Sunday, April 17, 2011

Old Age

My 91-year-old mother has some sort of dementia.  Not Alzheimer’s, probably.  She gropes for words, can’t remember what she did three hours ago, insists that I grew up speaking Hungarian, as she did.  She calls my partner “Richard.” 

I am sad a lot now.

The weird thing is that my father died when I was 19, and I would give a lot if he could have lived into old age.  I miss him every day. 

But I miss her, too. 

I call her every night.  Usually, we talk about three things: the weather, politics (“Do you watch Rachel Maddow?  She’s such a doll.”), and whether she went for her walk.  Recently, her foot has been bothering her.  The half-hour walks have become 15-minute walks.  I think it’s an omen.

My mother has become less hard-edged in old age.  She oozes love. She hugs receptionists.  Once a woman who complained about everything her friends did (“She walks too slowly!”), she now has mostly nice things to say about people, assuming she approves of their politics.  It’s a nice change.  And lucky.  Dementia can make you nasty.

Last night, at dinner, she told the waiter at the Lark Creek CafĂ© how old she was.  I almost fainted into my steamed asparagus.  One of the hallmarks of my mother’s life has been her easy ability to lie about her age.  I didn’t know how old she was until I was 20.  Even then, she told me that she was 57, and told my brother that she was 56.  Lying was something she did even when there was no benefit to be gained.

As soft and mushy as she has become, my mother is still infuriatingly stubborn.  She lives alone and insists on driving.  (A few months ago, I stole her car keys.  My brother had new ones made.)  She has control of a lot of money, and she Will Not Let Go.  I have begun the process of taking that control away.  She wants to argue about it with me all the time.

It breaks my heart.

At dinner last night, I needed a tissue, and she rummaged in her purse to find one.  She pulled out a paper napkin wrapped around a brownie.  “I forgot about this,” she said.  “How long has that brownie been in there?” I asked.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said.  “I got it at the JCC.  They serve lunch for six dollars.  The meatloaf is fantastic!”  Then she leaned in close and whispered, “But everyone who eats there is so old!”

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Finishing What I've Started

I am working on a manuscript.  I have written 91 pages.  It will eventually be a good middle-grade novel.  I’m almost 100% sure it will sell.

I started this novel over two years ago.  Since that time, I’ve written and sold another manuscript, and written and submitted yet another to my agent.  (She’s still considering it.)  Meanwhile, I cannot finish this particular book (tentatively called Three).  It’s driving me crazy.

Part of the reason is that it’s a story about three kids—two girls and a boy—and different chapters are told from different points of view.  I have a hard time juggling that.  I have to remember obscure details about each character, and the longer I take to finish the book, the harder it is to recall them.  Recently, I decided I wanted to make a small change in the boy’s home life.  It took me weeks to incorporate it, and long after I thought I was finished, I kept finding references to the boy’s parents that no longer made any sense.
It is said that all writers have manuscripts in their desks (or on their computers) that were 1) never finished, 2) finished but never sold, and/or 3) abandoned for various reasons.  I have a few of these.  In one, I tried to fictionalize my mother’s experience growing up in an orphanage.  In another, I wrote about a crazy family loosely based on the one into which I was born.  I think I stopped working on these because I realized I would be divulging other people’s secrets.
Family loyalty is a double-edged sword when you’re a writer.

Another reason it’s hard for me to finish Three has to do with the fact that one of the characters is poor.  I spent yesterday working on a scene in which she has to figure out how to make a dinner for herself and her father out of rice and a quarter of a brick of cheese.  I felt a huge responsibility to do justice to the scene without sentimentalizing it.

After I wrote it, I felt sad and weary and spent.  It wasn’t until long after dinner (organic baby greens, roast chicken, root vegetables) that I realized why.
Caring about the characters I’ve created is a good sign.  It means they’re real to me, which usually means they’ll be real to other people.  But knowing that they’re living in dire circumstances makes it hard for me to want to spend time with them.  I find myself stalling: running errands, making phone calls.  Anything to avoid thinking about a kid who has to lie about why she never has enough money to get a smoothie after school with her friends.

So I’m writing here about Three in the hope that I will now feel compelled to finish it.  I will tell myself to woman up.  I will stop whining.  I will get over myself and just do it.