Writing a Memoir

Everyone has a story. For the writer, all it takes is an event, or a turning point of sorts, to get the story out there. In a memoir or blog post. A graphic non-fiction narrative? I might have started with the summer day a cow stepped on me and broke my collar bone. I was two. This is my earliest memory, and not a bad one, since the cow looked like a big furry doggie…

But I didn’t start there. I started at a point when I got hit from all sides: My mother died, my marriage crashed, and my father announced he was leaving Indiana and coming to live with me and the kids on an island in Florida. It wasn’t an easy time. My siblings accused me of “kidnapping” Dad. He had a number of health problems, and I had no idea how to deal with illnesses of the elderly, particularly cancer and dementia. But my dad and I were close. I couldn’t disappoint him. I wanted to take care of him—and at the same time do the best for my two kids still at home. And so began my memoir: THE LAST CADILLAC …

As a newspaper journalist, I was drawn to writing it all  down. On occasion, I’d written feature articles about the “sándwich generation.” Suddenly, I was in the sándwich—in the middle between caring for my elderly parent on one side and the young ones on the other. I began to see that whether planned or not, most of us end up being caregivers, or being cared for.  Many of these caregivers told me their stories, and I had to tell mine.

There is no manual for this sort of family adventure, and it was not my intention to write one. But I felt strongly I had to write about what I did right and what I did wrong, and there was plenty of the latter.

Even as I was driven to write my book, the effort seemed doomed from the start. For one, I hardly had time to think straight about what was happening one day to the next. Dad would wake up hobbled with leg or back pain; the kids had all sorts of activities: cheer leading, soccer, birthday parties. I tried to keep up and run with it. To Disney World and Ireland. And all along, I jotted down events and bits of dialogue as we went “down life’s path” (Dad).

Soon after we moved to Florida, a hurricane blew through. We weathered that, but then, Florida, the State of Storms, delivered another dooz … Boom!  Lightening took out my computer, and all my pithy observations were burned alive. I had  to start over again, which may have been a good thing. The pith was pretty much the pits. I told myself that lightening burned away the rough part and helped me get to the heart of it.

Getting to the heart was essential.  I trained myself to stay focused on the message—about caregiving while juggling life:

  • I knew where my story would begin—with that announcement from Dad that he was coming to live with us—and I knew it where it would end. With his death. It took me a long time to write that ending. The middle was a never-ending series of mishaps and discoveries about how to stay on my feet. (Loving mostly every minute, as it turned out.)
  • The message kept me going and moved me along in my story. I had a point and I stuck to it. I was writing a warning, of sorts, but I tried to be encouraging, and some of it was pretty funny, at least, that’s what they tell me. And I have to look back on some of it and laugh.

One major thing I realized from all of it was that much of the drama, decisions, disappointment, and sometimes disaster, could have been averted with better planning and communication. I blame all of us for not cooling off, sitting down, and really communicating (especially the listening part).

As a family, we did nothing to prepare for any of it.  My parents didn’t talk about money—“How vulgar!” And my mother never used the word “cáncer” when she got sick. It was “The Big C.” We talked a lot, but we did not communicate very well. With the divorce, and the kids, and then Dad and all my personal problems, I didn’t take into consideration that my siblings had just lost their mother—and now they were going to lose their father to Florida some 1200 miles away.

But we got through it. I wrote the story, which now has been dubbed “a must-read for caregivers” and “a common sense and humorous guide  to surviving family relationships.” I hope it helps some people. Most of us have parents and relatives we are concerned about, and we will need to take care of them. I didn’t see it coming, nor did I do anything to prevent it when the situation presented itself almost overnight. I tried to enjoy it, and learn something from it. I did see, finally, that humor, love, and communication worked in our favor. But I didn’t have to write a book to know that. A lot of love was always there.