I sat in front of my computer, hands poised, and confronted the blank screen. Nothing happened. Not a word. The cursor blinking.
I was at a Writers Retreat on Hatteras Island, NC, where everyone was supposed to produce 2000 words per day.
Frustrated, I looked through the window seeking inspiration from the stormy Atlantic Ocean. Its waves were muffled in the distance, but I could feel their unrelenting power to give and take away. When I settled my eyes back on the screen, I wrote the name Marisa on the keyboard and immediately saw a small gray-haired woman rubbing moisturizer on her wrinkled face, her eyes sad and teary. In my mind I followed her over to a couch where she faced an empty chair and said, “Good morning, Jules.”
But why was the chair empty?
It was a question that cracked open the seed of a novel. A novel that would keep me occupied for the following three years when I wasn’t occupied taking care of my ill husband.
Since 2003, whenever Jim sniffles, or has an open wound, or says he’s tired and lies down, or complains of stomach pains, I go on high alert. I have to. He has cancer, a compromised immune system and a simple cold could become pneumonia as he has no defenses.
Fortunately for me, Jim is a smart man, a survivor who takes good care of himself. He wears gloves when he goes outside. He never touches the subway railing where other hands have been, other hands that might carry a virus or bacteria that he is vulnerable to. So even though it had been years that he'd been in remission, I always stayed on high alert; wherever we were.
Our summers are spent in southern France. Jim, a jazz drummer like my character Jules, practices the drums in an ancient sheepherder’s bergerie on an isolated mountaintop; his only companions the sheep grazing nearby who don’t care how loud he plays his music as long as he doesn’t eat their clover. In the canyon below, a thirty-minute morning bike ride from the boulangerie where I buy freshly baked baguettes, I write in our apartment.
It was in France last summer that I finished the final chapter of Marisa’s story and asked Jim to copyedit it. That’s asking a lot because he has his own projects to complete. But he’s a good guy and he took the first chapter I handed to him and headed off for his workday on the mountaintop.
That evening he came home depressed. We were seated on the terrace. The mid-summer sun was still shining and the sky was still blue. But at that moment he couldn’t see the sunlight or feel its warmth and it was my fault. Rather than talking to him about my fear of grief and loneliness, I had hidden it in Marisa’s story, where he had found it, and it deeply upset him.
When he had been in the hospital fighting for his life in years past, I had saved my tears for the shower where he wouldn’t hear my premature wails of sorrow. How could I tell him about my own selfish fears when he was fighting so hard to stay alive?
On the terrace that evening, I flipped through the twenty corrected pages he’d marked in the columns and between the lines in irreversible red ink. I told him I was sorry. I meant the novel to be a tribute to his life and hadn’t realized he would see it as a death rattle.
The next morning he made his lunch, a baguette spread with duck paté, Camembert cheese, and a neighbor’s heirloom tomato. He thinly sliced the tomato and placed it in the middle of the paté then wrapped the baguette in paper and slipped it into his backpack. He frowned when I handed him the second chapter, but he took it.
Alone at my desk I looked disparagingly at the edits he’d made with the same diligent and exacting care when he slices tomatoes for his sandwiches. He knew better than I did what my novel needed—a fat cut. And he saw where I scrambled the words and, instinctively knowing what I wanted to say, made it clearer. I ws thrilled. All these years I’d been living with a brilliant editor and hadn’t known it.
While the late summer light still lingered, we sat on the terrace and moved forward together as Marisa moved forward out of grief and into a new life without Jules. We discussed plot flaws and character weaknesses. He offered suggestions. I countered with my own.
As our beautiful days in Teyssieres moved along I’d laugh when I read a line he’d added to Jules’s dialogue. Other times, tears welled up when I read his encouraging comments and felt Marisa’s pain when she realized Jules’s voice was fading and soon she’d have to find the courage to go on without him.
Just before the novel was published, though, we were back in Calfornia and Jim was diagnosed with a second cancer. Among other, more pressing things, I had to ask myself if I’d done something rash and unsavory entitling my book “The Drummer’s Widow.”
“No,” he said. “It’s a good title. Don’t change it because of my relapse.”
Family and friends who know well of my husband’s battle with terminal cancer are squeamish (giggles, gasps, lips shaped into O’s) when I tell them the title of my new novel is “The Drummer’s Widow.” If my husband is standing nearby, he laughs and says, “Yes it’s true, she imagined my death and we got over it.”