Ann Kathryn Kelly

Ann Kathryn Kelly lives and writes in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, works in the technology sector, and leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared in a number of literary journals.

THE PULL by Ann Kathryn Kelly

I’ve felt the pull for years, to see what’s out there, how it differs from what I understand of the world. I’ve traveled distances to feed the pull. One destination, while still in the planning, thrilled me. Africa’s “Big Five” beckoned: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo. I had my telephoto lens and a new bush hat—wide-brimmed, khaki-colored, with proper ventilation at the crown. 

I pushed aside months of gripping headaches and growing fatigue, instead buying airfare, getting vaccinations. Nothing was going to sideline me.

“You have a cavernous angioma.” 

I looked at the doctor in his white lab coat with black stitching over chest pocket. Whatever it was he’d said, all I needed, wanted, to know was what we could do to clear it up before my safari. His next sentence slammed my stomach into my shoes.

“It’s a brain tumor.”  

I looked at him, silent because I didn’t know what to say next. He looked back, silent because he was giving me the space I needed to realize my life had changed in that heartbeat.


I tried another surgeon, and another. I walked into each appointment with the hope I’d be told what I had was nothing to worry about, that the last doctor was mistaken, that I could get back to my life. Instead, they agreed I could not ignore it. I certainly could not fly. I could, they said, choose the date of my open-head surgery.

Scans showed my brain tumor was bleeding, causing the symptoms I’d been trying to downplay because they didn’t fit into my plans. Nonstop hiccupping, dry heaving, thunderous headaches, a paralysis that had started in my left foot and ankle. If the next bleed was severe enough, it might leave me with stroke-like deficits. 

I was forty.


Trips, for years, had pulled me to places I wanted to see, taste, hear, learn about. 

The goal? To come back richer, in some way, for having been there. 

I was being pulled again, but that time to an experience far from savannas; to a place I knew nothing about, something malevolent at work inside my own head. A journey I never imagined I’d take. 

The goal? To survive.


They got it all. After close to twelve hours of surgery, and three days before I’d have left for the safari I scrapped. It was benign, yet I return every two years for follow-up.

The pull returned a year after my surgery, to see what’s out there, what I might have missed were the outcome different. I remember, and mark, what I survived.

Standing feet from where it’s said Jesus Christ was laid after being taken from the cross, I remembered. Later that day, when I slipped a handwritten prayer into a crack at the Western Wall—penciled lines on a corner I’d torn from a sales receipt for coffee—I remembered. When I stood outside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, breathing in call to evening prayer as it crackled from a minaret and bounced through the courtyard; and, again when I stood before the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the temples of Angor Wat. When I floated in the Dead Sea, crossed the Sahara desert by camel, trekked to the next waterfall in the Amazon rainforest. 

I remembered. 

When I looked into the glass-filled wall of human skulls stacked stories high in Cambodia’s Killing Fields …


I have a scar at the base of my skull. When I look in my bathroom mirror and bring another hand mirror to my neck, I see outlines of the staples used to close my head. Sometimes, I trace them.

When life’s minutiae interferes and I return to the belief that small frets are the big stuff, I touch and trace. 


The pull persists. To see what’s out there. 

To remind me of what’s good, right here, when I turn again the key to my front door.

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