Author’s Note: An Update

As I wrote last time, I’ve been giving some thought to what and how much of my memoir to post here. Actually, I’d reached the point at which I wasn’t sure I’d publish the book at all. I was leaning toward just telling my story here. I had decided to write it because I’d been encouraged to do so to help others who find themselves in similar situations, to show them there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that no matter how far one falls, it is possible to climb back up again. I didn’t feel it would be right to profit from that.

Then. something happened that made me realize what I should do.

Thanks1We had an unexpected crisis this week. Our friend Carolyn, one of the two women who moved us out of a motel room and into our current apartment just over eight years ago, came to our rescue again. After a long flight from France and almost no sleep once she got home, she drove here to  help. This wonderful woman has seen us through so much–she still takes me to my doctor appointments and remembers to ask the questions I forget. She does so much for so many–not just Collin and me. I often wonder how she keeps going.  I’d planned to reward her for  all she’s done by giving her the rights to one of my books.

Last night, I realized which book it should be. This one. Without her, our story might not have had a happy ending.

So…if she accepts my offer, she will own all the rights and royalties to our story. I know that if it makes money, she’ll do a lot of good with it.

 

 

Author’s Note: Where From Here?

I was encouraged by a couple of friends to write a memoir. They felt my story could potentially help others facing similar difficulties. I had reservations at first, but finally decided to do it.

confusionThe plan was to publish it as a book via Amazon–but I wondered if I would be able to take the inevitable criticism and yes, outright personal attacks–that so many authors have faced online. It’s far too easy to make a total ass of oneself with the protection of anonymity the internet allows–as evidenced on sites like Goodreads and IMDb. Though I’ve developed a thick hide with regard to my novels, this project is so personal and covers such a painful period in my life, I started to wonder if I could do it.

I decided I would test the waters, so to speak. I’d post it, scene-by-scene, on this blog. Then I realized that would take a very long time. I’m not sure I’d live that long!

Seriously, publishing the entire story, scene-by-scene or otherwise, on my blog would make publishing it as a book pointless…wouldn’t it? I weighed the pros and cons carefully and came to this conclusion: if I am indeed going to publish the book (and at this point, I am), I shouldn’t put all of it out on the blog.

So what should I post on the blog? That’ll take some thought. I’m leaning toward selected scenes throughout the manuscript, rather than the first third or first half.

As for the internet trolls, well, I’m better at ignoring morons than I used to be…and if my new “maturity” fails me, well, just watch for me on upcoming episodes of Cops.

 

 

The Thief Who Came to Dinner…and Stayed

Mom and Collin were having trouble coping as well. Collin kept everything bottled up inside, and that worried me. He wasn’t doing well in school. Mom had lost interest in everything. She was depressed most of the time. She lost interest in the things she’d once loved. Housework didn’t get done. She didn’t cook often—we either ate takeout or microwaved frozen dinners. I was still getting royalty checks every six months, but no advances. My last proposal was rejected by Berkley. I had no idea when—or if—I would sell another book.

Eventually, we found ourselves behind on all of the bills, including the rent. That was when I discovered that Mom was broke. Dad had provided quite well for her—in addition to the money in the bank, he had a safe at home in which he’d left a stack of envelopes for each of us. Envelopes containing cash. Mom and Dad had taken in two of my cousins—second cousins, actually—when they were just infants. They were twins, a boy and a girl. They’d never legally adopted them, but regarded them as their own. There was an envelope for each of them containing two thousand dollars. The girl, Jackie, wasn’t around much. She’d reconnected with her biological mother and didn’t consider herself part of our family.

Dad, Jackie, me, Mom and Jeff, 1965The boy, Jeff, was another story. Dad had been concerned about what Jeff might do once he was gone. Jeff had always had some unwarranted sense of entitlement, as if he were owed everything. Before his health began to seriously deteriorate, Dad had bought an old pickup truck and worked on it in his own time, restoring it until it was like new. One day, Jeff came to the house and informed Dad he was there to get the truck. He didn’t ask for it, didn’t offer to buy it—just showed up to claim it. Collin saved money when he was very young—change, birthday money, whatever he got—and bought a bicycle. He had everything put on it. But like his mother, he was never able to ride it. Jeff came one day and announced that he was there to get the bike for his son. Needless to say, he left without it. Shortly after I sold my first three novels, Jeff asked Dad if he thought I would give him “a lot of money.”

“I want to be there when you ask her,” Dad told him.

Dad just wanted to see bloodshed, I think. He already knew what my response would be.

