The Ties that Bind

I’ve been working on a novel for the past seven years. Even as I type that sentence, I am filled with shame. It’s not because there is anything ignoble about working on a book for a long time. Just that in my case, it feels as if there is. You see, I have this incredibly strong sense that this book shouldn’t have taken me this long–and I write that as if it’s finished, which it’s not. But in my mind this is a book that could have been written in a year, should have been written in a year, and the reason it wasn’t has to do with my own failings of character, nothing more and nothing less.

Oh, I could give you reasons. I could tell you that I started it, wrote a hundred pages, got derailed by various things–a full time job, a toddler, writing a TV pilot–that interfered with my ability to focus on a project that promised little in the way of monetary recompense. I could tell you how after each interruption, I found that in order to reconnect with the story I had to virtually start over from scratch. But explanations feel lame. They feel like an excuse. And of course they are.

As I write this now, I don’t know if this novel is going to be worth a year’s effort much less seven. I do know this, however. This time I am going to finish. And even with my sense of shame about the time involved, when I finish I will be proud of myself for my perseverance. Because it would have been much easier to quit. I did that once a long time ago, on a novel that I spent six years working on in my 20s.

Perhaps I should mention at this point that my father spent over thirty years working on a novel that he never finished. By my estimation, he began it in his fifties, the same age I was when I began mine. Talk about legacies!

Purely from a writing perspective, I can’t imagine a worse role model than my father. It’s small wonder that my wife worries about me, worries that I am going to fritter away the rest of my life on a fool’s errand. I try to reassure her that I am not like my dad, that I have already published four books. But it is also true that none of them were novels, and it gets harder to make the case for my novel as each new year passes and I still have not typed “The End.” Ten years ago, right after Eden was born, when Dad was 85, he and my stepmother visited Alice and me in Brooklyn. He brought with him a zippered duffel that must have weighed fifty pounds. Inside were the thousands of pages of his unfinished opus. He had finally given up on ever being able to sort it all out or make a book out of it. “I’m leaving it to you to do,” he said.

Thanks, Dad.

Though I had no intention of following through on his wishes (that would mean taking guilt and masochism to a level extreme even by my standards), I reluctantly accepted the bag. He was 85, after all, and I am not that mean. Despite my resolve not to open Pandora’s box, curiosity took hold, and I read through some of the thousands of pages he had bequeathed me to see what he had been up to all those years. It wasn’t that “All work and no play” moment out of The Shining, but in a way it was more painful. There seemed to be many different versions of the same thing–I mean many, sometimes as many as ten–and though the writing was often quite good, it was maddening to read. I was unable to find progression in the story or a comprehensible plot. Finally, I put the pages back in the valise, swearing at him for having unloaded his baggage on me. The duffel is still in my closet ten years later, a feng shui nightmare that I am not brave or cruel enough to throw out.

My father in the meantime has developed dementia. He is 95 now. His wife, my beloved stepmother, Libby, became ill a year after we moved them into an assisted living facility in Cambridge. She died a mere six months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Dad stayed in the assisted living for a while but it proved too difficult and risky for him to continue there; he needed a higher level of care. So now he’s in a VA nursing home in Bedford, Mass., that caters specifically to old soldiers suffering from dementia.

I’m writing this while on a bus back to New York, returning from my monthly visit to see him. Though I saw him only yesterday, I’m pretty sure he’s already forgotten. His memory is like an old pair of socks, worn and baggy, with many holes in it. Interestingly, unlike most of the other men in the facility with him, Dad has a real awareness of what’s going on inside his failing brain. He’s almost always cheerful, even if conversation is difficult and often circular. He says, “I’m not going to remember what you’re saying. My mind has shot off into outer space.” Or “You have to understand, I don’t have all my marbles anymore.” One thing he always does remember, however, and this is true whether we’re face to face or on the phone, is that I am working on a novel. “How’s it going?” he asked me yesterday. “Have you finished it yet?”

“Not yet,” I told him. “But the end is in sight.”

“How long do you think?”

“A month of solid work, if nothing else intervenes.”

“Do you have an agent?”

“I’m going to try and get a new one as soon as I finish.”

I realize that on some level, my novel has become his novel, that he can’t separate his own erstwhile obsession from mine, and that it is firmly lodged in his brain this way because at 95 he is still on an unconscious level seeking the closure he never got. I have thought about lying to him, about telling him that I’m finished even though I’m not, just to relieve the anxiety he feels both for me and himself. It doesn’t feel right, though.

As much as I want to give him that gift, it’s got to be the truth not a lie. I say this knowing that he’ll never actually read my novel, even if he’s still around, because he can’t retain things long enough to follow a story of any length. The days when I needed his approval are long behind me anyway. That’s not what I want from him. Whatever disappointments he’s caused me or I’ve caused him, all I want to do now is give him something to make the time he has left more peaceful and happy. When I write “The End,” it will have meaning for him nearly equal to the meaning it will have for me because it will be a liberation from, as well as a celebration of, the ties that bind.

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Originally published at peteralson.com on January 8, 2016.

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