I have this amazing story in my head. I think it’s interesting enough, layered enough, moving enough, to become a book. Will it get written? Self-doubt, fueled by family history, rules my thoughts.
My father always said he wanted to write a book. Conditions were never right. We were always living in the wrong place or his job was too stressful or the burden of supporting a family was too great. I grew up thinking my brothers and I were the reason he couldn’t write. If he hadn’t married, hadn’t had children, maybe he would have realized his dream.
My father sought solitude to escape the pressures of life. He had “important business” in Arizona when he left my mother, my brothers and I alone in Indiana for Christmas one year. He missed my brother’s high school graduation for similar, made-up reasons. A few weeks before my wedding, he told me with exaggerated regret that he couldn’t make it — he had to be in Florida for God-knows-what. That’s when I put my foot down. This time, he was not going to let me down.
And yet he managed to do just that. Showing up at the church in the wrong tux. Nervous and awkward. Unable, or unwilling, to whisper expressions of love or pride in my ear before we headed down the aisle. Even then, he was a ghost, always on the fringes. Never fully vested in anything that wasn’t his alone. Always seeking greener pastures in a new job or new home state. More comfortable in conversations with strangers than he was with my mother, my brothers or me.
I chose a different path — to the extreme. A martyr’s devotion to responsibility, family and career. Excessive self-accountabilty and crushing perfectionism. Self-neglect from a perception that others’ needs were more deserving.
I always thought I was being different from my dad, better at being in a family and community than he was. As I get older, I realize I’m just like him. Afraid to do what I really want to do. Subconsciously blaming circumstances beyond my control, or other people, for my own failures. If only that…. If only they…
I keep trying to set aside time to go “off the grid” and focus attention on my own book project. One thing after another keeps interrupting. Each weekend, when I realize how little progress I’ve made, I am completely distraught. How will I ever do this within the unpredictable context of running a small business? I come dangerously close to giving up and admitting defeat.
But I keep thinking about four beautiful children who are happy and thriving because of a series of miracles. A family that is doing important and timely work in the country of their children’s birth. An experience that was, to me, a precious gift. A story that needs to be told.
And then there’s this: My father did finally write his book. He finished it in the spring of 1991, in a small room he rented in a boarding house in Florida, during reclusive weeks he spent alone before he died from a cancer that spread from his colon to his liver. A cancer I didn’t know about until my younger brother called me from Florida as I was still sleeping one summer morning and told me our father was dead.
His book was never published; my brothers and I found rejection letters from publishers lying among the few belongings our dad left behind. To my knowledge, only four photocopies of the manuscript exist. I have two of them in my house.
Over the years, I have tried to read his story. I have never made it past the first 40 pages. My dad once told me that everything he ever wanted to say to my brothers and me — but couldn’t — would be there in his book. I’ve never had the courage to find out. And yet something tells me I won’t write my own book until I confront the specter of his.