My daddy was a writer. He never made a cent at it, if you asked him, he would have said “accountant,” but he spent all his free time wanting to write, and so we knew him as one. I guess he wrote for all the reasons real writers write: fun, self-knowledge, and calling. Perhaps most accurately he would have said it was for “salvation,” his way of seeking enlightenment. It was the way he centered himself. It was the way he gained an understanding of his world. And it was his favorite cure for depression, from which he chronically suffered. He had tried alternately, at some time or another prozac, welbutrin, and marijuana (which I didn’t know until I was older). But he preferred not to use substances, legal or otherwise, because he saw his depressions as circumstance driven, and these needed to be tackled with an understanding of the circumstances. Writing forced him to think about solutions. And although journals helped him a bit, it was his fiction which was the most reflective.
The more he wrote the more he wrote for only those reasons. At some point he knew it was never going to be his career, even though his stories were good. But they were good stories that tended, consistent with his purpose, to center around his life. He would even used us, my mom, my sister, my brother and me as characters. In them, we would do and live experiences we never had. We would see, in his stories, in us, something we didn’t like, or things that we loved as if we were looking at others. And sometimes we were embarrassed over what we didn’t even do. We would get mad at each other, for wronging each other only in his stories. When they were real enough, it would become hard to differentiate. But we learned to appreciate ourselves better because of the fictional experiences that we felt we really had. We would laugh at ourselves, or we would cry, over these other lives.
I read all his stories again, and some I had never seen, after my father died. He hadn’t written as much once he got old, and so these stories brought me back again to when I was a little girl. The one that hit me the hardest was the rediscovery of a story I had remembered well. It was a story my father had written when I was young in which I had died. I didn’t understand at the time why he would write a story like that. I didn’t know at the time whether this was something he secretly wanted, and at first, I was hurt. My father was everything to me, and quite honestly, although he would never say this, I thought I was his favorite. He was a second child, like my sister, and so in many ways he was more like her, but I was his first, and he had always described the coming of his first child as the most significant event of his life. Having a child was what taught him to love, he said. He had snapped a photo of me at birth in which I was held up by the doctor. Bloody and crying I was in a crucifixion pose. Symbolic of all the things the crucifix represents, love, suffering, salvation, life, he named this picture appropriately. He called it, “My Savior.”
So, why would he imagine my death?
What I came to understand is that his stories, born out of daydreams, imaginative meanderings of his mind, were not necessarily what he would want to happen. More often they reflected fears, or conflicts or anxieties. And he would write them down, if he thought they were powerful, meaningful, or could help him in some way, to avoid the outcome or to handle adversity or to gain perspective. And if it was a particularly good story, it had to be written, even though it might shock his only readers. The more powerful, the more compelling, the more he had to experience and understand the fears and anxieties that seemed to rule him. And then the story wrote itself, not unlike how life writes itself.
In this story, the car accident that took my life involved my mom, my sister Nickie, my brother Wally and my Aunt Bonnie too. We were all in the car, on a road trip, from Atlanta to New York. My dad stayed at home to work, preparing tax returns, like he did in his real life. Bonnie went along to help with the kids, and for a free trip to New York.
My dad was on the phone with my mom. He had called her on her cell phone. Bonnie had been up too late and was too tired to help with the driving. As my mom related this to my dad, she and Bonnie started to argue about it. He heard enough to know the crash was bad, there was some screaming. He heard my name, “Rose!” And then he had to wait as he was hung up on so that my mom could call for an ambulance.
It was long wait. He described hopes, fears, and frantic attempts to try to find out what was going on. Then the wait was over.
In the story, Bonnie blamed herself cause she wasn’t able to help with the driving, and because she was arguing when it happened. My mom blamed herself ’cause she was driving, and my dad blamed himself because he had been the one that called. “I knew that talking on a cell phone while driving was dangerous.” He wrote. “And if I hadn’t called… Rose would still be alive.”
The grief of losing a child is something my parents never actually had to experience, but my dad always said that with the birth of his first child, me, he understood those who had. It wasn’t until he experienced that kind of love, he said, the love one has for your own children that he was able to understand what it would be like. It was having children that helped him to understand losing children. And it was that fear, I guess, that drove this story. What the story was missing, what he couldn’t imagine, was that you can recover, even from that. That was something he never understood, because he never had to.
Hurt, as I was, that he could see me die, I had never up until that point, really understood the extent of his love. Watching him grieve for me helped me to understand it. For example, in the story my father couldn’t look at old pictures, even of Nickie, who survived, because “they were from happier times.” He couldn’t sleep at night. He would lie awake and silent tears would roll down his cheeks. As I read, it was as if I was looking down from Heaven, hearing, from above it all, my dad, my mom and Bonnie all say they were sorry, to ME. And I wanted to say softly back, “it’s OK.” I wanted to tell them it was an accident, that I forgave them and that it was no one’s fault.
But it was as if I really was dead.
The trip he wrote about actually happened. Bonnie really did stay up too late to share in the driving. We did go to New York without my dad.
He told us that he came up with the idea while considering whether or not to call us on the road. He went from thinking of calling into the reverie that became this “what if”. That is how he would do it. His imagination would wander, and he would play things out in his head. He would have arguments with people. He would quit jobs, and tell people how he really felt about them, that he hated them or that he loved them. Then he would write these reveries down, and only afterwards, maybe, he would actually do some of these things in real life.
Like with some of his other stories, where we forgot which were real and which were not, I felt like I had died, and that by some divine miracle, we had all been given a second chance. We never took each other for granted, I think because of this story. We knew what we had. We appreciated what losing it would be like. Reading this story again I can’t help but shed a grateful tear. I’m thankful for the love we appreciated while we were all alive. And I wonder whether this story was more than fiction. After all, he didn’t make the call. Who knows what would have happened if he had. Maybe we really did get that second chance.