Eager to learn more about Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I left my house early on the day of the annual forum. I slowly made my way from the parking lot to the hotel, wondering what insight I might glean about my chronic illness.
Sticking on my name tag made me think of the last time I had worn one. It was a few months back at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation conference. But today I was not a writer; today I was a patient with Multiple Sclerosis.
I limped over to the book table and hooked my cane on my wrist. As I flipped through a book written by one of the forum speakers, I heard a woman say, “I enjoyed reading your article this morning.”
I glanced around before realizing the woman was talking to me. “What article?” I asked.
“Why, the one about the cane. It’s in Wisconsin magazine in today’s Milwaukee Journal.
I had been watching for my article every Sunday for the past four months. This was the one Sunday I had not seen the paper. I was amazed that the woman recognized my name; I thought only writers paid attention to bylines.
For a moment, I forgot how anxious I was for the forum to begin. Here was a stranger who actually had read my article. How appropriate that the essay dealt with my having MS and how easily my four-year-old daughter accepted my using a cane, while the adults around me had difficulty accepting my handicap.
Until the MS forum, only my family and closest friends knew of my publishing credits. My articles, poems, and children’s stories had appeared in a dozen magazines. Unfortunately, the average reader never heard of most of them.
Of course, those sales were exciting. But they were only exchanges of paper through the U.S. mail: manuscripts, letters, checks, printed pages with my byline—-the start of a modest writing career with small successes along the way.
As I filled my scrapbook with my published works, I couldn’t help feeling that something important was missing. I wondered if the elusive element had to do with my being virtually unknown in the field of magazine writing.
It wasn’t until my article appeared in the local paper’s Sunday magazine that I discovered what was lacking—-personal contact between readers and me. My simple essay entitled “Why the Cane?” brought the readers to life.
Several women with MS called me on the phone to empathize with me. A woman, recently diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, called to say my article gave her the courage to admit that it was time she bought a cane.
I welcomed my first fan mail and congratulatory cards. A dear friend from my past wrote that she admired my willingness to bear my soul in print. Clippings of the article filtered in with hand-written notes of “thought you might like an extra copy.”
I enjoyed being recognized as the author of “Why the Cane?” But the most rewarding incident occurred at an MS support group meeting. Cindy, one of the members, approached me and lightly touched my arm. “Remember the advice you gave me to buy a cane so that I’ll stop stumbling and falling?”
I nodded and glanced approvingly at her new cane.
“You’ve got to read this excellent article,” she said. “It’s about a woman who struggled with the decision to use a cane, just like I did.”
Obviously, Cindy hadn’t noticed my name in the byline.
A few weeks later, I visited a library in a neighboring town. After handing the librarian my card, she said, “I enjoyed your article in Wisconsin magazine so much that I saved it. I was planning to show it to my out-of-town friends. Now I’ll get to say that I met you.”
I rushed home, eager to inform my husband that I was starting to feel like a celebrity. When I walked through the door, he handed me a message from the Wisconsin chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The director felt my essay contained a poignant message, and she wanted permission to reprint it in their quarterly magazine.
Until “Why the Cane?” was published, I wasn’t aware of the impact my writing had on readers. Now I know that my words rouse their emotions and cause them to reflect on the world around them.
My sales are no longer mere exchanges of emails and paper. They are the sharing of my innermost thoughts with men, women, and children—-readers with voices of their own.
originally published in Byline Magazine, September, 1991