Jeff talked about everything he was going to take for himself once Dad was gone. “He’ll take your mother for every dime,” Dad told me on more than one occasion. “Don’t let him get away with it.”

I gave Dad my promise. But I failed him.

I should have realized something was brewing when Jeff practically moved in with us shortly after Dad died. He claimed to be staying with us during the week to go to work, then going home to his wife and kids in Fredericktown on weekends. I should have run him off. He had suckered Mom out of everything, sometimes a little at a time, sometimes a large amount. He’d gotten her to give him money to buy land for a home for his family. When Mom mentioned the land to his wife, Sharon, one day, Sharon didn’t know what she was talking about. They didn’t own any land. It was just one of Jeff’s many con games. Mom had never let on that he was constantly asking for money because she knew I’d make him leave.

When the money was gone, so was Jeff.

Guilt Trips and Writers Block

Even after the heart attack, even after he was put on a respirator, I don’t think any of us—Mom, Collin or I—really expected him to die. But he did.

Lakewood Park 1Dad, who had always been prepared for everything, was, in spite of his premonitions, not prepared for death in one respect. He and Mom had no prepaid burial plan, no cemetery plot. Oh, we’d joked about that sort of thing a lot–he told Mom to get one of those extra-large garbage bags and haul him out to the dumpster on trash pick-up day. That’s how we handled discussions of death. With humor. That’s how we dealt with anything we really couldn’t handle. I once told Collin when my time came, I wanted him to have me cremated and scatter my ashes in the Fiction section at Borders. “Sure,” he said. “And there’ll be a guy with a sweeper right behind me.”

I’d long ago opted for cremation—a plan Dad wanted as well, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. She had a fear of being cremated while still alive. We tried to tell her that doesn’t happen, but she preferred being worm fodder to toast. So the day we made the funeral arrangements, I bought four plots at Lakewood Park, the cemetery Mom chose—two for Mom and Dad, the other two for Collin and the wife I figured he’d have one day.

Dad always said his family only got together when one of them died. I guess that’s true, because I hadn’t seen any of them in years. A few of them showed up at the funeral parlor. I haven’t seen them since. Curiously, some kids from our old neighborhood, adults at the time of his passing, came. One boy who’d been a real troublemaker was there–and cried. Dad gave him hell for years, and there he was, crying at the casket. The most heartbreaking moment was the arrival of Dad’s best friend and his family. By that time, Alzheimer’s had a strong hold on Alvin–but as he stood at the casket, looking down at Dad, he said two words: “I remember.”

In the back of my mind, a troubling thought was already percolating: Dad had died because he’d given up. He believed there was nothing left for him in this world, so he made no attempt to stay alive. That belief took up residence deep within my subconscious and remained there for the next twenty-plus years like a poison leaking into my bloodstream.

The results were devastating….

*****

Writer’s block.

Until the spring of 1991, I didn’t believe it really existed. I’d never had it. I always delivered my manuscripts way ahead of schedule. I could write anywhere—in a restaurant, while having a conversation, on a plane in flight, in line at the grocery store. I didn’t need solitude or silence—in fact, I needed noise. I did my best work writing in longhand while curled up in a chair in front of the TV. But now, I couldn’t write a grocery list without a struggle. No matter how hard I tried, nothing worked. I had plenty of ideas, but I was never able to execute any of them.

My writing took on a dark, sinister quality that I’d never had before. The eternal optimist in me had taken off to parts unknown, and it showed in my attempts to write. Maria—my agent—advised me to take some time off, to get myself back on track. I stubbornly refused. Maria didn’t like my new projects. She compared me to Picasso. “He had his Red Period and his Blue Period. You’re in your Ugly Period,” she told me.

I should have listened to her. My frustration grew every day, and I took that frustration out on Maria, until finally it destroyed our friendship and our working relationship. I’ll always regret that–not because of the professional disconnect, but because I did, and still do, value her as a friend.

My journey of self-destruction was just beginning….

 

Living on Borrowed Time?

Dad wanted to manage my finances. He knew I couldn’t balance a checkbook if my life depended upon it, and I knew he was more than capable of doing the job. Every Christmas, Mom and I threatened to give him a case of WD-40. That man could sit on a dime and squeeze out nine cents. But the idea of letting him manage my finances was, to me, akin to giving him control, so even though I knew I’d probably be better off letting him do it, there was no way I’d ever agree to it.

checkbookDad was feeling unneeded, and I was shutting him out. He was proud of me and bragged to others about his daughter the author, even though he never told me he felt that way. And I was shutting him out. I was letting him know, every day, that I no longer needed him, that I’d do what I wanted when I wanted. I went on wild spending sprees, buying things I didn’t really need or want, just to make a point. I remember one day, coming home with a pair of ridiculously expensive boots. I showed them off proudly.

