My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

Kris D’Agostino’s debut novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, captures perfectly that anxious time after college graduation — the time when you realize everything you’ve been told about your education is wrong. Many of us, especially among the middle class, are raised to believe that with a college degree in hand the world is yours. For the majority of us, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

My father and I spend the two months following my mother’s death sitting around in the living room, until one day he decides that I should to go to Europe to meet my best friend Liz.

We can’t just sit around here smoking and looking at each other, he says.

I know he’s right, but I’m afraid to him leave alone.

Don’t worry about me, he says as if reading my mind.

Is The Rules of Inheritance about how you inherited a bunch of money and acted like a Kardashian?

Sadly, no. It’s more depressing, gritty and uplifting than that. Both of my parents got cancer when I was fourteen. My mother died when I was eighteen and my father when I was twenty-five. I’m an only child and these losses left me very much alone in the world, and going through something that none of my peers had really experienced. The book is kind of a coming-of-age story. It follows me through cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, through various relationships I cultivated with men and with alcohol. It’s definitely a grief memoir, but it’s also a lot more than that. You don’t have to have lost someone to relate to someone who is trying to figure themselves out and fucking up a lot along the way.

 

Aren’t you kind of embarrassed to publish a memoir?

For a long time the word memoir really made me cringe. When people asked what I was working on, I would go to great lengths to avoid that word. I’m actually a big fan of memoirs, but there can be something really trite and embarrassing about them, especially given our culture’s obsession with the intimate details of other people’s lives.

 

So, why did you write a memoir?

Well, when I was grieving and trying to figure out how to move through my life as a young woman without parents, I turned to other people’s stories for answers and solace. These stories often came in the form of memoirs, and I found some of them enormously helpful. That’s all I really want from my book — to help people.

 

For some reason no one has really asked you about the writing style you used in Rules, although it’s kind of unusual. You don’t indent your paragraphs and you don’t use quotation marks. What’s up with that?

It’s true. People like to use the same three words to describe by book: gritty, poetic and heart-wrenching, and they talk a lot about how well the book flows, but no one comments on the liberties I took with the writing style. I don’t indent any of the paragraphs, I let a lot of lines stand alone and I don’t use quotations. A lot of this has to do with the poetic nature of the writing and the way I wanted the language emphasized, but I also just wanted the writing to have a kind of immediacy that I think gets lost with a more formal approach. And I also just felt weird using quotes around sentences that were based on memories.

 

Got it. Makes sense. I heard you’re working on some weird afterlife book now, doing seances and stuff. Is that true?

No seances. Yet. But yes, I’m working on a nonfiction book in which I explore different beliefs about the afterlife in an attempt to work out what I believe for myself. If you call it a spiritual memoir I’ll shoot you. I’ve been doing all kinds of fun stuff for it though — seeing mediums, getting hypnotized to find out about my past lives and taking Kabbalah classes. Stay tuned!

You’ve heard the news by now. A group of Minnesotan astrogeeks with impressively large telescopes have called out astrologers everywhere by reporting that the stars have moved since the Babylonian concept of the zodiac was born. Thought you couldn’t help your Leo need to be adored by the masses? Guess what. You are actually supposed to prefer solitary walks by the beach and are just an ass.

Welcome to the MAE*.

 

Ophiuchus: Nov. 29 – Dec. 17
The newly resurrected Ophiuchus sign represents a man wrestling a serpent and shares traits with Imhotep, a 27th century BCE Egyptian doctor – not to be confused with Mummy Imhotep, the still-juicy High Priest of Osiris who terrorized Brendan Fraser to the transitioning squeals of prepubescent male audiences everywhere. Like Dr. Imhotep, Ophiuchus is a healer of men and a doctor of medicine or science. And, like him, you insatiably seek higher education and are perfectly comfortable being the only person in your continuing ed class sporting a set of trifocals and a wad of extra absorbency hanging low in your trunk. You are expected to achieve a high position in life, regardless of how long it takes. As an addendum, you will also spend a lifetime trying to pronounce your new sign, regardless of how long it takes.

Sagittarius: Dec. 17 – Jan. 20
The Sagittarius makes for the classic dot-bomb era entrepreneur. You’re adventurous, optimistic, and you love those trendy little hipster companies that encourage jogging breaks and offer 6 weeks of fully paid paternity leave. You also love the idea of learning. This is not to be confused with actually learning. Your biggest challenge this year is going to be putting down the latest Seth Godin book to actually write that white paper.

Capricorn: Jan. 20 – Feb. 16
If you’re a Capricorn, you don’t need a horoscope to tell you what to do. You’re already driven, motivated, and probably have a highly detailed Excel spreadsheet filled with the necessary steps to get from point A to points B, C, and subsequently, D. Your biggest challenge is refraining from judging everyone else around you for not having such a detailed life roadmap and from repeating the words, “Really? Really?” when confronted by the average non-Capricorn. As a matter of fact, the only star sign you fear is the new and improved Super-Scorpio (see below), who you suspect in Column T, Row 46 could throw a potential kink in your Grand Master Plan to Take Over the World by eating your heart directly out of your still-steaming thoracic cavity with a shrimp fork, should you cross them.

Aquarius: Feb. 16 – March 11
For those of you who come to this sign as former Pisceans, the Age of Aquarius has literally only just dawned. What you need to know in your new star sign: #1 – You are easy going and a fabulous networker; #2 – You are lazy and slothful by nature; and, #3 – Unlike the Broadway show Hair**, life is not a musical and you will need some extra motivation to spur yourself into action.*** The good news is that of all your non-Aquarian friends, you stand to have the highest connection count on LinkedIn if you choose to apply yourself. Good luck with that.

Pisces: March 11 – April 18
Al Gore’s migration from Aries (Active, Demanding, Determined, Effective, Ambitious) to Pisces (Depth, Imagination, Reactive, Indecisive) explains a lot about how he was able to invent the Internet.

Aries: April 18 – May 13
If TNB had a star sign, it would be Aries: adventurous and living for the writer’s dream.****  What you need to know if you are a newcomer to Aries: you are a doer and not just a talker. The flip side of that is that sometimes you dive in too quickly without thinking through the consequences. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Taurus: May 13 – June 21
Well, former Gemini, now you’re a Taurus. Big whoop. You’ve always known you’ve got at least two personalities in there, so you might as well take the bull by the horns. Also, now you’re the same star sign as Mark Zuckerberg. (queue Simpons-esque “ha-ha”)

Gemini: June 21 – July 20
Turns out David Hasselhoff is actually a Gemini. Who knew? What you choose to do with this knowledge is entirely in your hands.

