I remember sitting in front of my computer, hands poised, confronting the blank screen. The cursor winked. Nothing else. Not a word.
I was at a Writers Retreat on Hatteras Island, NC, where everyone was suppose to produce 2000 words per day.
Frustrated, I looked through the window seeking inspiration from the stormy Atlantic Ocean. Its waves muffled through the closed window, but I felt its unrelenting power to give and take away.
With my eyes closed, I saw a small gray-haired woman rubbing moisturizer on her wrinkled face, her eyes sad and teary in the mirrored reflection. In my mind I follow her into the living room where she faces an empty chair and says, “Good morning, Jules.”
I ask my new character, that I name Marisa, “Why are you talking to an empty chair?” That question cracks open the seed of a novel. A novel that will keep me occupied for the next three years when I'm not taking care of my husband. Whenever he 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 a compromised immune system and a simple cold could become pneumonia and then, with no defenses, death.
Fortunately for me, he knows how to survive. 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. So even though it had been five years that he's been in remission from two stem cell transplants, I remain on high alert.
Our summers are spent in southern France. Jim, a jazz drummer like my character Jules, practices in an ancient sheepherder’s bergerie on an isolated mountaintop; his only companions are the sheep grazing nearby who don’t care how loud he plays his music as long as he doesn’t eat their clover.
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 we were seated on the terrace. The mid-summer sun was still shining and the sky was still blue. But at that moment Jim couldn’t enjoy the sunlight or feel its warmth. His depression was my fault. Rather than talking to him about my fear of grief and loneliness, I had written it into Marisa’s story, where he found it, and it deeply upset him.
When he had been in the hospital fighting for his life, 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 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, 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 would sit each evening on the terrace and move 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.
I’d laugh when I read a line he’d added to Jules’s dialogue as if he was Jules. Other times, tears welled up when I read his encouraging comments. I was feeling Marisa’s pain when she realized the sound of Jules’s voice was fading from her memory and soon she’d have to find the courage to go on without hearing him.
When we returned to our home in Monterey, California, Jim was diagnosed with a second cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It was at the same time as my book release. I had to ask myself if I’d done something rash and unsavory entitling my book “The Drummer’s Widow.” I asked Jim what he thought.
“No,” he said. “It’s a good title. Don’t change it because of my relapse.”
Family and friends who are familiar with my husband’s battle against 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 Jim is standing nearby, he laughs and says, “Yes it’s true, she imagined my death and we got over it.”