In 2004, I moved down south where I lived for the next ten years. I married, divorced, travelled, made and lost friends. As I approached 50, I developed an increasingly strong desire to move back home, be with my family and friends, aware my parents and grandmother were getting older, as was I.
I write stories for a living. I know a truth—we all do. Our life is our book: we are each author, hero and critic. We script the plot, gather the secondary characters, develop theme and motif.
When you approach 50, you realize that book is nearing page 300 or so, and there aren’t as many pages left to write as you’ve already written. Priorities shift, desires get analyzed and refined. I suspect the mid-life crisis comes from being able to look back and see your more-than-half-completed story, recognize your themes and motifs, chosen and accidental. You spot your heroes, anti-heroes and villains and, if you’ve gained wisdom along the way, understand how they came to be what they were. You identify the chapters you wish fiercely you could cut, but can’t because that part of the book is published. You make peace with those chapters. Or don’t. You see the paths you didn’t take, as well as the ones you did.
50 either turns you into a butterfly or cripples the caterpillar within. That, too, is up to the author.
My Dad’s birthday is coming up October 15th. He would have been 80. Last year I wanted to throw an enormous party for his 79th birthday and he cocked his chemo-bald head, flashed me a smile and told me to do it on his 80th. I guess my face said, but you won’t be here and he said, “I’ll be here,” in that tone of voice that brooked no argument and nearly convinced me. He was superb at that tone of voice. He died on Father’s Day, June 21, 2015. He was never one to miss a great stage entrance or exit.
Dad was vibrant, strong, smart and perfectionistic. He had a fully developed system of internal ethics and taught me, at a young age, the importance of forming a self-sustaining philosophical structure by which to live. Like me, he was strong-willed and solidly centered in his opinions, and we butted heads often but even when we were on opposite sides of whatever fence we were discussing, I respected the man enormously.
One of ten children in a low-income family, he got his first job when he was five years old, and quit school in tenth grade to help support his siblings. He finished his schooling in the military. Family and work were everything to him.
I’m afraid I gave him more than a few of his white hairs. I was the wild one, too much energy, and not enough to keep my brain busy. I was expelled from high school at 16 and, although I had enough credits to graduate and go to college, my parents wouldn’t let me because they thought I was too young to be on my own so I had to kill time for a year before I could go to college.
During that year, I read nearly every book in the local library. I lived thousands of lives through those books and refined the way I lived from the lessons I learned in them. At seventeen, I caught my first glimpse of the awareness that we are each our own book, telling our story with every choice we make.
When I went to Purdue, my guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated and I told him I wanted to be a writer. It appealed to me in a sort of infinite-regression way: telling stories inside my story. He suggested I choose a major I could actually make money at so I settled on Society & Law, thinking I’d become an attorney and, when I’d acquired enough life experience to have something interesting to say, I’d write. But after an internship with criminal attorneys, I changed my mind and ended up working in insurance litigation for the next eight years.
At 30, I realized my life was flashing by and I wasn’t chasing any of my dreams. It was either run headlong after them or convince myself to forget them. Even then, I knew one day my story would be more than half written, I’d be looking back, and I could do it with pride or regret.
I called my dad and told him I wanted to write. I talked to him about the vision I’d always had and, while he voiced every concern a parent might have about their child chasing a highly improbable dream, at the end of the conversation he said simply: what do want from me?
I asked him if he could pay my rent for one year, and when I was successful I’d pay him back, so I could work part time and put 100% of myself into chasing my dream. I told him (in that wonderfully authoritative brook-no-resistance-voice I’d learned from him) during that year I would write the book that would get me published. He said fine, and took over my rent for the next twelve months. I also told him he was never allowed to tell anyone that I’d asked for help. He said fine. And never did.
While he paid my rent, I wrote Beyond the Highland Mist, which sold to Random House. When I signed with my publisher, I’d never seen him prouder. He flew out to Anaheim with me for my first RWA conference in 1999, and seeing my dad at a romance novel convention was priceless. He wandered around in the middle of a thousand excited, happy, pretty women with an utterly bemused and content look on his face for five days.
