Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive; they walk and run.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
A few years ago when I was planning a trip to California, I kept thinking about what I wanted to do when I got there and who I wanted to see. And I had this thought: "I'll go see Madison Stone." There was only one problem: Madison is a character in a mystery novel I wrote (all three drafts now reside on a storage DVD somewhere on my shelves). My brain was bumfuzzled. On the one hand, I knew very well that she wasn't real; on the other hand, by god I knew exactly where she lived! I can see the house, I know how untidy she is, I can hear the ocean and seagulls from her front porch, I see where she left the hose out back when she was watering the roses. Nasturtium grows in a riot of color pushing through the leaning picket fence out front.
Real brain: She doesn't exist.
Writer brain: The hell she doesn't.
I lived with Madison and her pals for several years when I was writing draft after draft, and just because she isn't a real person living in Santa Cruz, and just because I made up her house, adding a room or extending the garden as needed, doesn't mean she isn't real. And I felt as sad about not being able to visit her as I might feel about a friend who has moved so far away that she is no longer available for talk over tea and scones at a sidewalk cafe.
What brought this story to mind is a pending trip to Indiana to see Dad. My sisters and I will fly out for a few days, hang out with each other and our brothers, and spend time with Dad, who is slowly dying from a bone marrow disease. Because I see him only once or twice a year, I have a picture of him in my mind that doesn't sync up with the real person living in rural Indiana. I picture him healthy, making jokes and telling stories, walking tall. His walk has changed as his body grows weaker, and I grieve for the younger man - and so does he. When I was there last year and was taking him home from the hospital, he joked, "Oh to be 80 again!"
Just as Madison is a real person to me, so my father is still in his prime at 80, wearing blue jeans and a white tee shirt, pinching the cigarette butt from his lips and flicking it into the ditch that runs along the south edge of his property. In my mind, Dad has taken on the properties - and nostalgia - of my memories of place. I long to return to the Terre Haute I knew when we would take road trips from San Francisco in the summer to see my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. I want to go to Third Street and see that old house with tar paper siding; Third Street is now a highway and the house was torn down years ago to make way for a small building which was, in its turn, torn down to put up a bigger building.
I want to go to a place that doesn't exist to see a father who is not the man I remember; but he is. He's still there, the same as Terre Haute is certainly still there, and he's gone just as surely as my childhood Terre Haute is gone.
I'll turn 65 this year, and every passing moment is a moment to practice letting go. Take down the old to make room for the new; accept the inevitability of change to leave space for celebrating transformation and honoring evolution. I know that Dad is gradually leaving, and I know how fortunate I am at my age to still be able to spend time with a parent. We used to joke about how much we have in common because we're "the same age." I mean, how many people can he talk to now who remember old time radio programs? We do not joke about aging now. Dad does not joke at all now.
So here's what I'm wondering on this warmish night in mid-May: At the end of the day (so to speak), all we have are stories. And I don't mean to diminish their value by saying "all we have," as if this is nothing. In fact, isn't it everything? Don't the minutes and moments and remember-the-time-whens accumulate and dissipate like fog in low-lying land? It's like this: for more than 10 years, I've been meeting up with my siblings annually at Dad's house, where we sit in the garage with the big bay doors open where we can stay dry while thunderstorms pass through, where we tell stories and create new stories, and just as the storm passes and leaves everything fresh and new, so this visit passes into memory - and into story. Thank god for story.
At the end of the visit four years ago, as I was putting my car in gear to pull out of Dad's driveway, I looked in the side-view mirror to see Dad and my sister Carolyn waving at me, Carolyn doing that imitation of our grandmother who used to wave a hankie at our retreating station wagon on those childhood visits, and I thought, as I often do, that this could be the last time I'd see my father.
Carolyn died three weeks later. Just like that, the Carolyn stories were a complete set. There would be no more.
All I'll ever have of Madison Stone is the story I created that she still inhabits. My father continues in the half-light of his last days in a place where I can still go and in a form that I can still see and hear and touch. I know very well how long he will live in stories and how important it is to live those tales and to tell them over and over - for the love of the person, for the love of the story.
Real brain: He's going to die.
Writer brain: The hell he is.