The greatest truth about the greatest writing, if you ask me, is this: The author never, ever averts her eyes. Easier said than done, of course, and I’ve not always lived up to my own dictum – for the sake of avoiding collateral damage, I’ve let my gaze waver; or, worse, I have averted my gaze completely and fallen silent. Still, my greatest goal as both writer and human? A refining of my sense of truthfulness, a blooming of bravery, a keeping of clear-eyed gaze even on issues that churn the heart and crush the spirit.
This was on my mind lately as I killed my father. Or imagined him dead. Or thought of the various ways he’d go, and what his particular death would feel like for him. My newest novel, Stars Go Blue, is based, in part, on my family’s experience with my father’s Alzheimer’s. There came a day, about ten years ago, when my father stood in front of the elevator with me in Denver – we were helping one of my brothers move — and my dad had no idea what the elevator was for; he wouldn’t step into it. I tilted my head, confused: Perhaps he’d been out of the city for too long, being a Colorado rancher and all? But no, he had also been a college professor, a geneticist, a world-traveler famous for his research.
Oh, god, I thought. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Since then, it’s been a strange path for the whole gaggle of my large family, particularly for my mother, who became his primary caregiver. As for me, these last ten years have been primarily marked by my walks with him across the family ranch. This is what he and I do: we walk. We have walked summer, winter, spring, fall; literally thousands of miles. Early on, we could speak of his disease; later on, I filled in the words for him; and these days, we simply whistle (“Delta Dawn” being his favorite).
As we walked, I do what writers do: I dreamed up various scenarios, played the “What If” game, considered the larger issues. What if he had chosen a different route and planned suicide (as I will, if ever diagnosed)? What if society had different views on this disease? What if the Alzheimer’s Association (bless them; they do so much good) spent less time on caretaking issues and cures, and, dare I say it, more time on discussing end-of-life decisions, even those surrounding assisted and pre-planned assisted suicide or contemplative death? What if he had not had that pacemaker put in ten years ago and had died the death that was likely? What if my father was suffering. Could I murder him? Would it be murder? Would he have wanted to kill himself?
These are horrible-disgusting-tough-miserable-queasy-producing questions, and you can believe that I for sure wanted to avert my eyes from them. (As an aside, so did others in my life: I’ve been shunned and told that I was only welcome “if I did not bring up such topics again.”) Even if I wasn’t advocating murder or suicide – and I am not – I was advocating (probably at nauseum) a real discussion of end-of-life decisions.
And so it came to be that Ben, the character in my book who has Alzheimer’s, is faced with these issues, and even harder ones as he decides what to do about his daughter’s killer while he’s still got a small window of time. Ben became the most brave and courageous speaker I could imagine. He wonders the things that we all wonder, deep in the secret recesses of our heart; what he does about it, I can’t tell you, because that would give away the plot. But there’s another layer to this, at least for me: because of his diminished intellectual capabilities and speech, he is also representative of our society and our human nature; he can only give voice to so much, and he’s often unable to address the very things that need addressing. But bless him, he tries. His caretaker (his sort-of-ex-wife) does too. By god, they try not to avert their eyes.
This is perhaps ironic, because writing, in a certain way, is about bewilderment. One is bewildered by a truth, and then one stares at it long and hard. At first, for example, I wrote to understand him and this disease, to grieve and to care, which I suppose was a way of knowing him better and therefore loving him more. But I wasn’t just bewildered about my father, and what had happened to him; I was also bewildered by death, by our culture, by our approach, by our moral imperatives, our ethical dilemmas.
In my mind, this all melded into a book. A book with the specific task of giving voice to someone who is losing theirs (to tell the story of Alzheimer’s not from an outsider, but from the person himself). To tell the story of my father.
So, yes, when people ask me (as they always do) if there are similarities between my life and this fiction, I will say yes. Both in reality and the philosophical. Besides the Alzheimers, there were other details I used. One of my six brothers is a veterinarian, for example, and as I watched him gently put down my dog, it occurred to me how someone (I can’t say who!) in the book might die. As a farm kid, I’ve seen animals of all sorts suffer, and I’ve seen the ways we alleviate that suffering, and so I could get the details of that right. But more scary than that is the questions posed by the book. They too have a basis in reality. Did I wish my father dead? Yes, sometimes. Did I wish him to get cured? Yes. Did I wish he had discussed his wishes for suicide with me? Yes. And even this: Did I sometimes wonder if I could kill him, if he was suffering? Yes. Yes, I did. I had to stare at these questions so fiercely that the quiet voice of Ben broke through.
I’ll be honest: Not everyone in my family is delighted. Writers have struggled with this forever—how to explain to others that sometimes fiction is just fiction (and no, you are not the Aunt Martha in my book); and, conversely, to explain that yes, sometimes fiction is based on real life, not only the details, but more importantly, the current that runs beneath?
The balance is tricky. We owe our family a great deal, but not dishonesty. And not a silencing of our stories. It requires careful footing; steps done with equanimity and grace but also courage. There’s no easy path. But one thing I know is this: I have loved these moments with my father, with the strange man he has become, and my attempt to write about him. I did not walk with him out of research. I walked with him out of love, and then wrote out of love.
I will walk with my dad until he is done. I will walk with him in the spring, when the fields are greening; in the summer, when the hay is being baled; in the fall, when the air grows crisp and the aspens turn; and, yes, in the winter, when we will make our way carefully across the ice-encrusted snow.
Laura Pritchett is the author of Stars Go Blue, released June 10, 2014 with Counterpoint Press. She also authored Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which received the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and a PEN USA Award for Fiction. For Sky Bridge, she received the WILLA Fiction Award. She has had over 100 short stories and essays published in various magazines The Sun, Orion, High Country News, Salon, Desert Journal and others. Pritchett lives in northern Colorado and teaches around the country. More at laurapritchett.com.