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.”