Story Mountain

“You have to go away to come again,” goes an old wives saying here in Blighty.

Those warm hostesses you always love – grannies, aunties, WI types who make fresh scones, battleaxes with huge hide-and-seek houses left over from their family days – they would say it to you as you trailed disconsolately over the threshold, and away home, with no return fixture planned.

This is what they meant: the place you have been is sweeter because it is not a constant.

We have to have a day-to-day existence, level ground against which the nice stuff rises. The humdrum, if you will. And from that level ground rises the fearsome, too.

We have this thing at school to teach stories. It’s called a story mountain.

It is a diagrammatic representation of how a story works, a joke-high thing which just springs out of a flat surround like some rhino’s tusk. It explains the formula of a story: the way man has kept his fellows rapt since prehistory.

We start at the bottom with a setting and characters, making our listener comfortable and orienting them. And then, expertly, as we gain altitude, we throw in details which make our listener puzzled, or uneasy; inconsistency, jarring dissonance which rivets us to the plot. We add more and more uncertainty and complexity as we near the top.

And at the top all hell lets loose.

It’s the climax of the story; the worst point, the farthest away from resolution; in a dragon’s tummy, or near madness in a haunted house at the dead of night. The skilful writer has ratcheted up tension to an only-just-bearable degree: and this is the catharsis.

That word. Aristotle coined it, surrounded as he was by a sophisticated culture which used story and drama expertly.Things are so dramatic, so ย tense, so unbearable that the story acts as a wire scourer: it cleanses us, even though we are just observers.

The journey down the mountain is all about timing: how and when to resolve the conflict you have created, how to release the tension by degrees to maximise the release in the audience. And as you reach the other side and ground level once more, there is happy-ever-after to meet you: or occasionally, unhappy-ever-after.

Stories are satisfying because you can control them. You can achieve catharsis without a ragged un-end. Is one of the worst things in life a tragedy without a resolution?

Through my mind that question has been running, ever since I woke up at about 2am one night in January, knowing before any doctor told us a thing, before any scan or check-up, that my mother had a brain tumour.

We are almost at the far foot of that mountain now. We have been through the growing tension, those details no-one ever want to face: my mother the day they told her the possible complications, the packing of a case for a major operation on the head. We have had a story mountain which did not end with an operation, but grew higher as complications set in and nothing seemed to be happening, and we feared our mother forgotten.

And then we were at the top: my mother, who had been able to speak perfectly well after the op, only able to string a few words together, on oxygen, and tabled for an urgent craniotomy; the second in a month.

The tension was hard. Because we knew there are sometimes stories with unhappy ragged endings: and I know some of you out there have experienced them.

But in this story, the tension was resolved, and my mother got better and began to speak again. And yesterday, she returned home.

And there was I, battling with lethargic GPs and fathomless hospital admin systems to get the right help to the right place at the right time.

Maddie walked into the kitchen at about half past five to find a mother with wild staring eyes and hair standing on end. The battles were telling on me. I may be a Spartan in any negotiation I undertake, but even Spartans have their moments.

I hugged Maddie, and found I couldn’t let go. She didn’t seem to mind. She realised straight away how I was feeling, with that ancient skill the majority of women possess.

We had tea. We resolved to walk the dog. But first, Felix and she disappeared upstairs.

When they reappeared, they had recreated one of my favourite stress-relieving sketches from a favourite comedy duo, The Mighty Boosh. I explained about it here.

Each child had a towel turban on their head, and they had typed out the script along with a picture of one of my favourite funny symbols,Philip The Kitten. ย They acted it for me, there, in front of the fridge.

And at that moment, ย I felt I might have come close to the bottom of that mountain.


48 thoughts on “Story Mountain

  1. Aren’t they absolutely wonderful? ๐Ÿ™‚

    My best wishes for a good recovery to your mum and to the family, Kate. There used to be such a thing as a “safe discharge.” That doesn’t seem to apply any more.

    The best tip I can give – and I’ve given this recently to a lovely, stoic, middle-class elderly couple who would never bother anyone for anything and have been treated exceptionally badly by hospital and care staff – he who shouts loudest, gets.

      1. it’s completely shameful. It makes me ashamed of my own profession if vulnerable poeple are sent home without the right referrals and support. I hope you have managed to get everything in place, Kate.

      2. It’s taken a little doing and some work at both ends, hospital and GP, Pseu, thanks for asking; my main concern was to get a district nurse to go in early for an assessment. WHen Mum came home the first time she fainted getting from the car to the house and CSF began to leak so I was anxious the care was there for her ASAP this time. The District Nurse, when she arrived, was a wonderful professional ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Thank you for sharing this tender moment with Maddie–it made me remember times when my own children let their magic cloaks fall and became, for a moment, the wise and caring adults they have now indeed turned out to be. I’m glad you couldn’t let go. That seems just right, given the opposite task we all eventually face with our parents.

