[This one got lost in the shuffle, but I’m guessing my legion of readers won’t mind that it’s a week late.]
One of the pleasures of writing a novel is you can decide when and how things happen. For instance, you can describe a father who’s dying by inches and, if you have the requisite skills, cultivate an atmosphere that’s doom-ridden but not maudlin or predictable.
The reader doesn’t know anything except that the father will die, like all mortals. The writer can keep the old man alive until exactly the point where killing him will somehow surprise the reader, or at least move her/him in an unexpected way, even though the death was inevitable. There is time for an epiphany, or at least a restored sense of order, and even cold comfort in the fact that, as Don DeLillo wrote, “all plots tend to move toward death.”
In real life, when your father is dying, all you get is the inevitability and a first-hand look at pointless suffering, and the growing feeling that most of what goes on in the world is just as pointless. The ironies and surprises that make fiction seem meaningful aren’t good for much in real-life situations, not until afterwards, when you can look back at what happened and impose order on it.
Looking back, it’s clear my father and I hailed from different planets. I was from the same world as my late mother, a place where the natives talk and argue non-stop, with Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan on the jukebox. My father was from a twilit world with stark landscapes and few creature comforts. His mind was always elsewhere, and my mother used to say he’d forget his head if it wasn’t attached to his shoulders.
She also used to tell him he’d be late for his own funeral and, as it turned out, he almost was. There was a miscommunication at the nursing home where he died, and two funeral homes fought over the job of burying him. What ensued was something akin to a black comedy about body-snatching, starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
My father has been dead a long time, long enough for all the ironies to kick in — the non-decisions that turned out to be decisive, the assumption that one can prepare for old age, the frustration and consolation of not being able to articulate what moved him. And so on. He becomes more real to me each year, even as the evidence that he existed diminishes. It all makes perfect sense, but only as fiction.