Cancer: July 20 – Aug. 10
Thanks to that hard shell of yours, you-who-are-now-Cancers are well-equipped to deal with the change. Of course, you are now also are equipped with a set pincers, which means you’re going to have a hard time letting go of your former Leo-hood, where you were loved openly and without restraint by panties-throwing masses. You now have a choice: insist on being worshipped, or embrace your new sign and practice a little love and nurture for your inner circle of friends. No, the person in the mirror doesn’t count. It’s going to be tricky. You may want to seek counseling. And, if you were born before July 22 and hung on to your former sign into the MAE*, well, you are one hell of a Cancer. Go. Surround yourself with people you trust and be productive in your venture. *pinch*

Leo: Aug. 10 – Sept. 16
Yes, we adore you. Yes, you mean the world to us. No really, we mean it. Also, as a point of information, Kenny Rogers, who was once a Leo, remains a Leo post-MAE – which is kind of cool, since he genuinely looks like a Leo. Kenny Rogers, we salute you. No really, we mean it.

Virgo: Sept. 16 – Oct. 30
You need to spend less time on FaceBook. No, seriously.

Libra: Oct. 30 – Nov. 23
Hey, former Scorpio! Great news! Now that you’re a Libra…oh, who am I kidding? You don’t give a shit about your new Libra horoscope. Chances are, you’re not even reading this right now because you’re so pissed off that somebody would dare to change your sign. I could type the lyrics in their entirety from “When the Doves Cry” for this star sign because no former Scorpio will ever, ever read it. It will sit here in digital purgatory for generations to come, completely ignored. “Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like…” There, there. Put down the axe.

Scorpio, AKA “Super Scorpio”: Nov. 23-29
Yep, you read that right. Newcomers to this fine planet of ours have exactly one possible week to be born a Scorpio now. This means that everything you know and fear about Scorpios: the passion, the revenge, the murderous intent – shall now be compressed and concentrated exponentially for this highly evolved group. It’s like melding Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil with an açai berry. Founding CEOs who are born under this sign are to be feared, and possibly eventually incarcerated.

 

* Minnesota Astrogeek Era

** You know you want to sing it out. “Aq-uar-iuuus!”

*** Helpful hint: Try Red Bull

**** Otherwise known as the vocational version of the Slip N’ Slide.

 

This horoscope originally appeared in my brand-spanking-new magazine: SCREE Magazine (shameless plug). It’s been adapted for TNB.

 

“Don’t cry for me when I’m gone,” my father recently told my mother.  “I’m ready.”

My mother relays me this at my upstairs apartment.  She and my father have lived downstairs from us since 1999, but my father no longer comes to visit because he can’t manage the stairs.  If we want to see him we go down there, which doesn’t sound complicated, though it sometimes is.  My life moves at the speed of light, and I often go days without seeing my dad. When we do visit, he’s usually listening to the television turned so loud that nobody can hear anyone else speak.  His TV is so blaring, in fact, that although my husband and I sleep on the third floor, when we go to bed we can hear the thumping voices of my father’s crime dramas vibrating through our floorboards, mattress, pillows.  Sometimes my mother makes him put the TV on pause when we come over, but since my father is essentially deaf, he doesn’t hear us when we speak anyway.

This is hilarious to my daughters, who are eleven and not yet afraid of their own decay.  “Hi, Papa!” one of them shouts at the top of her lungs to the other, and then the other hollers back in an old man voice, “Why don’t they ever say hi to me?”

At one point, my dad would have been the first one laughing at this joke.  When my mother’s mother was getting old, and someone would ask her if she wanted a glass of wine, she would jump up in alarm and shout, “Lion?  What lion?”  My father did imitations of her for years.  He used to chide her, too, for never eating anything but sweets.  Her pantry was jammed full of Little Debbie’s snack cakes, her freezer full of popsicles.  He thought it particularly batshit that she wasn’t just addicted to sugar, she was addicted to cheap, crappy forms of sugar.  At one time, my father would travel to New York for authentic cheesecake—even in my teens he was known to hunt for the best apple pie all over the state of Michigan, just because.  He knew which bakery in Chicago made the freshest doughnuts, and drove across the city for a particularly fine custard cake.  “If I ever get like that,” he would say of my old nana chowing on her pre-wrapped brownies and freezer-burned, neon-colored popsicles, “just shoot me.”

Now, a big day out for my father is a trip a mile away to the Entenmann’s warehouse, where he can stock up on enough processed coffee cakes and doughnuts covered in waxy chocolate that an avalanche falls out of his freezer when you open it.  He buys whichever ice cream is on sale.  If my husband and I go shopping for him and buy an ice cream he deems too expensive, he has a fit.

“Just shoot me,” he would tell us.

But it’s never that simple, is it?  You can’t snap your fingers that way.  Sometimes, you live to turn into your mother-in-law.   You remain trapped inside your body, unable to walk, unable to hear, taste buds faded, increasingly incontinent, napping during the day and awake all night, in chronic pain.  Waiting.

Lion?  What lion?  Indeed.

*          *          *

I’ve come to think of this past summer as a season of death.  An old friend of mine from grad school, blithely handsome and the youngest member of my first writing group, died swiftly and painfully of cancer that had been misdiagnosed for years as a blood clotting disorder.  Less than a week after his passing, one of my best friends, Kathy, was diagnosed completely out of the blue with Stage III-c ovarian cancer, spread to her stomach and colon linings as well as her entire lymphatic system. Even my husband’s longtime family dog, who’d never left his mother’s side as she wasted away from cancer and liver failure last year, was—as though part of a sick plot twist—essentially roasted to death in an Indiana heat wave when accidentally left inside a car.  Amid all this, I was reading the manuscript of my friend Emily Rapp’s luminous memoir (just sold to Penguin), about her son’s diagnosis with Tay-Sach’s Disease.  It was hard reading—not just because of the raw grief Emily so passionately captures and interrogates, but in part, too, because I found myself so floored by the potential horror of watching one’s child die that I began to undermine other things happening around me.  How could I call it “tragic” for fortysomething adults—people who had traveled, worked, fallen in love—to be diagnosed with cancer when there were babies trapped inside their own bodies waiting for death?  How could I dry heave on my bedroom floor over an elderly dog, or even fear losing my own dad—someone lucky enough to have already lived for nearly a century?

