My mom, in better days, getting her parish priest liquored up on her birthday
Chapter 1: Out in the Cold
A couple of months ago, I had a troubling task. I was down in Southern California at my mom’s, accompanying her (along with my older sister and my girlfriend) to a couple of assisted-living centers in order to evaluate them. At 92, my startlingly frail and near-blind mother has had 24-hour care for more than a year now, and has required many hours of daily care for some years before that. But that care has been given in her own home, the home she’s lived in for more than 60 years, the home where she raised me and my three siblings, the home she declared—multiple times—she would die in.
But the bank is busted. There’s no family money to afford the considerable, ongoing costs of the in-home care. The reality is stark: as my mother winds down her long, good life, the only way to ensure that she’s given a good roof and caring hands to guide her path is to sell her home. We’d known that for a while, but it shocked me yet.
So, we toured the care homes, led around by cheerful hosts, and even had a good lunch at one. We saw clean rooms, engaged caregivers, clear attention to comfort and detail. At one, we even had a couple of the residents spontaneously tell us what a nice place it was. I had no doubt that my mother would be looked after there, and that her natural sociability would bring her friends in short order.
Who Is the Consoled, Who Is the Consoler?
Touring these places, my mother gracious but quiet, talking to the hosts in a friendly way, but not really engaging — it tore me up. No one wanted to be there, my mother least of all. But that was just one tolling bell in the tower of emotion. The next day, when I was getting ready to leave to go back home, my mom called me back into her “office,” the tiny room in which I was raised with my brother. She sat me down and took my hands and told me she wanted to talk.
She’d heard from my sister that I had been down, feeling discouraged about my life and work, a foul blanket that covers me now and then. She told me, “Tom, you’re a good person. There’s no reason to feel bad about your life. You’ve made a difference in people’s lives. You need to know that.”
There it was: my skeletal, sparrow-like mother, reassuring me, when her world was being taken away from her. I could barely speak. I could only mumble out a choked, “Thank you, thank you, I love you mom,” and then there wasn’t anything else to say.
How Layered Emotion Brings Fire to Your Writing
I could write more about that, but most of it would be personal. But what struck me later as a writer was how powerful such encounters are. There was the triggering situation, and then the bullet. [pullquote]But what struck me later as a writer was how powerful such encounters are. There was the triggering situation, and then the bullet.[/pullquote] And how simple the scene: “ … you’re a good person.” The blunt rawness of it. These are the scenes in which you should put your characters, where complex feelings are pulled in different directions. Never using artificial melodrama, or the kind of heavy-handed flourishes where a reader sees the writer pulling strings — no, just the heart beating, fast and slow, the heart hurting, from the uncertain unfolding of days.
That scene was personal and poignant to me, but there are universal aspects to it that any writer can use: fear, frustration, sorrow, guilt. Think of the places, the people in your life, where there have been those watershed moments. If you can steer that flood tide, that cascade of feeling into your characters, into your scenes, your readers will feel it too. Birth, death and that impossible thicket of things that happen in between — move your work into the thicket, despite the thorns.
My mother’s move is only a couple of months away. She’s been generous and good-spirited about it, because she is generous and good-spirited. But I know the prospect makes her uncertain and anxious.
Chapter 2: Calling in the Calvary
Two weeks ago, a different day, a different plot point. My sister, who lives in the same town as my mom, emailed the family to tell us that she’d re-negotiated the existing reverse-mortgage on my mom’s house. The mortgage holders agreed to pull out a great deal more money out of the house’s value, enough to cover the in-home care. An eleventh-hour reprieve.
All of us had been choking, and now we were given a quick breath of blessed air. Such a lifting for all of us, especially my mom. But a writer’s curse is not being able to avoid looking at events like a writer. The bank stated a clear-cut time when the funds would end. So in essence, we were gambling, mortgaging her life. Or from another angle, mortgaging her death.
It made me think anew of how you can layer the pressures and pulls on a character, so that there’s no obvious way out of their feelings (or the situation surrounding the feelings).[pullquote]It made me think anew of how you can layer the pressures and pulls on a character, so that there’s no obvious way out of their feelings (or the situation surrounding the feelings).[/pullquote] I felt such relief knowing my mom wasn’t to be expelled from her home, such dread that she might outlive the contract, such guilt that I actually hoped she would die in her home before the time is up. How can you hope for your mother to die?
Those kinds of mixed feelings—love, guilt, pride, shame, regret—can pull at a reader as much as they pull at the characters in your work. If you can find a way to use those kinds of feelings, their contradictions and convulsions, richly and honestly, your writing will be the more rich and honest for it.
So, my mom, now all of 75 pounds, safe at home. I wish so much that I can write a happy ending for her—no one deserves it more. But we only have so much control over what happens in our lives. That’s why we need to chase down our characters and pull them into all of life’s brambles and beatitudes, and sometimes all at the same time.
So, you of WU, do you find your sources for character mishap and affliction in the pages of your own life? Are you comfortable with using them (however disguised or however painful) in your work?