If you've been a regular here, you may know that I'm putting the final touches on a manuscript--a memoir about the relationship that developed between me and my father (just before, but mostly) after, his death, told in linked essays.
Some are more narrative than others, some more lyrical. One is long and segmented; a few are short forms. How and why each essay takes the shape and form it does relies on so many factors, and frankly often the *answer* doesn't reveal itself until far along in the revision process.
The rest of the time, I'm typically just following some instinct that's difficult to explain. The material knows, often, what it wants to be. The story knows how it wants to be told. Lately, I trust that if I listen carefully enough and resist the urge to be right about an initial impulse, I can hear when subsequent drafts are telling me something different.
An excerpted essay from the manuscript, with the title of "Eyes, Hands, Hotel, Hospital," is included in the December issue of an online journal with its own distinctly intriguing name, Halfway Down the Stairs.
If I had listened to my initial idea of how this particular piece of the story--my final visits to my father's hospital room--should exist on the page, it might have been three separate things: a light piece about my father, afflicted with Alzheimer's, thinking the hotel was a hospital; a long (and likely maudlin and unruly) prose poem about how his eyes unnerved me; and an essay about how comforted and upset I was by the look and feel of his hands even as everything else about his body was deteriorating.
But early pages can be squirrelly, and after a dozen or so combined drafts, I put each one away for a while.
At some point, I realized that it was all connected to those final days, everything running together, a collage of eyes and hands, memories of all the fine hotels we'd stayed at during my childhood, and finally, the reality of the hospital. It wasn't three pieces, it was one -- and a rather straight-ahead narrative essay at that
Which is not to say it might not have worked the other way, ten other ways. But this way felt right.
Here is part of middle of the essay, a section where I write of my father's confusion about where he was.
In the hospital, I asked my father if he wanted me to rub on some hand cream. He shrugged, but I did it anyway. I thought, What the heck, it will kill some time. After, he began what had, at least while I'd been here, become his daily litany of why he must be allowed to leave this place:
They can't keep me here against my will.
I know the law.
If I want to leave, I can you know.
Get them to call me a taxi.
Where's my suitcase? I want to go.
Get your mother; she'll know what to do. (This one I could not help laughing at out loud. My father always did everything related to travel, finances, and dealing with management or authorities; and he always reminded everyone that he alone was qualified to do so.)
Take me home.
I want to go home.
Why can't I go home? (This one I had trouble answering, even glibly, because I wanted to know the same thing. Why couldn't my mother allow him to come home—to his 5,000 square foot house, the one with extra bedrooms and spare bathrooms and wide doorways, the one built with polyester money—instead of making nursing home arrangements?)
Where is my ticket, my passport, the concierge?
When is that damned bellboy coming back?
They make me wait, for what?
I hope you will hop over to Halfway Down the Stairs (where there is a lot of engaging work), and read "Eyes, Hands, Hotel, Hospital."