What is the continuum of grief?

One of my close confidantes, the writer Rob Roberge, would quote Baldwin to me at a time like this.  He would say that suffering “may be the only equality we have,” and that all pain is real and not easily quantified or measured.  Emily herself, when we have emailed about all this, wrote me a beautiful treatise on the importance of friendships, and how the culture often undermines them as trivial, making an impassioned case for my right to love, value and grieve my friends.  And on the one hand, these things are true—of course they are.  Who would want to live in a world where they weren’t?

On the other hand, emotions, even strong ones, are not equal at all.  I don’t mean this in a “privileged liberal guilt” kind of way, i.e. I could be starving in Kenya or a victim of genocide, so how dare I complain?, even if those things may be partially true.  I mean it, rather, in a literal, I would push my father under the bus for my children sort of way.  I mean it in the, If something were to happen to my kids, the first and most appealing thing I can think of would be to take several handfuls of pills and disappear forever, so that I would not have to live in that kind of pain.  I’m not saying I would do it.  There would still be my husband, my parents, my friends to consider.  I hope I wouldn’t do it.  But it would definitely be on the menu.  When I think of my father’s impending death, I feel sad—I feel, even, afraid—but I do not think of killing myself.

What does it mean to love by degree?  What does this say, too, about my place in my own children’s love-chain?  Is this the cycle of life, then?  To be prepared to be thrown under the bus, if necessary, by those you value most in the world?

My oldest friend, Alicia, sometimes tells me that if she had to live inside my spinning brain for half an hour, she would have an aneurism.  At moments like this, I suspect she may be right.

*          *          *

Lately, my father sees mice.  In addition to being on a dozen strong medications, he’s also got macular degeneration that can cause him to hallucinate spots.  For several months, he claimed to see mice scampering across the floor, or to have glimpsed their droppings in corners.  My husband would investigate these claims, but could never find a trace of the phantoms my father had seen.  My mother began leaving little pieces of Entenmann’s cake in the areas where my father claimed the mice had been, so as to see if any crumbs were missing, but all this resulted in was scraps of cake littered around my parents’ (already-not-winning-any-awards-for-cleanliness) apartment.  We even went so far as to call in my cousin Biff, who used to be a rat exterminator for the city of Chicago and now runs his own pest control business, and Biff confirmed that there were no traces of mice in my parents’ apartment, or even in our basement.

Still, my father reported on the mice’s activities almost daily.  They came out mostly, it seemed, when he slept.  In addition to sometimes seeing them, he also—at night—heard them making their little mice sounds, and sometimes felt them scampering over his body in the dark.

He began to sleep with the lights on.

Soon, he moved out of his bed entirely.  My parents have had separate bedrooms since I was five, but he proceeded to move into my mother’s bed, driving her out to the living room couch.  One day, when sitting on the toilet, my father called to my mother.  He was sticking his foot out in the air and pointing at it.

“Look at that!” he hollered.  “My big toenail was definitely longer yesterday.  That damn mouse must have been nibbling on it in my sleep!”

My mother then calmly informed him that if he did not recant the completely deranged thing he had just said, she was going to take him to the psychiatric ward immediately.

Upon which, my father sheepishly admitted that perhaps the mice had not given him a pedicure, after all.

After that, my mother called their longtime physician and got a prescription for an anti-psychotic medication, and my father moved back into his bedroom.

*          *          *

I suppose I should clarify here that my father was never exactly a normal guy.  He’s been institutionalized before.  Twice.  He’s been on antidepressants since I was about twenty, after sobbing at our kitchen table for a couple of days straight to the point that—although I may be misremembering some details because I later fictionalized this in a novel—he wet his pants, unable to get to the bathroom, and my cousin Biff, who then lived next door to us, had to come and forcibly put him in the car.  Before I was born, my father went through a period in which he was convinced burglars would break into our apartment, so he stopped sleeping with my mother and took up a vigil on the couch.  He became addicted to Valium, and ended up hearing voices that told him to kill my mother and himself—that time, he checked himself into the hospital, no assistance required.  While institutionalized, he begged my mother to leave him, but she wouldn’t, even though her hair was falling out in chunks from worry and her doctor had to give her B-12 shots.

Despite his Paxil, my dad has grown increasingly high strung these past twenty years.  He keeps a stockpile of food under his bed (mainly baked beans—I guess our family will be having a very gassy quarantine should it become necessary to live on my father’s rations in some futuristic emergency).  He keeps decorative cookie jars on every flat surface of his bedroom, though none of the jars contain actual cookies.  He spends his mornings reading Star and People magazines, even though he used to be a fan of Royko and Bob Greene in my youth.  He would be able to tell you every detail of Paris Hilton’s latest sex scandal or Lindsay Lohan’s rehabs and weight losses . . . except that he can’t actually remember the details because he’s on so much Norco.  He usually reads these magazines aloud to himself, repeating most of the words multiple times (Lindsay Lohan and and Lohan and Paris Paris Paris Hilton are no longer longer Linday Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to speaking to one speaking to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to one another) at the kitchen table, giving my parents’ apartment a distinctly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type of vibe.  If he watches old home movies of my children, and one of them happens to be jumping or running in the film, he yells out warnings to the television set, afraid they will bust their heads open on the corner of the coffee table, or poke out an eye, even though in fact they are sitting right next to him—the movie having been filmed six years ago—eyes intact.

Shortly after being prescribed his antipsychotic, my mother woke one night to a loud noise.  My father, who had dutifully resumed his place in his own bedroom, was writhing around on the bed sobbing.  When she asked what was wrong, he told her, “We’re all going to die.”  At further prodding he said, “The kids are going to get old and die too, and we’ll all be dead already—the kids are going to die, what’s the point of anything?”