He was there with me when Beyond the Highland Mist was nominated for two RITAs in Washington DC. He was the first person I called when Kiss of the Highlander hit the New York Times bestseller list. When Faefever hit #3 on the NYT, he demanded: who’s above you? When Shadowfever hit #1, his question was: when are you going to write a real book? I said, what’s a real book? He said: like a Clive Cussler. I said, uh, Dad, I’m above him this week, and we both laughed (me mostly with astonishment).
Before he died, he was still pressuring me to write a ‘real book’ and when we argued about how my books are real books, he tried to explain by saying he knew I had other stories to write inside me, that he could feel them, and I needed to listen to that other muse, too and not be afraid to follow it. (I’m listening, Dad.)
A voracious reader, my father devoured everything he could get his hands on. In his final months, we shared our mutual love of books, reading them together, stepping away from the vicious ugliness of the disease that was eating him alive. Our favorite authors swept us off into adventure, danger and espionage—and a world with no cancer. My sister, brother and I took turns caring for him in our homes and when he’d move from house to house, his suitcase of books was the largest part of the luggage he carried with him.
Moving back home was both wonderful and terrible. I returned on my dad’s birthday—October 15, 2013—he said it was the only present he wanted from me. Three weeks after I moved back, my grandmother died at 97, in her sleep after holding court with her vast family and eating everything she could get her hands on. Before she died, I brought her double chocolate fudge cupcakes from her favorite bakery, which the tiny dynamo devoured, and took her for a walk. She told me she didn’t know why, but her many aches and pains had vanished and she felt young again. I think I knew right then she wasn’t long for this world. When it’s time, I’d like to go the way she did.
Shortly after that, my dad got sick with what he told us was a really bad sinus infection. It worsened through the winter and one day in February he called me to ask if he could come lay down at my house. He sounded so frail and weak, I told him to tell me where he was so I could come get him. In typical Dad-fashion, he hung up on me and drove to my house. I have this frozen memory of watching him walk up to my door, bend down to pick something up, swaying as if he was about to collapse. He was bringing me baseboard samples for the renovation we were doing, he’d dropped them and was determined not to come inside without them. He was never a man to fall down on the job.
When he came in the door, I heard the death rattle. I had to carry him up the stairs because he insisted on lying down in his favorite bedroom but was too weak to get there. My mom, who has a wicked bit of ESP, called me and told me my father was dying and to give him an aspirin because we always thought it would be his heart. I never question those moments she has. She’s always right. He’d had two open-heart surgeries in the past few years. I took him an aspirin and told him we were going to the ER and he gave me a smirk and told me it wasn’t his heart and he really needed new glasses so he wanted to go the eye doctor because he had an appointment. At that point, I called my sister and told her I needed help getting him to the ER because he was never going to cooperate.
Flashback to me: I’m fifteen on a Saturday night at 5 PM. My siblings and I grew up on a farm, with a large tobacco base, 60 head of cattle, hay, corn, pigs, you name it. My dad commuted three hours a day for his job, then came home to four kids, a wife and a working farm. We’d cut and staked tobacco that day and had to hang it on a structure of tiers in a huge barn, so it could cure and we could strip it.
My sister, brother and I were all up at the top, on various tiers, passing the heavy stakes up. My brother was on the highest rung (I learned to avoid having him on the rung above me because he chewed and spit. Thanks to him, I have no fear of heights nor any desire to use tobacco.) My brother kept telling Dad to stop sending it up because the roof wouldn’t carry the load. Brian was 17. Dad didn’t listen. He passed up stake after stake while my brother continued repeating his assessment of the integrity of the structure we were all standing on—right up until that moment a few thousand pounds of tobacco collapsed on us, along with all the tiers.
At fifteen, I was irritated that dad didn’t listen. At fifty, I understood. I’m a lot like him. It was his fundamental nature to constantly test his limits, to test the limits around him, to refine and re-define what he could and couldn’t do. When death came, he tested his limits again. And for a time—he won.
We took him to the ER for what we thought was pneumonia. It was. It was also Stage 4 small cell lung cancer that had spread to his liver and lymph, which none of us knew he had. The pneumonia had formed mucus plugs and the doctor said if we hadn’t brought him in, he would have died in his sleep that night. The death rattle I was hearing was real.