    1. It is a strange thing to drop one’s grown up facade for an instant. But Maddie knew instantly, without words, how to put it right. You’re right, Barbara – just for a moment the magic cloak isn’t there.

  3. Loved the story mountain… the whole crux is in just a simple diagrammatic representation.. but difficult to actually implement it…

  4. You have quite exceptional children. In fact, you could call either of them Philip, couldn’t you?

    Admin systems, generally, seem to call for limitless supplies of cute kittens.

  5. Oh Kate, I’m so glad you’re feeling the bottom of the mountain at last.
    What wonderfully empathetic children you have: they’re lucky to have you two as parents.

    1. Thanks, Fiona, and for all those little texts and communications at the most important times. Those snatches of text have meant a great deal over the past months, especially from someone who has been through their own cataclysms. Thank you.

  6. Kate, I hope your mother recovers very quickly. All my best wishes to all of you. And Felix and Maddie brought a smile to my face, so I can imagine how much they must have lightened your heart.

    1. Banno! Lovely to hear from you! Hope the filming has been going well; I have been thinking of you and Teja up in the mountains. Mum is through the worst, now, I think ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Your mum has been in my prayers, Kate, as have you. Thank you for letting us know she is now at home and doing so much better. Maddie and Felix warm my heart and bring me hope for the future. You and Phil had done well with them. Well, indeed . . .

    I’ve long used a similar phrase, “let me go so I can come back again” – much to the giggles and/or rolling eyes of my own girls and Tom. I have no idea where I first heard it. An aunt, I suppose. But, there you have it.

  8. Families who love each other are the ultimate support structure. Wonderful and I’m so glad your mum has come through it ALL so well.

    Now its time for healing her and the stress the rest of you have been through

  9. Maddie and Felix are a testament to their parents, not to mention rather incredible souls, but from the small slice of yourself you share here, I’m not surprised in the least. I’ll continue to keep you all in my heart as this chapter of the story hopefully reaches an even-keeled denouement. You all deserve a taste of normalcyโ€”such as you might define it ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Dear Kate – I am so pleased to learn that your mother is home – I do know the stress of the unknown and it is terrifying. You feel very alone. It is true that you have to be able to stand up for yourself against the very people you need to help you, which is very hard.

    1. It is. And at the end of it, everyone’s working to the best of their abilities. Important, I think, to remember everyone is human. Must tattoo that on my forehead…

  11. What marvellous children you have.

    I had a moment like yours, after a traumatic day that started with my Mum’s routine eye test and ended with a heart attack and her in hospital. Once I had dealt with everything and found myself back at her flat, I burst into tears. Nerves need the relief.

    Glad the worst is over.

  12. Kate, I’m so glad your mother is home and doing well. Nice to hear you’re at the bottom of your story mountain — now the thing to do is embrace what ever is to come, just as you did Maddie.

  13. Kate, this blogging community and friendship is a bit mysterious to me, but I have thought of you and your mother so many, many times these few months, ever since you first gave a clue that something was wrong, and I’ve prayed for you all. I truly couldn’t have imagined that her surgery was so serious, but when it appeared to be so many weeks in the hospital I knew it had to be major. I am soooo glad to hear that she is home. And that despite frustrations in finding follow-up care to your satisfaction, you are coming down the mountain. How totally amazing that your intuition prepared you for a diagnosis, and your children have a similar sensitivity and know what you need! I hope you all can fully exhale soon! oxo Debra

  14. Oh I’m so glad that everything’s going well again and that you have hopefully finally descended your Story Mountain. May you all have the strength to keep on but hopefully you can also start breathing again. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. So pleased about your mother’s recovery and also best wishes for continued better health. Hope the weekend leaves you nice and earthed x

  16. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to come round and read this. Glad that your mom is home and finding her words again . . . and that Maddie gave you the release you needed.

    I found this fascinating: Through my mind that question has been running, ever since I woke up at about 2am one night in January, knowing before any doctor told us a thing, before any scan or check-up, that my mother had a brain tumour.

    I’m glad you’re finding yourself on level ground once again.

    Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states . . . maybe you should join the celebration?

  17. Your family has been through a lot, Kate – it seems that you have pulled together brilliantly through your mum’s illness by all playing your part, your children, too – that is a precious gift you give to one another. Best wishes for your mum’s recovery.

  18. Your children sound like a couple of Kittens themselves. Best wishes for your mother’s recovery and for some smooth, level ground for your entire family. And lots of Kittens.

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