My mother got his walker and brought him to the kitchen table and made him some warm milk and talked him down.  In the morning, she called the doctor again.  It seemed that my mother had made a mistake: when the doctor prescribed the new medication, my mother thought my father was to take it in lieu of his Paxil.  “No,” the doctor explained.  He has known my parents since I was in high school.  “John is never, ever going off the Paxil.  He’s on Paxil for life.  This is to be given in addition.”

My father had been off his Paxil for exactly two days.

*          *          *

How do you measure a life’s worth?  In laughter?  In orgasms?  In money?  In how well-loved someone is?  In how often they have been photographed?  In children borne or raised?  In the number of continents on which they have made love?  In number of books published?  In latest versions of iPads and iPhones?  In jazz albums filling a giant trunk in the basement?  In years?

We are all specks of dust against the specter of Time.  Is ninety years so different from forty in the scheme of things?  We are all the walking dead of history.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, a failed actor named Paul Tomasello, showed us the movie On Borrowed Time, in which an old man chases Death up a tree.  Mr. Tomasello had gone to school with my father—the same school I attended as a girl.  He chain-smoked in the classroom.  School lore had it that Mr. Tomasello had been diagnosed with lung cancer years prior and given a few weeks to live, but in fact he lived to attend my wedding.  He outlived all but one of my father’s seven brothers, two of whom died as children in the flu epidemic and the rest of whom died of various heart and alcohol related ailments such as rupturing an esophagus open while binge drinking.  My father dreams almost every night of his brothers.  My mother and I rarely figure in his dreams.  In his dreams, his brothers are still young, his brother Ted playing the sax; his brother Joe a mildly powerful bookie; his brother Frank on the front porch smiling and waving. In one dream, my father is forcibly taken away on a wagon across a barren white landscape.

“I never took my father out to dinner,” my dad tells my mother, his voice thick with regret.  “He worked himself to the bone for us and I never bought him a meal.”

My paternal grandfather died before I was even born.  “You were a young man,” my mother assuages.  “You had your own life.  You didn’t know he would die young.  You thought you had time.”

Mr. Tomasello is dead by now, too, of course.

We are on borrowed time with my father, I think daily.  But of course, whose time isn’t borrowed?  My life moves on at the speed of light: adopting and having kids, teaching, editing, writing, cooking dinner, playing chauffeur to play dates and lessons, helping with homework, packing lunches, attending readings, planning continents on which to make love.  How many trips down the stairs will I regret not having made?

*          *          *

Last month, my five-year-old son, Giovanni, asked to see the house I lived in when I was little.

“Be careful,” my father told us on the way out the door.  “You don’t want him to get shot.”

It seemed a strange thing to say in reference to the neighborhood where he chose to raise me, despite my mother’s perpetual urgings that they leave.

I put Giovanni in the car, and we proceeded to drive four miles almost exactly due south on Western Avenue.  We passed the church where I used to be an altar girl.  We passed the funeral home where everyone I had ever met prior to the age of fourteen held their family wakes—where someday people will gather to pay last respects to my father.  We passed my first elementary school, Holy Rosary, which is now a vacant lot overrun with weeds.  We passed the Head Start program I attended when I was younger than my son, and the now-shuttered corner candy store where you could go to play Pac-Man or buy drugs.  We pulled onto my old street, which is narrow and one-way, flanked on the other side by the elementary school my father dropped out of in eighth grade to work at a factory, and from which I graduated: the first in many steps of running as fast and far as I could to flee my roots.  Four scant miles, and yet this is nowhere my son would likely ever be.  There at the west end of the street is where my cousin was murdered—shot in gang violence—seven years ago.  I pulled into the school playground, where all the teachers park, and Giovanni and I got out of the car.  We walked to the playground fence, surveying my old building: a brick two-flat with an awning that used to be green but now just appears a canopy of dirt and rust.

“Papa was born in that house,” I tell Giovanni.  “He lived here until he was almost eighty, and then he moved in with us.  I lived here until I was eighteen, when I went away to college.”

Giovanni stood silently at the fence.  When I was ten and my father was in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, on the verge of death as was often the case in my girlhood, my mother would come to this fence every day during recess to give me an update on his condition.  She and I would hold hands through the fence, even though this was the last possible thing a new transfer student should be doing at a rough, urban public school, and my mother must have realized that as well as I did.  She and I were apparently complicit in my social ruin.  One day, however, she did not materialize at the fence.  I deduced that my father must have died, and she was still at the hospital.  I ran screaming from the playground across the street to the concrete steps that did not seem nearly as short or ramshackle to me then as they do now.  I pounded on the door yelling, “Daddy!  Daddy!” even though there was no possibility that my father was home.  Mr. Tomasello, who was not yet my teacher, saw me and came across the street to fetch me.  Although he was a frail man with a long white beard—the sort about whom rumors of terminal cancer circulated—and I was a pudgy child, he carried me back across the street, where I was taken to the school office so someone could reach my mother.

Now, Giovanni touched the fence, staring at the little brick house.  The air was cold and the sky a dingy gray: the color palette I remember most vividly from my youth, since my father had convinced all the neighbors that their tree roots were getting into our sewerage system, so they all ripped up their trees and cemented over their tiny lawns.  That my father could have convinced an entire block full of people to do this seems preposterous to me, but indicative of his status in the neighborhood as a patriarch and a man of wisdom.  One of my most vivid memories from my youth is of my father outside with his hose, spraying down the sidewalk in front of our house until it glistened like a bone.

Memories collided in my head like a movie montage gone wrong.  A boy I grew up with was shot and killed on a bench in 1989, maybe twenty feet from where Gio and I stood.  But there, just across the playground, was where my cousin Laura and I would take her boom box and listen to Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” while lying on our backs looking at the few visible stars, playing the song over and over again until it became the template for both of our lives.  I held Giovanni’s hand.  He looked up at me.  The moment seemed ripe for poignancy.

“This place looks really old,” he said finally.  “It looks like zombies attacked it.”

