Thursday, October 21, 2010

Instant clarity

In my last post I promised to share the reason why I returned to my memoir project.

On August 30 I was up at our lake house, typing away on a young adult novel about a sixteen-year-old boy who seems to be the only one who sees something in his grandfather's odd behavior beyond a neon sign flashing "Alzheimer's", and is willing to bust him out of a locked memory ward to find the answers.

*Ding*: I had mail.

The note was from Deirdre, Ron's first wife. Deirdre and I became pen pals for one extraordinary reason: in the early months after Ron's suicide, she reached out to the widow and young children left behind by the husband she had quit so long ago. In one amazing handwritten letter after another, Deirdre offered me the one thing I couldn't possibly conjure for myself: context. To all appearances, Ron's suicide was in direct answer to my intention to divorce him, and to that notion Deirdre's precious gift of backstory created an emergency roadblock: as I moved forward, any access to the path of guilt would be denied.

The reason for Deirdre's August 30th e-mail: after a full year of symptoms, she had been diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The one and only time I met Deirdre face-to-face, several years ago (an event memorialized in the photo, above—Deirdre is on the right), it seemed that I was the one with the big life challenges. She had a happy late-life marriage and a touch of sciatica. Then BAM. It doesn't get a whole lot more challenging than ALS. Like any story with an epic cast, life is a continual compounding of scenes in which our roles are always changing.

Because of my experience with Ron I wasted only a few minutes dispensing the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. Instead I focused on the parameters of our relationship: she lived in South Carolina, I lived in Pennsylvania, and our time was limited. How could I best use that time to honor what she'd meant to me?

And I thought, what if it were me? What if I had drawn the ALS card, and only had a limited amount of time to keep writing? Would I keep working on this YA novel I enjoyed, that would have some emotional resonance and that I might even be able to sell, or would I write the memoir that will surely help me construct context and meaning from the chaotic events of my life?

I returned to the memoir the next day and have not allowed that voice that insists on second-guessing me to again gain purchase.

Here's why: whether other readers will be interested in my life or not is no longer my concern. Deirdre is my audience. My audience of one. In my return e-mail, I told her as much.

She wrote back:
You are such a funny bunny. You want "desperately to do something meaningful" while you are here on this earth and you have, my dear, you have. Think of those lovely boys/men you raised in the midst of a murky, twisted marriage with an emotionally stunted person. I could never have done that, never!
If Deirdre only knew how much she had to do with that. Her letters freed up energy I might have spent beating myself up so that I might best help my sons get through the ordeal of the suicide's aftermath.

I mean to tell her. As a way of honoring the huge gift she gave me 13 years ago, with that series of letters she has given me permission to reproduce, I am writing that memoir.

And since she's on a deadline, so am I.

One more thing. While Deirdre and I are both big readers, I learned from her bookshelves that time we met that our tastes are are quite different: I am an omnivorous reader, Deirdre is not.

She likes the truth, hard up and artfully expressed.

The only genre she reads is memoir.


Lisa R. Tomarelli said...

I continue to encourage you, Kathryn, and echo Dierdre's words: you HAVE made a difference!

It is a privilege to meet Dierdre...a brave, brilliant soul. Interesting that the connection is through Ron; I, too, have a soul-sister who I met because we dated the same guy! My life is forever changed.

God works in amazing ways!

Candyce Merkle said...

Kathryn, Deirdre forwarded your blog post to me. I helped put Deiredre in touch with you after Ronnie's death. In fact you and I met in passing years ago outside of Allentown's Civic Theatre after a Coral Nolan ballet performance you appeared in. I too am continually impresed by Deirdre's strength and grace. She is so much like her mum whom I was blessed to know. Deirdre and I met over 30 yrs. ago when she & Ron were first married and living next to the infamous in-law (Ruth; Lloyd was fine). She walked into my dress shop in Slatington. Intrestingly & oddly, I came across Ron's tombstone a few weeks ago as I was searching Slatington's cemeteries for genaology information on my family.

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks, Lisa!

And Candyce: Wow, so glad you stopped by to read this post! Thanks for leaving a comment. I remember hearing it was you who put Deirdre in contact with me--thanks you so very much. I'm sorry I don't remember meeting you but now I certainly have a lot more context. Please stop back again from time to time!

Amy Kirk said...

My aunt just died after years of living with ALS. It is a terrible way to go. But she stayed in good spirits the whole time. And she kept "writing." She dictated her writing and had a good friend transcribe it. I don't know if its been published yet, I keep meaning to find out, but I for one can't wait to read it. She was a beautiful soul. I'm sorry that your friend is going to have to go through this. It is a terrible disease and its sad that they haven't found a cure for it yet. I wish her love and lots of company... And in the words of my aunt... may it be one long extended vacation where people will visit her instead of her going to visit everyone else.