They checked him in, hooked him up to 5 different IVs and, for the next 27 days, we sat in his hospital room being told day after day that he was dying and had days, at best, 2 weeks. They said there was no point in chemo because he was too sick, the cancer had spread too far, too aggressively.
I sat on the cold gray vinyl couch and watched his blue feet, writing on my laptop, keeping vigil with my siblings, which includes the amazing Leiha, my Dad’s unofficially adopted daughter and late night TV companion. The days passed until someone finally decided, considering he hadn’t died yet and should have, with his fighting spirit, chemo was worth a try.
Thanks to Dr. Leming, my dad battled his way out of the cancer ward, much to everyone's astonishment. Dr. Leming told us on many occasions he had no explanation for how our dad was still alive. But we knew: That roof could surely take a few hundred pounds more weight. Never give up. Never quit. Do not go gentle into that good night...
Over the next few months, dad rallied so wonderfully that when he told us the doctors were all nuts, he’d “just had a bad case of the flu” we nearly believed him. That authoritative tone again.
His cancer spread from liver and lymph to skin, bone and finally brain over the next sixteen months. Those months were filled with horror and beauty, heartbreak and wonder, love and joy. I’d spent ten years down south away from him, but I lived a lifetime with him in the sixteen months we had at the end.
Some people get more beautiful as they’re dying. I don’t know how they do it. Maybe it's the thorn bird singing its finest song, impaled on the thorn. But his eyes got bluer, more alive not less, more intense and aware instead of fading. He began to radiate some kind of inner peace and understanding that humbled me. All my life, he’d been the strongest man I’d ever known and at the end—he got even stronger.
I would have given anything to ease his pain and we both knew there was nothing I could do but be there at 3 AM to help him off the kitchen floor because the man was so stubborn and worried about interrupting my writing schedule that he wouldn’t wake me to tell me he wanted pie and ice-cream in the middle of the night (despite the walkie talkies I’d bought for us so he could wake me anytime.) Instead, that night he woke me by kicking his walker over and triggering the house alarm (smart man!) so I could come running to find him bleeding from the head in four places as he proudly showed me his completely blood-soaked handkerchief and told me he’d stopped the bleeding and he was fine, just fine, so get him up and go back to bed because I had a book to finish.
God, I love the man.
From the moment Dad was diagnosed, he never said a depressed or angry word. On the contrary, he got sunnier, funnier, and more alive. His sense of humor about the darkest things was outrageous and by the end we were calling him the ‘black knight’ from Monty Python because he simply adapted to whatever indignity or offense cancer dealt, and kept going as if nothing was wrong. When one thing after another broke in his body, he simply kept pushing, smiling, living, trying to not be a burden to the people who wanted him to be a burden as long as we could keep him with us.
Near the end, he asked me to take him outside in his wheel chair. We sat on the front porch and watched a storm roll in over the lake. There was no sorrow in him, merely a quiet acceptance, and serene joy in the moment. As the rain mixed with soil he closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, said, “Oh, that smells delicious,” and told me I needed to remember to practice mindfulness, always breathe deep and savor what was in front of me at the moment. Then he told me every single thing I needed to fix on my house so he wouldn’t have to worry about it when he was gone.
He never said he was dying. That was an admission of defeat the black knight didn’t know how to make. But when the time came, and they tried to put him on a ventilator, he said quietly, “No.” And when they tried to give him IV food at the end, he smiled and shook his head. He lived on his terms and he died on them, carrying the burden of his death on his once-so-broad shoulders, ensuring none of his children would have to make that final terrible decision for him.
Dad lived enthusiastically, fearlessly. He worked hard, played hard, and traveled extensively, both in the world and in his mind. He lived his life—and a million others through the books he read. When he died, he was in the middle of three different novels. I have them, on my bookshelf, next to a picture of him, with the playing cards he used for bookmarks, exactly where he left them.
And I think damn it—he died in the middle of the story.
But I know a truth: we all do. The only thing that matters is that it’s the best story you could tell, and that you tell it with passion, commitment and abandon.
Our life is our book: we are each author, hero and critic.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
Your story was a #1 bestseller.