Monday, July 16, 2007

One of the tough writing days

I started writing stories as a little kid. Poems too. People asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. "A writer!" I'd pipe, like a true naif who had no idea what she was getting into.

I should be struggling with Chapter Three right now, but after a few hours of the misery (Some days suck), I'm going to knock off for the day and instead write about a mentor.

I owe a lot of people who've inspired my writing efforts. But this is going to be about my babysitter and my friend. Barbara.

That's her, the 18-year-old babe taking care of me and my brother, circa 1962. I'm the 8-year-old Charm School valedictorian there in the foreground.

My dad was an orthopedic surgeon, and performed knee surgery on Barbara when she was 16. My folks wanted a Mother's Helper to keep us watched and un-drowned at the beach, and Barbara came into our lives. Often through the years she babysat us.

God how I wanted to be Barbara! She was pretty and funny and smart. She had a boyfriend, and smoked, and wore Tabu talcum powder. And she could talk me through any pre-teen, or teenage, bout of angst. Social crap. Anxiety about what a new school would demand from me. When my parents sensed something bothering me, they'd invite Barbara over for the evening. Some dinner ingredient was always missing. She'd volunteer to make a grocery store run, ask me along and, as we drove to the A&P, casually bring up whatever my parents had surmised that I was worried about.
She married the longtime boyfriend when I was in ninth grade and their first child was born a year later. Then she and her husband moved, and we saw them infrequently. It was some time before we had another long talk. In fact, it was 2005.

Meantime she fought, and beat, breast cancer in around 1994. Her husband left. She returned to school and became a psychologist. In summer 2004 we got word that she had advanced ovarian cancer and had five months to live.

So I was amazed when the phone rang about a year later and Barbara was on the other end of the line, a voice I recognized instantly, even after 15 years. No, she didn't make it. M.D. Anderson cancer center in Houston, which she praised to the skies, gave her an extra year, and a quality one, a year of nature hikes and gardening. And one last talk with me.

We stayed on the phone for over an hour. She asked me if I still wrote.

"Bleah, yeah, I started a novel years ago. I got about half of it written, but I dropped it."


I had to laugh at myself: "Because I wrote all the fun easy parts and now the only thing left is dreary work!"

"You can't look at it that way. You come to it with this negative feeling about it, of course you'll never do it. Instead just sit down and start writing. Don't think of it as the dull hard work, just see what flows."

I know it was because she was so sick that I wanted to do it, more for her than for myself. I gave it a couple more fits of attention.

In winter, it became my own again. A new idea occurred to me and it engaged me as much as the old plot points I'd put in place years before. I planted myself in the chair and made it a daily task.

Barbara got to meet and spend time with her first grandchild. She talked to my parents on the phone too, told them a funny anecdote about hiking in a wild area around Houston and a nice dog following her home. She could laugh and get joy out of any day God gave her. The time came though, when she made the decision to quit chemo. She entered a hospice after Christmas 2005, and died in January 2006.

I'm still not past it. It was stupid and wrong. By the time I talked with her she was past the anger over her original doctor's negligence. I'm not. But there it is.

I finished my first draft in April 2007. It bites in a lot of ways, and my rewrite journey makes me grind my teeth, but completing a draft was a milestone. Eventually it will be what I want it to be. OK, probably never, but eventually I'll feel ready to send it out there to sink or swim. Don't hold your breath.

But there will be 3 dedicatees, and Barbara will be one.


ronnie said...

Thank you for this.

The internet has given me a lot of wonderful things, but one of the best has been the capacity to be introduced by some wonderful writers to people I could never possibly have known about otherwise, because I knew them such a short time, or because they'd already passed... Brian's Mom, Sherwood's son Doug, your Barbara.

Thank you.


Sherwood Harrington said...

She could laugh and get joy out of any day God gave her.

That is so much the secret, isn't it?

When I think on all the times I've wished that time would go by more quickly, I want to go back and smack myself. When I was young, I thought that Thoreau's bon mot about not being able to kill time without injuring eternity was a very, very clever bit of verbiage to be trotted out at parties.

Too late I know it is a reverberating truth.

Thank you, Ruth.

And thank you, ronnie, too.