*          *          *

How do you measure a life’s worth?  On December 14, 2011, my father will be ninety years old.  He never thought he would live to see his fortieth birthday.  When I was born, he said he hoped to live to see me graduate from elementary school.  Now it is possible that he will live to see my daughters graduate.  When he was a boy, Italian girls still didn’t go out without chaperones.  I would say that this was before people were shot and killed in our old neighborhood, but that wouldn’t be true exactly.  People were just shot and killed under different circumstances.  The neighborhood has a long history of crime, just as it has a long history of family.  What is true is that my father raised me there oblivious—or volitionally blind—to the neighborhood’s shortcomings, and conscious only of its strengths.  When I went away to college, he cried.  I had betrayed the family, in a way.  I wouldn’t stay put.  I would not learn what he was trying to teach me.  He believed I didn’t understand about loyalty.  I believed that too.  I believed loyalty was cheap.  I wanted to be Sabina, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  I wanted a life based on betrayals and escapes, and for a time, I created some sexy facsimile of that, although I felt it unraveling in my fingers even as I clutched at it ferociously.  In the end, despite years in Madison, London, New Hampshire, New Mexico or Amsterdam, I ended up back in Chicago with my parents living downstairs from me, just as my grandmothers—first my father’s, then my mother’s—resided in our house when I was a girl.  In the end, the only thing I was truly capable of betraying was my own fantasy of myself as someone else, someone other than my father’s loyal daughter, who would throw him under the bus for my babies just as he would have thrown his parents under the bus for me.  The night his mother died was Christmas Eve, 1980, and within hours of her death my father resumed our holiday festivities—though he was my grandmother’s baby, the one with whom she had lived after all her other sons left home, he did not take the time to mourn alone because he didn’t want to spoil my Christmas.  I have taken my father out to dinner plenty of times, but someday when he is gone I will nurse my regrets as he nurses his about his own father: the things I could have done, the more I could have given.

“Sometimes I see things that aren’t there,” I tell my father when I am in my late twenties.  “Figures walking into rooms and things like that.”

“Oh, sure,” my father says.  “That happens to everyone.”

“Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I hear someone calling my name.”

“That’s normal,” my father confirms.  “That happens to me all the time.”

We are the lion in the house, my father and I, waiting to pounce.  On anyone who threatens the family—but first and foremost, on ourselves.

*          *          *

Once upon a time, my father was a hero.  He was trained to drive a tank in World War II, but his ulcer and bad back got him sent home before he could be deployed overseas.  Instead, his heroism took place on quieter grounds.  Years ago, while hanging out at his men’s club shooting craps with his friends, a young girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, entered the club.  She claimed to want a few dollars for the bus, but it is clear to me now, from an adult lens, that this probably wasn’t what she really thought to achieve, walking into a crowded men’s club full of ex-cons and soliciting money, then failing to leave when all the men began suggesting to her the things she might do to earn it.  They were laughing, saying the things men say, and the girl was maybe laughing with them, the way some young girls have to in order to survive.  Amid this my father stood up, took out twenty dollars and handed it to the girl.  “You need to leave now, honey,” he told her, and walked her to the door.

Another time, many years later, my father was having some coffee in the little eating area of Target, when some scruffy teenagers came in.  He saw them go to the counter, where one scraped together just enough change to buy a tiny personal pizza, and they all sat around a table while the one who had purchased the pizza ate.  The way the others stared intently at the pizza was something my father recognized.  Although he always managed to keep his own head above water, he had seen hunger in his life, and it was something he understood.  He went to the counter and said quietly, “Give those kids whatever they want to eat, and I’ll pay for it.”  The counter girl went up to the teens and told them they could have what they wanted, and they all ran up and ordered food excitedly.  My father sat, drinking his coffee, while they devoured their food.  He did not speak to them or tell them that he was the one who had paid for their meal.  He waited until after they had been gone for a while before he himself left.  “I didn’t want them to think I was a masher,” he told my mother, laughing himself off.

He would never relay these stories to me himself.  It would seem to him like bragging.

My cousin Biff and his brother; my cousin Laura and her sister; my friend Alicia.  The litany of young people who have looked to my father as a stable force in their lives, a father figure, is considerable.  Even now, when we take him to a family wedding, men from the old neighborhood—middle aged themselves now—jump up to help him to his seat, to get him a drink, to hover around him talking about old times, to hold open doors.

My mother and I have tried to suggest having a party for his 90th, where all the many people who love him could gather, but he won’t hear of it.  “Oh, Jesus Christ,” he says.  The trappings of a party—having to maneuver around with his walker, possibly falling down as he often does, or not making it to the bathroom in time—have been added to the long list of things that make him anxious.  His world shrinks, month by month, day by day.  Recently he realized that although he can still read, he can no longer recite the alphabet or remember the order of the letters.  Only Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, on the pages of his morning Star, remain as some reminder of wider terrain.  Recently, I was on the nominating committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and nominated my father’s longtime hero, Mike Royko, for inclusion.  Although Royko was selected, there was no possibility of my father attending the awards ceremony with me.  Those days have passed.  When I told him about Royko’s induction, I had to shout and repeat myself several times to get my point across, upon which he simply said, “That’s nice, honey.”

He is on a journey across the white barren land, inside himself, from us.  We stand on the periphery and watch him ride away.

*          *          *

What is love?  Is it possible to love by degree?  If a love is not the greatest of all loves, is it love at all?  Is a life lived to ninety more “full” than one lived to fifty?  What if the life lived to ninety was consumed by anxieties, by illnesses, by complexes and regrets?  Where does quality intersect with quantity?  But what defines quality anyway?  Is existence itself “quality” enough?

Sometimes I wonder if I am grieving because I know I will soon lose my father, or if I am grieving for the facets of life my father has already lost.

*          *          *

“Kill me if I get that way,” I tell my husband and my surrogate brother Tom, after watching my mother-in-law die slowly, unable to speak, vomiting on herself if she tried to sit up, her flesh an empty sack loose around her bones.  After listening to my father scream at a god in whom he does not even believe, begging for death, that Christmas he broke his hip and my husband, mother and I had to change his diapers while the antibiotics ravaged him with explosive diarrhea.  “I’ll make sure I have enough pills in the house,” I promise.  “Do it quickly.”

They look at me patiently.  They know I seek to escape the indignity of Death just as I once escaped my old neighborhood.  They know I grew up with the mistaken impression that cleverness could exempt me from anything.  But I read Emily’s memoir; I go to chemo with my friend Kathy; our phone rings in the middle of the night because my father has fallen again on his way to the bathroom, and the truth is that nobody is exempt.  We are all the walking dead of history.  This goddamn place looks like zombies attacked it.

