Blue Lyra Review, and Grist: The Journal for Writers. Her essays have been selected as a Finalist for Best of the Net and as a winner of the ProForma contest and the Living Earth Nonfiction Prize. Julie lives with her husband on an island near Seattle where she volunteers as a citizen scientist and counts sea stars on the rocky shores.