It’s getting closer and closer to the official release of The Mimosa Tree, and I am pleased to say it’s also getting closer and closer to finishing my new book, Shatter. Of course, when I finally get to write the two loveliest words in the world to a writer – ‘The End’ – there will still be a lot of work to do, but I will have jumped the first major hurdle in writing a book which is completing the first draft.
It’s strange looking back to over a year ago to when I first started Shatter. I was running with the title The Garden then, and I remember that when I found out that The Mimosa Tree was going to be published it felt like an explosion went off in my brain. Suddenly, instead of the casual, haphazard pace at which I attacked writing the Mimosa Tree, I seemed to launch into a furious, bloody minded fervor, convinced that a second book had to follow hot on the tail of the first for me to feel like I was a real writer. I had gotten to a stage with The Mimosa Tree where I seemed to be able to get into the voice of the character without effort, and I guess I thought that was an achievement that I would be able to transfer easily to the next book. I had gotten so good at being ‘Mira’ and ‘Via’ and ‘Harm’ that writing and editing The Mimosa Tree seemed effortless, and because of this I had this expectation that the next one would flow as easily from my hands. Of course, I know now that I was suffering from a kind of ‘birth amnesia’, where having gone through the pain and gore to gaze into her newborn’s eyes, a mother starts quickly telling herself that the whole thing wasn’t that bad and it would be super easy to go through the whole thing again. My amnesia, of course, was forgetting that I had lived with Mira and The Mimosa Tree for over two years, and after that amount of time you get pretty good at understanding something. Starting a new book, however, is full of pain and gore, and in those first few months, as I tried to fill the blank pages with the same ease I could churn out paragraphs of Mira’s adventures, I was shocked by how completely stupid I felt about the world I was writing about, and how each word felt like it was being dragged out of me like teeth. On top of this, it was generally a hard year. My father’s Alzheimer’s got worse, and I had to spend more and more time looking after him. My kid had problems at school I needed to sort out. My husband was building a house with his own two hands and was away a lot, and I was trying to balance all these things plus my writing and my own job. And I have to say, that we did pretty well at keeping the balancing act going, but things were so tight and required such precision timing, that it would only take a very small thing for all the balls to fall.
Yes, it was a bad year to start a book.
And I admit, I got a little whiny.
I started to despair. My responsibilities, I felt were leaving me without the time and resources I needed to pursue my creative work. I got pretty moody about this. I thought that perhaps that was going to be it for me, one book was all I could manage because I simple didn’t have the money to create the time it took to write another one. I started to hate everything little thing that took me away from my writing – including usually fun things like hanging out with friends or just watching TV. And this despairing and whining may have gone on for a long time if it wasn’t for two very important things. Firstly, it was my husband Stu who sensibly pointed out to me one day in November, that despite everything going on I had actually managed to write about two thirds of the new book, and that I was probably only months from actually finishing it. This was a small but significant fact, and I remember the insight setting off a kind of ‘bing’ moment in my brain where I felt stupid and ashamed about my pessimism and self absorption. The second thing that happened is that around Christmas time, with a little nudge from my extended family, I made the decision, or should I say ‘came to the realisation’, that my father needed to go into care. And so it was, that on the last day of the year my father entered a nursing home, and while it was horrible, and nobody ever feels good about it, I also realised that a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I spent New Years Eve sleeping, and I woke up the next day to a world that literally looked brighter.
And far from Dad being traumatised by the move, he too seemed to lighten up. He slipped into the change relatively easily, and after only a few days seemed like he had lived there his whole life. I mean, its hard to really know how someone with Alzheimer’s feels when they don’t have the ability to tell you anymore, but all you can really go on is how someone is behaving – and Dad took to the change like a duck to water, seemed even to enjoy the constant motion around him, the crazy old people that talked to walls, and the constant stream of coffee, cakes and food that would appear in front of him as if from nowhere. It feels weird to say it, and I doubt it myself until I go back and visit him and see it again with my own two eyes, but the guy actually seems to be happier in the place. It’s like a load has been lifted from him as well as me. Someone told me once that most parents hate the idea of having their children look after them, and I guess now that I am a mother I can understand how painful it would be to see my son missing out on his life because I needed someone to wipe food from my chin. Maybe even through the disease, Dad felt the same.
The nicest, weirdest part of it all, is that I’ve discovered that high care nursing homes are fantastic places to write. My father’s Alzheimer’s has progressed to the point where he no longer speaks. He can walk and eat, he can gesture and grunt and because I know him so well that’s all it takes for me to understand what he wants. But the thing about Dad is that talking was never his thing anyway, so when I visit we just end up sitting together in the courtyard, not saying anything but feeling mutually content. I worked out pretty quickly that all Dad needed was to see me, and that while I was sitting there being seen I could slip out my notebook or laptop and start typing away at the book. When I first started, I’d look up to see if he needed me or wanted to say something, but he would just be staring into the garden, his mouth turned up at the corners just enough to call it a smile, without the slightest hint of worry or pain on his face. Then I realised that he was okay with this. In fact he was more than okay, we were both experiencing something that had never before existed between us – peace. And as anyone who knows us will tell you, for my father and I to spend even a minute in harmony is a remarkable thing indeed. Instead of the angry conflict we always seemed to be in from the moment I can remember, or the weighted and tense relationship of a carer and patient, my father and I have finally achieved a level of quiet and content companionship where both of us are doing exactly what we want, in the same place, at the same time, and with total acceptance.
Yep, no doubt about it. 2012 was one of my toughest years, but it was also one of the best. After all, I did manage to get a book published, write almost all of a second one, and I also got my father back – no wait, not back exactly, because as I mentioned our relationship was never this good. What I managed to get is the kind of relationship with my father that I’ve always wanted, and it took the dreaded Alzheimer’s for us to get there. Strange world? It is indeed. But that’s the kind of strangeness that makes my head buzz, my heart soar and my pen start flying.
2013 – bring it on!