*          *          *

It is a day in late 2011.  My father’s oldest friend in the world, Mario, whom he has known since they were three years old, has had his leg amputated and has been convalescing at home.  My father has avoided going to see him because he can’t stand the thought of Mario without a leg, and it is easy to avoid things when you are almost ninety, disabled and incontinent and seeing nonexistent mice on the floor.  But now Mario’s sister has died and my father has to attend the wake.  My mother, who did not know how to drive until she was seventy and learned only when my father’s feet failed him on the brakes and he ran his car into a pole to avoid hitting pedestrians, drives to the funeral parlor.  At the door, my father sees Mario in his wheelchair.  Other men rush to get a chair for my father, and place it beside Mario.  They sit: two old men who used to play in front of the house we were all raised in, when they were younger than my son.  They talk: the two of them with legs that are missing like dead brothers, or that no longer work.  In the contradictory movie montage of my mind, I have no access to the specifics of their dialogue, but somehow I know there is laughter.  I know they call each other “Baby” like Frank Sinatra, as they always have.  They are historical relics from a day of covered bridges downtown and chaperones for young Italian girls.  Through some accident of mistaken identity or grace, they are still alive.

That same day, in another area of Chicago, Giovanni has his first kiss.  In the coat room of his classroom, like generations of boys before him, he asks a pretty blond girl he has known since preschool, “So, do you want a kiss?” and she says, “Sure,” so he leans in for the kill.  When I ask him if he kissed her on her cheek or her lips, he shrugs at me and drawls evasively, “Oh, I don’t know . . .”  Since beginning kindergarten in September, he has already had four fiancées.  As my father and his friend Mario sit in the dim fluorescent light of the funeral parlor foyer, my son gets ready for bed, excitedly reading aloud from the Magic Treehouse series.  We “snug” together in the darkness, and he twirls a strand of my hair around his finger absently as he makes the jerky breaths the precipitate sleep.

His life is contained in this moment.  In the moment of his first kiss.  In the moment of sleepy breath and Mommy hair.  In the moment of his brain’s voracious recognition of symbols on a page: letters that form words that form language that form story.  My father’s life exists within the single frame of laughter with his childhood friend, as they commemorate yet another death—“doomed,” as Faulkner wrote, to be the ones “who live.”  Now.  Buddhists tell us to live in the moment, but the moment already contains us, whether we want it to or not.  “When I find myself laughing at something now,” my friend Kathy tells me in the tenth week of her chemo, “I feel conscious of it more, and I’m grateful.”  She did not choose this gratitude.  In an instant, she would trade it back for her old, blithe ways.  But it is coming for us all: the recognition of the miraculous ordinary.  We ignore it as long as we can, until we can’t anymore.  We flash brief and bright against the sky just once, just a hundred, just a million tiny times.  Beautiful, singular, vibrant; full of love and pain.  Then we are out.

 

“How do you remember someone when they are gone, especially when you’re not sure how well you know them?”

My Father’s House has all the hallmarks of a Ben Tanzer novel: the characters are socially aware and mired in pop culture; they struggle with coming to a deeper understand of themselves; they run and shoot pool and frequent dive bars and stack the coffee table high with The Nation, Cineaste and New Yorker magazines. This novel though, Tanzer’s sixth, has taken a markedly darker path.

We die in October.

As an upcoming minor surgical procedure date approaches, I can’t help worrying about what might go wrong. This year so far I’ve managed to beat cancer, leave cigarettes behind and dodge all the Breaking Bad finale spoilers going around. So a teensy, tiny half-hour procedure should be no sweat, right?

But with anesthesia there’s always a risk. And I’m feeling every inch of that risk this time, because in my family, we seem to have an eerie habit of shuffling off this mortal coil in the month of October.

For many, October is 31 sweet days of cool weather, Charlie Brown specials* and free candy. But for me and the other Ratliffs who have survived it, October is the month we remember the passing of my father, my grandfather and at least two uncles. It’s not a particularly morbid month—we don’t dress in black and mourn for weeks, or anything. I mean, there is still free candy to look forward to. But you can bet we are driving a little more slowly around sharp curves and, when possible, not scheduling any hospital visits, no matter how minor.

Until now.

It’s a weird thing to confront death. I mean, we all know we are going to die, eventually. But you don’t know it the same way you know it when you are half naked in a doctor’s office and she says the word “cancer”. This year, for the first time ever, I had to really think about what it means to stop living and I did not like it one bit.

My whole life, up to this point, I have approached every crossroads and tackled every dilemma using a “worst-case scenario” filter. When I’ve been unsure whether to take a new job, move across country, date a guitar player or worse,** I made myself imagine all the possible conclusions:

“What if my new job falls apart?”

“What if I hate the new city I move to?”

“What if the guitar player uses the word ‘tunes’ when he means ‘songs’ and I have to murder him?”

This process helps me determine if I can live with the consequences, even if the outcome is the worst. If so, I am free to move forward with whatever terrible decision I am about to make. I’m never afraid to fail, because I know that whatever happens, I’ll be okay.

Until now!

My own mortality was one “worst-case scenario” I could not win. I literally cannot live with the consequences of my own death. I will not be okay with “whatever happens!”

(For the record, YOU’LL be fine. So relax. The world will keep turning and life will go on for you and for everyone—except me. I’m not saying you won’t be sad. Obviously you will mourn the profound loss of me with lots of booze and sex, and then go on to compose a concept album about me, or write a biopic screenplay or one of those “oral history” nonfiction books that are so popular now. I’m just spit-balling, here. You do what you have to do to mark the passage of the Internet’s foremost authority+ on Keith Gordon movies and vegetarian casserole recipes. Just know that you are a survivor in this scenario.)

I’m just having a hard time dealing with the fact that there’s a situation I will absolutely have to face, that I have zero control over, and with which I am totally not cool. And with no afterlife in my immediate post-death future, I’ve got no way to turn my mortal frown upside down. I can’t find a way to put a silver lining around this sad cloud.

Bummer!

I guess I’m mostly worried that I will miss out on something. I hate that! Remember in the seventh grade when the cool kids had their first co-ed party? At that one girl’s house with a swimming pool? And after sunset, when it got a little chilly, the party moved into the basement? And her parents were upstairs watching TV, so it kind of turned into a makeout party? And you had to hear about it third-fucking-hand because no one invited you? Because you are the new kid (with glasses!) that no one even knows, much less invites to a potentially scandalous co-ed seventh-grade makeout pool party?