“How much did they cost?” Dad asked.

I told him.

He frowned. “Better walk on your hands from now on,” was all he said.

Dad was at a loss. He and Mom had given up their home to help me. When I was still working at my “real job,” I worked downtown—a long way from Fenton, from Jefferson County, for someone who couldn’t drive (I’m epileptic, and though a lot of people with seizure disorders drive, I’m not one of them). I had to live in the city—or at the very least, on a public transportation route. Collin was a baby at the time, and none of us wanted him left with a babysitter, so Mom and Dad sold their place and moved with me.

That left Dad with no home of his own, no work, and a daughter who didn’t appreciate him. He never said that, of course. After he stopped drinking, he was once again the Dad of my childhood. There was no anger, no emotional abuse, just him feeling useless…and depressed. I don’t think he ever said that, even to Mom—but she knew.

With my first advance check, I did buy them a car—a 1985 Ford Escort. Dad had chosen the make, the model, and even the color. I’ve always suspected Mom would have preferred the white Ford Mustang she got as a loaner car when a bicycle hit the Escort one day while she was picking Collin up after school, but she let him choose, because she knew he was already feeling left out. He only got to drive it a few times— at 72, his eyesight was failing due to cataracts, and he willingly stopped renewing his driver’s license. Since it was a new car not prone to breaking down every other week, he couldn’t even keep himself busy with repairs.

We moved in the spring of 1990 after an attempted break-in. Dad got up one night and discovered a man on our porch, unscrewing the bulb in the outdoor lamp. Dad was waiting in the darkness with a machete, waiting for the idiot to come inside. Had our dog not started barking, he might have had some explaining to do—to the police. Dad was convinced his days on earth were nearing an end, and urged me to make the move before we were stuck there with no protection.

hourglass 2So we moved into a better house in a better neighborhood. I wasn’t as crazy about the new place as he and Mom were, but I did like the neighborhood, close to the city limits. Dad seemed happier, but his health was definitely declining. He could no longer even mow the lawn without ending up flat on his back, gasping for air and clutching his chest. Mom warned me that he’d never be willing to let me hire someone to do the yard work, so I bought him a lawn mower for Christmas—one that would do most of the work for him. He acted as if I’d given him a Rolls Royce. He told Mom he didn’t think I cared so much about him.

He never got to use it. He died a month later.

*****

In November, Dad became ill—seriously enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. Misdiagnosed by the doctor there, he was sent home with instructions to take Pepto-Bismol. Two weeks later, he was admitted to the same hospital and scheduled for surgery. The correct diagnosis was diverticulitis. Because of the delay in treatment caused by the ER doctor’s error in identifying the problem, Dad’s colon was so inflamed, his surgeon had to do a temporary colostomy and send him home for two months to heal before going back in to finish the job.

That was when Dad’s dreams began. In those dreams, he saw his own death in great detail. Mom tried to tell him they were just dreams. His doctor tried to tell him they were just dreams. Dad, however, was certain time was running out for him. “When I go back to the hospital, I’m not coming home,” he told Mom.

“Then don’t go,” she said.

“I have to,” he insisted. “No matter what, I have to be there.”

I’d like to think that the dreams were God’s warning to Dad, His way of giving Dad a chance to turn to Him before it was too late. I hope he did.

 

 

History Repeated Itself….

Dad needed to be needed. It was that simple.

He didn’t have any hobbies. He wasn’t into hunting or fishing, didn’t belong to a bowling team. He went to work every day and came straight home afterward. He didn’t go to a bar with the guys for a beer. If he wasn’t doing repairs around the house or yard work, after dinner he’d be watching TV.

The real problems began when he retired.

beerHe didn’t want to retire, but the housing market went soft in the seventies–Dad worked in construction. He designed and built houses. He made the decision to retire reluctantly. He didn’t handle it well. He started to drink. In spite of his own childhood, his resentment of his own father’s drinking and abuse, he would start drinking early in the day and drink until he fell asleep. When he woke, he was fine…until the next day, when the cycle repeated. He was like Jekyll and Hyde. Beer turned him into the monster.

He was never physically abusive, but the emotional abuse was bad enough. Mom threatened to leave him more than once, but I knew she never would. He knew it, too.

contractThe turning point came when I sold my first novel. He abruptly stopped drinking. No rehab, nothing. He just stopped. But he was like that. He could stop doing anything if he wanted to. He’d stopped smoking the same way. I think he wondered if we might abandon him once he no longer had that financial control he’d held over our heads.

