Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The History of Breathe, Part One

Well, I've done it again. I've been recalcitrant in my blogging duties and have finally written a new blog post but I'm afraid it will greatly exceed your patience to read. So, I'll post it in two parts. Here, at long last, is The History of Breathe, Part One.
Next Spring will mark seven years since I began writing my memoir, now called Breathe. For two or three decades now, even before this story began, people have asked me when I was going to write a book. This was often in response to them receiving, of all things, my annual holiday letter which arrived anytime between Christmas and Easter. And interspersed among these votes of confidence was the voice of my mother, sighing and saying, “You’re such a gifted writer, it’s a shame you never did anything with it.” 

“Hey,” I’d counter, scribbling yet another note to one of my kids teachers, I write every day!” 

After the events in this story had transpired in real time, I started answering, “well, first I have to figure out how many of my family members I want to alienate.” And then I lost them all anyway. By then I’d given birth to Bella, at age 42, and this book, which I referred to as Naptime, began.
Bella Grace is born!
While the other four kids were at school and Bella slept in the afternoons, on most days I resisted the temptation to crawl in beside her, forcing my ass into my office chair instead to finally start writing this book. I figured I needed the old college deadline so I set myself the goal of having it done to mark the tenth anniversary of Noah’s, death on August 10, 1997. Yes, one year plus a few months to wrap things up sounded completely attainable as I sat down to begin. (If you haven’t written a book, this may seem perfectly attainable; if you have, you’re probably smirking about now.) By then it had been about ten years since the story timeline started—the opening scene being Noah’s birth on May 18, 1996—and it was Easter 2006, which seemed like a good time for resurrections.  
Noah Patrick
The first thing I realized was that I had to start at the end. The final scenes of the story recount our medical malpractice trial so my first task was to transcribe the trial because, lucky me, our courtroom had the technological innovation of videotape vs. stenographer. For many months, during naptime, I sat in front of our VCR with my notebooks and pens and wrote, word for word, every testimony from seven full days in court. My kids would come home from school to find me seated in front of the TV, stopping, rewinding, and starting the seven VCR tapes over and over again, until I was finished. By then, it had been four years since the trial, so this exercise served as a good refresher. And when I’d pressed the stop button for the last, blessed time, I still had to transfer them from my notebooks to my computer. 

That done, I searched through cupboards, closets, and storage bins in the basement until I’d found all the baby books, photo albums, calendars, journals, sympathy cards, newspaper clippings, church bulletins, bills, receipts, and birth, death and medical records from the five-year span of story time, researching and reliving those events over and over until they, too, were fresh in my head and in my heart. And I learned the absolute truth of the saying:  the heart remembers what the mind forgets. One of the many things I unearthed in the process were notes I’d taken from a Compassionate Friends conference for bereaved parents that Andy and I had attended in 1999 where I’d asked a well-known grief writer, “how long should you wait to write your story?” And because I can’t remember even my own phone number, for five years by then I’d felt like I was running behind because I remembered her answering, “five.” But when I found my notes, I discovered she’d really answered me by saying, “You should wait five years to tell it, but ten years to write it!” So, I was right on track.

In November of 2006, the same year I began writing, Andy and I went on a sailing trip with friends to Martinique. On November 13, I sat on the deck after my 45th birthday dinner under a starlit night with the Caribbean caressing our catamaran. My friend told me I could make a birthday wish. I was still nervous about saying I was writing a memoir, hadn’t told anyone yet, what if I didn’t finish it?, but the night cradled me its warm, magical spell so I said, “My wish for my birthday is to publish the book I’m writing.” They were silent at first, so I figured I’d better have a back-up plan, adding, “and to see a sea turtle.” Then we all toasted my birthday wishes those seven years ago and the next day while we were snorkeling, I swam ahead of the group and there, just in front of me, I saw a beautiful hawksbill turtle breaststroking along. As I screamed through my snorkel, the turtle turned its head and looked at me with a round, soulful eye and I felt my birthday blessing, happy that I’d added a wish that could be so quickly granted. My other wish, as you know, took much longer. But I was happy to have the encouragement of this ancient reptile whose ancestors had been swimming in the sea for over 250 million years and whenever I grew frustrated, I’d imagine my birthday turtle patting my hand with its flipper and saying “all in good time, my dear, all in good time.” 

One year later, I had still only just begun to fathom the mountain I’d set out to climb as we celebrated the tenth anniversary of Noah’s death in August of 2007 by hiking in the White Mountains, climbing Mt. Carter and staying overnight in a hut with Hannah, Christiana, and Micah instead.  We brought a sprinkling of his ashes and buried them at the peak, making it just a teeny bit higher.

In the past seven years, I’ve solidified our familial reputation for being late for everything, telling my kids, “Just a minute, I need to finish this sentence,” my fingers flying across the keyboard before hitting “save” and speeding them off to one soccer game or another wondering what on earth we were having for dinner. In the time that I’ve been writing this memoir, we’ve moved from Rhode Island to Costa Rica and from Costa Rica to the Oregon coast, then back to Costa Rica for another year, back to Oregon for yet another, and last year we returned to Rhode Island.  When I started writing, my oldest daughter, Hannah, was a junior in high school looking at colleges and I was still nursing Bella, who was two. Hannah graduated from Georgetown two years ago with degrees in Physics and Portuguese and Bella, now nine, has never known a time in her life when I haven’t been working on this book. In this time, she’s been weaned and potty trained, lost her first baby tooth and grown X number of her permanent ones, learned to walk, skip, swing, swim, dance and ride a bike, and she’s learned to speak in both English and Spanish.  .

After completing my crash course in stenography and historical research, when I finally sat down to begin writing the story off the top of my head, what came swimming out of my fingertips were six pages about salmon. And when I got to “the end” for the first time, the manuscript was over 500 pages long, raw and uncut, was entitled Shoveling Sand, and contained not one scene or sentence of dialogue, except what I’d transcribed from the trial. I was beginning to understand that I needed help learning to craft a story. I wrote to Ann Hood and in July 2008 I went to my first writing conference in Guatemala, at her recommendation, where she told me, “This story needs to be told and you need to tell it,” and Joyce Maynard said, “You sound angry; start over.”  
Joyce and Ann


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