Well death is like that, but forever.

Frankly, I don’t want to go until we ALL go. I mean, I know it’s selfish, but I kind of hope to live to see the end of the world. When that tidal wave hits, or that alien death ray explodes the Empire State Building, or that monkey flu becomes a bird flu becomes a people flu, I will surrender, peacefully, knowing that at least you guys won’t be having any fun without me.

Or maybe I will not surrender and somehow survive with Jake Gyllenhaal in a library, burning stupid law books and keeping the ice and the wolves at bay! Either option is cool with me!

Here’s the option that is NOT cool with me: having some weird fluke reaction to anesthesia during a routine procedure and dying on the operating table in the month of October. That is the-opposite-of-Fonzie not cool with me. If death in October is the well-traveled road, I’m happy to trek the dirt path on the other side of the fork. Even if it’s merely delaying the inevitable, I’ll take the scenic route, thank you.

So I submit this article as a way to jinx death. With this piece, I hope to negate the weird could-have-been of my dying in the same month as two generations of Ratliffs before me. I’m going to look Croaktober in the face, shake it’s hand and tell it to have a nice life. Then I’ll knock on wood three times and see y’all in the recovery room.

Otherwise—if something does happen to me next week—this post is going to get sooooooo many hits! Right, you guys?!! You know you are going to leave comments below about how crazy it is that I predicted it all right here, and how totally cool I seemed, and how you WISH you had invited me to your seventh-grade co-ed makeout pool party. And then you are going to “”Like” this on Facebook and share the link in an email to your mom and your best friend with a note about how you should get together more often, because “life is short” or whatever.

That is totally something you would/will do!

My advice is: don’t wait. Do all that stuff now! Send this link to your mom and make plans to hang out! Invite me to your makeout pool party! Life can be short! Carpe diem, for reals!

“Don’t forget-to-Like on Facebook tomorrow what you can remember-to-Like on Facebook today!”
–President John F. Kennedy

Most importantly, do not wait until November; especially if you are related to me.

 

*”The Charlie Brown Specials” is totally my new band!)
**Keyboard players. (Just kidding, ‘Boardies!)
+Flagrant exaggeration!

Recently I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, or uterine cancer. Until now I have had only cursory knowledge of my insides, and as soon as I had to start telling friends and family members, I was bombarded with questions that I could barely answer. Over the past week I’ve learned so much, and rather than relay that information over and over again to concerned loved ones individually, I thought I’d just publish it here and save myself some phone calls.

What is the diagnosis, exactly?
The doctors tell me I have cancer inside my junk.

Inside your uterus?
Yes. Or, if you don’t like the word “uterus” you could say my vagina has throat cancer.

That’s not much better.
Then let’s just say I have the C-word (Cunt-disease).

How do they know, exactly?

Well, they went in with a camera and took some photos that showed a lot of white noise, some blobs, a shoe, an old tire and some license plates. There’s a lot of nonsense going on in there. They did a biopsy, and found that some of the blobs are tumors (and some of the license plates are Jewish!).

Is the cancer also in your ovaries or cervix?
It’s hard to tell until they get in there, so they’re just going to take it all. One big clearance sale, from the waist down.

So you won’t be able to have babies, then?

I am going to save so much money on abortions.

Did you plan on having kids?
No, I specifically planned on not having them. But apparently not giving birth is one of the causes of uterine cancer.

What?!
Yeah, the uterus has a pretty firm “use it or lose it” policy. You don’t have kids, you could get cancer; you do have kids, you could get kids. I guess you have to pick your poison.

Well, you don’t need it, so I guess it’s not so bad to give it up.
Yeah, except that it’s fucking mine and I wanted it.

Why?

You know when you’re a kid and you have a stupid toy that you never play with, and then some other kid wants to play with it and all of a sudden that is the only toy you want?

Yeah…
So, I don’t want some other kid playing with my uterus. I made it. It’s mine.

But it’s full of cancer.

Yes. Right. So now, I guess I’m done with it.

When do they take it out?
My doctor said to go ahead with my summer plans and he’d get to it after that.

So it’s not urgent…
Not super urgent, no.

So this isn’t that bad, then.

Fuck you.

I mean, it could be worse.

Yes, of course it could be worse. Everything can always be worse. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to go through goddamn menopause at age 39.

What does that mean?
It means that on any given day, the imbalance of hormones in my body could cause me to murder the shit out of anyone I see. It means that sweating, which I have purposely avoided my whole life, will just… happen. It means I’ll have to be on the pill, that I’ll have to quit smoking, and that I’ll be legally required to buy mom jeans, get a perm, join a book club and use the word “pocketbook”.

Or I’ll just eat ice cream and cry. I don’t really know, actually.

And will you also have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy?
Probably. They say they won’t know until they operate, but I think they just don’t tell you until it’s over so they don’t overwhelm you. I’m trying to stay positive. Like, maybe it will help with my diet.

Oh yeah, how’s that going?
Fantastic. I’m about to lose about five pounds of organs.

What goes into the space where your uterus used to be?
Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Are you going to get a second opinion before the surgery?
Good idea. I would hate to have my junk removed, only to find out that what I really had was “cankles.”

Have you told your friends and family about what’s going on?
Not all of them. This should just about cover it.

Any words of advice?
Sure. Don’t get cancer. If you do, try to be Caucasian–odds of survival are higher.

Stay healthy, be white. Anything else?
Have good health insurance, build a supportive network of friends, and blog about it. You’ve never been shy about letting people into your genital area before, so why start now?

Benders

By Reno J. Romero

Memoir

I was sitting with Go at a bar on Main Street where years ago I fucked a girl leaning up against the building. We hadn’t seen each other in over ten years and were catching up over wings and whiskey. Go’s real name is Jerrod. We penned him Go because he had a huge appetite for meth. It was Go who gave me my first taste of speed. I was in the 9th grade. He chopped and railed out two fat lines on a Metallica cassette. I remember him laughing as tears streamed down my face. We stayed up all night riding our bikes through the desert until the sun came up.