That was when I started to change….

 

A Childhood Denied

Dad wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot. For years, we’d had a relationship that was difficult at best, combative at its worst. Though we were in a good place when he died, there were still a lot of unresolved issues between us, many things that had been left unsaid. Questions to which I would never have answers.

Dad was, in an odd way, the reason I had succeeded as an author. He, unlike Mom, did not encourage me. He thought a career as a novelist was a long shot at best. He had advised me to get a job that offered some security. He didn’t realize that the “sure thing” didn’t exist. There are no sure things in this world. Every job has its own risks, and nothing lasts forever. He taught me that money was security. Money was power.

Dad 1914Dad loved Mom and me, though he didn’t have an easy time showing it. Whatever shortcomings he had as a father were the result of his lack of a role model to learn from. Unlike Mom, who had two good, loving parents, Dad’s father was a heavy drinker. His mother committed suicide when he was a baby, and his stepmother was abusive.  He didn’t have any warm, happy memories of his childhood, no recollections of Christmas or his birthday–until he had to get his birth certificate to apply for Social Security, he didn’t even know his correct birthdate. He’d always thought it was November 11th. It was actually November 14th.

Dad didn’t know the truth about his mother until he was fourteen. One day, he had remarked to one of his older brothers that their mother sure didn’t act like a mother. “She’s not our mother,” his brother told him. “Our mother’s dead.”

He ran away that same day. He slept in barns, sheds, anywhere he could find a place to lie down and escape the elements. He eventually ended up at his maternal grandmother’s home. When his father showed up to take him back, his grandmother stepped onto her front porch with a shotgun. She made it clear if he opened the gate, she’d shoot. She blamed him for her daughter’s death.

Dad's GrandmotherDad stayed with her until her death. He loved her dearly, and it was mutual. As she took care of him when he was young, he took care of her in her twilight years.

My father was sixteen at the start of the Great Depression. His troubled childhood, combined with the struggle to survive in that time, made him very controlling financially. But he would buy me just about anything I wanted–Mom liked to tell the story of the two of them Christmas shopping when I was five. They couldn’t decide which doll I’d like best, so they bought one of each.

“Your little girls are going to love these,” the woman at the checkout remarked.

“Girls?” Mom laughed. “We only have one.”

She said the woman was amazed. “All of this is for one child?”

I think that was the Christmas they discovered their little girl was a tomboy who loved horses and didn’t really care for dolls.

I was definitely a Daddy’s girl when I was young. He couldn’t leave the house, except to go to work, without me. It was when I grew up that problems arose. Mom said it was because we were so much alike that we always butted heads. While he’d indulged me as a child, as I grew older, I began to feel he was using money to control me…and I resented it. I got tired of hearing “Who paid for it?”

I decided that I would make so much money that the answer to that question would be ME. No one was going to control me. And that, I believe, was the beginning of my journey to my eventual downfall.

 

From Riches to Rags….

In the autumn of 1990, I had already published four novels—Dance of the Gods, Angels at Midnight, A Time for Legends and Ms. Maxwell and Son. My soon-to-be-released fourth novel, Solitaire, had been featured at the American Booksellers Association convention in Las Vegas that summer. I had three more books under contract to two major publishing houses. My family–my parents, my eleven-year-old son and I–had moved into a new home a few months earlier. Life was perfect.

I was bickering with one of those publishers–Berkley–nonstop. Even though I was writing romantic comedies for Silhouette Books, I was adamant that Berkley not market me as a romance author. I was writing thrillers–how would all of the readers who might like my books find them in the Romance Section?

Mine is a riches to rags story. What can I say? I’ve always had a tendency to do things backwards.

Twenty-seven years ago, I had everything I thought I’d ever wanted. I had a beautiful, healthy, happy little boy. I had the career I’d dreamed of since I was a kid. My agent–the best in the business, as far as I’m concerned–loved my writing so much, she’d sold three of my novels to a major publisher for a six-figure advance before the first was even in print. Life was good. I thought I had it made.

The problem was that I’d been doing it for the wrong reasons. At the start of my career, I was in it for the money.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve always loved writing. The idea of making a living doing something I loved so much was irresistible. The problem was that I didn’t have my priorities in the proper order, and eventually, it came back to bite me in the butt. I found myself a square peg stuck in a very uncomfortable round hole. My first novel, Alexander’s Empire (later retitled Dance of the Gods by Berkley’s marketing chimps, who were aiming to turn me into a Sidney Sheldon knockoff), had a glamorous international backdrop–because it suited the story I was telling, not because I’d ever intended to make a career of writing what was known as the glitzy women’s fiction genre.