Even though everyone still called him Go he’d been clean for years. A couple of runs through rehab and he finally got the obsession out of his head. Go came from a family of addicts. His dad was an alcoholic and his mom had a thing for pills. But it was his older brother Tommy who had it bad. He was addicted to everything. Pot. Tweak. Alcohol. Heroin. Coke. It didn’t matter. If you had it Tommy wanted it.

Years later in the sick stale rooms of rehab I heard an addict ask another addict what was his drug of choice.

“What do you have?” he answered.

That reminded me of Tommy.

In college he got into freebasing and everything went downhill from there. Dropped out. Started dealing. Crawled up and down the halls of rehab. Almost died. One night Go and I were on his balcony smoking a joint when a cab pulled up. On the side of the cab it said San Bernardino.

“No,” Go said. “I bet that’s Tommy.”

Sure enough Tommy got out of the cab. It was the middle of summer and he was wearing a leather jacket and ski gloves. His body language told us he was on a bender. He saw us on the balcony.

“I made it!” he said closing the door. “Hey, give me ten bucks. I don’t have enough for the fare. Twenty if you have it.”

We gathered nine dollars (we’d just spent all our cash on an ounce of weed) and threw it down to him. He counted it twice.

“Hey, it’s only nine dollars! Cheap bastards!”

Tommy was messed up, talking gibberish, and making erratic hand gestures. His eyes were gone, dope-stricken. Apparently, he had it out with the old lady, told her they were done, that he didn’t need to take any of her drama. He went to a bar down the street, got drunk, and called a cab. We got him high and cracked into a bottle of tequila. He said he couldn’t stay because he needed to go a buddy’s house so they could work out a contract because they found a cure for cancer. Me and Go were just looking at each other like fuck. We asked him what the remedy was. He lit a cigarette and examined us for a moment through the smoke.

“Sea water,” he said and headed for the door.

As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

“I want to rule out cancer,” the hippie doctor with bad coffee breath tells me as I sit exposed on a cracked vinyl examining table in a run-down clinic downtown. My mind starts racing as my fingers probe the canyons in the vinyl, picking at the foam core.

Cancer. I’m so young.

“We’ll run some tests,” he quips as he scratches notes in my file, my life unworthy of neat penmanship. He snaps it shut, sets it down, far away from my eyes, as though my illness should be kept secret from me.

Feeling my neck with his fingers in little circular motions, he mumbles to himself, uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, another secret he keeps from me.

“Is it bad?” I stammer, trying not to cry in front of this man who looks like he lives in his car, the byproduct of me not having insurance, which is also racing through my mind. Health is a privilege in this country. You have no right to it, no entitlement, and I have learned not to expect it.

But I never expected cancer.

I eat right, organic for the most part, and I exercise every day. I quit smoking cigarettes years ago, and though I occasionally enjoy a joint now and then, I seldom drink, though I’m told a glass of wine now and then is good for you. I control my sugar intake, watch the red meat, skip anything with hydrogenated anything in it or bleached four or high fructose corn syrup, which is now being relabeled as just corn syrup because consumers have caught of to the food conspiracy.

How did this happen to me?

“I’ll know more when I get the results,” he says already on his way out.

“Ok,” I barely utter as the door closes.

And then I am left alone. Alone under the stale fluorescent lights. Alone with the cracked vinyl and wooden tongue depressors and blood pressure machine.

I think about the first time I died, when my sister jumped on my head in Lisa Buell’s pool and knocked me out. Lisa’s dad had to give me mouth to mouth, and I remember the taste of cheap beer, probably Coors Light. Dying then had been peaceful, as I wasn’t conscious to struggle against the water that came crashing through my lungs. It was coming back to life that was violent, and I’ve often wondered if that was a mistake, if I wasn’t supposed to die there on the Spanish tile by the side of the pool.

I think about all the people I’ve wronged. Make a mental list of everyone who deserves an apology from me, including Debbie Gordon, the girl I beat up in eighth grade for spreading rumors about me. She might have deserved it, but violence never solves anything. I know this now. I’m sorry, Debbie.

I think of my Mom, of how her face will crack and spill onto the floor when I tell her I might have cancer. I watch her heart fall from her chest and crash onto the floor and shatter into a million jagged pieces.

I hear my sister cry in her bathroom, shut away from the ears of her six children, my beautiful nieces and nephews, who listen at the other side of the door unbeknown to her. I see their confused and conflicted faces as I wipe the tears away from my own eyes.

Then I see my brother cry, and that undoes me. The tears fall, and I don’t care if the homeless doctor sees them.

Forty five minutes and a box of Kleenex after I’ve been handed a bomb to hold, a nurse finally enters with a yellow tackle box of needles and vials. She rolls up my sleeves and taps at my veins. “Oh, you’ve got great veins,” she says, smiling. She’s too excited by them, and I wonder if she’s a junky. I try to examine her teeth, but she’s looking down, down at my blue veins that may or may not be pumping cancer through my body.

“That’s all there is to it,” she says, snapping off her latex gloves and tossing them into the trashcan. “We’ll call to schedule the biopsy. You’ll need to pay at the desk on the right on your way out.” Then she leaves without any fanfare, and I’m left wondering if this is how it all ends, in a dimestore clinic with buzzing overhead lights on a cracked vinyl examining table in the middle of winter.

Death be not proud.

And neither should the dying.

 

Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?

I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.

 

That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?

My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.

 

What a presumptuous idea!

The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.

 

It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.

Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.

She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.

She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”

And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.

 

Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?

Let’s call it an uncertain book.

 

Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?

I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.

What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.

As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”

How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?

I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.

 

So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?

Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?

 

You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?

That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?

 

So what can you do? Is there an alternative?

That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.

 

But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.

The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.

If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.

 

Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?

A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.

 

But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?

I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.

 

Questioning how?

In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.

That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.

 

Why despair?

Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.

 

Epilogue

By Quenby Moone

Appreciation

There aren’t words for the confusion I feel about stepping out on the internet stage again. After living at our father’s house for the summer while he slowly sailed out to sea, my brother and I are stumbling into daylight as if from battle: scarred and weary and dazed.

One of Dad’s oldest and dearest friends Betsy was visiting from New York when my brother Chris, my husband and I went to Dad’s house to do some chores for him. Dad had been persistently prodding her to go through his library in the basement, thousands and thousands of art books, literature, mythology, to sift through them and take what she wanted. He’s been nagging all of us to do the same. It’s the housekeeping of dying.