My (Book) Babies...All in One Place!An editor who once rejected a glitzy romance from a good friend of mine gave as one of her reasons for the rejection the reality of my friend’s less than glitzy life. This editor felt authors of such novels needed to have actually lived the lifestyle. Though the editor is not one of my favorite people in the business, I have to agree with her on that one. To go out and do interviews, to publicize your novels, trying to be something you’re not, takes its toll mentally.

I was a jeans and T-shirts kind of woman who knew nothing of high fashion. I didn’t know Donna Karan from Kmart. I found doing research on the lifestyle to be painfully boring. I wasn’t even all that fond of upscale restaurants. I was content with fast food and pizza. I remember going over my editor’s notes on the manuscript for my second novel, Angels at Midnight, counting fifteen times I’d seen “What’s she wearing?” written in the margins. Frustrated, I finally responded, “A smile.”

Then, I was blindsided by an unexpected family tragedy: the death of my father.

Dad had gone into the hospital for surgery in November 1990. He’d been experiencing severe abdominal pain for weeks. Mom had taken him to the emergency room at a local hospital–where he was misdiagnosed and sent home with instructions to take Pepto-Bismol. By the time the real problem–diverticulitis–was discovered, his colon was so inflamed, his surgeon, Dr. Behrens, had to give him a temporary colostomy. He was to have a second surgery in January to reconnect the colon and remove the gall bladder.

His cardiologist, Dr. Johnson, prescribed medication for an irregular heartbeat detected during the first surgery–but Dad had side effects from the drug. Instead of talking to Dr. Johnson about switching meds, Dad just stopped taking it. That was his way. He’d just stop taking the stuff he really needed, but he’d buy antibiotics on the street like addicts buy crack and meth.

My father was a penicillin junkie.

Happy Birthday, Dad!He also foretold his own death. For weeks following the first surgery, he had dreams that were always the same: Mom, Collin and I would arrive at the hospital. We would be met at the ICU entrance by a nurse in green scrubs who would say, “I’m sorry, he didn’t make it.” Dad was convinced he would die after surgery. We tried to tell him it was just a dream. He didn’t believe that.

At first, all seemed to go well. He had the second surgery on a Tuesday morning in late January and was doing well. He was scheduled to come home the following Tuesday. His doctors tried to reassure him, but he still believed he was going to die.

“You made it through the operation, Jake,” Mom pointed out. “It was just a bad dream.”

“Then why am I still having it?” he wanted to know.

On Saturday morning, we got a call from the hospital. Dad was in intensive care. He’d had a heart attack. Mom, Collin and I rushed to the hospital. He was sitting up in bed, eating, watching TV. For a guy who’d just had a heart attack, he seemed fine.

By Sunday night, he was on a respirator.

We saw him alive for the last time on Tuesday morning, January 29th. An ice storm hit on Tuesday evening. Assuming we were in for the night, I went to take a shower. I didn’t hear the phone ring. Mom came to the door. “We have to get to the hospital. Your dad’s dying,” she told me.

Even then, I didn’t really believe it. Because of the ice storm, we took a cab to the hospital. At the ICU entrance, we were met by a nurse–in green scrubs. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He didn’t make it.”

Just like Dad’s dream.

The nurse took us to Dad’s room. He told us that Dad had died before he placed the call to Mom, but he didn’t want to tell her on the phone, especially if she’d be driving on ice.

I don’t remember much else after that. We stayed at the hospital for a while. Mom made some calls, letting people know. I was in a mental fog. I couldn’t think clearly. My father was dead, and it was my fault.

I had trouble sleeping that night. I had trouble going home, getting into my soft, warm bed and sleeping peacefully when my father was lying in a cold, dark hospital morgue. I had trouble accepting the reality that he was never coming home again, that after the funeral, I would never see him again. I wondered where he really was. I’d gone to church as a child, as a teenager, but I never got much out of it. I was angered by the petty squabbles that went on in every congregation. I wondered if people really went to church to worship God, or if churches were just a bunch of nonprofit social clubs.

I believed in God. I didn’t believe in church.

I didn’t have all the answers. I wasn’t even sure I had all the questions. My relationship with God at the time of Dad’s death was at best a casual one. I didn’t call on Him unless I was in trouble, and didn’t expect to hear from him. But now I needed to know: was my dad in Heaven?