Well, things happen…

Like relatives who’ve been part of your life for – well, all of your life – make their exit from it. My prickly, cantankerous, hilarious aunt, who has been in my charge as her POA for Health Care and Trustee for nearly ten years, is in her final decline at 87. We’d planned a family trip to see her next week – it’s a six hour drive. Things swirl very quickly at the end, though, and although we’ll still make the trip, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to talk to her by then. Both her sisters will be there, and both of mine. Two sets of three sisters – in their eighties and sixties – will have a final visit.

My aunt traveled a long and quirky path. She went to college in the late 40s – early 50s in Madison, WI, but we’re not sure she graduated. At any rate, sometime later she drove with her youngest sister to southern California, and a year or so after that shipped herself out to Fairbanks, Alaska, where she worked for Wien Alaska, a search and rescue outfit. A while later, she slipped on the ice and broke her ankle so badly she came home to California to heal. She got a call one day from the same air rescue outfit, offering her a job as a dispatcher in Point Barrow, above the Arctic Circle. “When?’ she said. “Five minutes ago.” So she was off again up North. She wanted to be a writer, and I know of at least one article she wrote (never published, I don’t think) about her life there: how she washed clothes and hung them out to alternately freeze and thaw until they were finally dry. She had huskies – at least two or three.

She came back to California in 1960 with a sealskin coat and a baby on the way. To support herself and her son, she became a social worker for Los Angeles County. After her retirement, she was functioning in her own unique fashion when a post-surgical infection took her away from her beloved little shack of a house in La Habra Heights. Real estate was hot in 2006, and after the house sold, she had money for the first time in her life. I invested it for her, and she began a series of board and care stays interspersed with ER visits. She was now in a wheelchair. Her son disappeared that year, and we didn’t know for at least eighteen months that he’d died. He was 46. I set up a trust for her and found a great assisted living place in Moreno Valley, in the desert near Riverside, on the way to Palm Springs.

For the most part, she thrived there. She bounced back at least once or twice a year from infections, complications from having only one kidney, surgeries and frequent falls that left her with sutures in her forehead and bruises all over her body. She never complained. In the meantime, she gardened, ordered constantly from catalogs, bought books on sale from the Library and took daily “walks” in her wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. She never spent less than a hundred dollars at the Dollar Store. She read avidly at night in her “office” – her bathroom, and surrounded herself with stacks and stacks of treasured possessions in her private suite. She’s a hoarder, I realized. I rented a huge storage unit to hold what was left from her house, and when her room became unnavigable and she knew we were coming to visit, she had workers clear a space so we could join her there. Piles of things were taken to storage by patient workmen. A while ago, she told me – although she hadn’t been there in years – she thought the time had come to rent a second unit.

She was haughty, stubborn. Hell on wheels, really. Her laugh was deep and throaty. Until late last year, she told me repeatedly that she was getting out (of assisted living), buying a house and getting a German Shepherd. It took me way too long to stop arguing with her. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and on tons of meds. It got harder and harder to make the trip down to see her. We were all getting older.

She went into hospice at the assisted living place this month, and stopped eating and drinking two days ago. Her dementia had already progressed to the point that it was difficult for the staff to communicate with her. But they love her cantankerous soul, and they’ve taken amazing care of her for nearly eight years.

Bon Voyage, Mildred Gretchen.

Crafting the novel I’ve been writing for too long…

The landscape in the header is a snapshot from a walk I took with Sherman through the vineyards past the Abbey in the village of Lagrasse in southwestern France in 2012. I traveled five thousand miles from home that Spring with my little Norwich Terrier. I wanted an adventure, and I thought I’d work on the novel I’d begun three years earlier. It was a great adventure. But I didn’t write one word of the book. Not one.

I did take scads of lovely pictures. I look at them frequently and reminisce about the scenes I’d fashioned for my protagonist. I researched Lagrasse in detail on the net before I traveled, and I was in France for a month, to fill my brain with images, scents, to get the feel of the southern Mediterranean sun on my skin.

My characters languished. My storyline deflated rather than arced.

I’d written two nonfiction books in 2007 and 2008, and thought I was in author territory. But trying to write fiction was excruciating. My work was just adequate. I read a lot, put words together well, and have a great (and topical) story. I also have more than enough credentials to write an international espionage thriller.

Why was it so damn hard for me to write fiction?

In late 2013, I joined a group of working writers in a critique group and discovered – news to me –  that no matter how much I read or how well I wrote, I had to learn a whole new craft. Things like mastering point of view – especially deep POV. I needed to put conflict and emotion on every page.

I started to rewrite the story I’d begun in 2009, and crashed headlong into a cadre of private demons who blew the ability to apply my newfound fiction chops right out of my head. The problem was, I’d avoided conflict and emotion my whole life.

In the Fall of 2014, I waged an internal war with those demons. It turned me inside out for a while. I broke free at the end of November, and anticipated that new physical and psychic energy would soon flood through me and nourish everything I did.

After a minor knee operation in early December, I was still hobbling, but the Holidays were full and happy as I hosted twelve for Christmas dinner.

That evening, Mom had a near-fatal crash on her drive home. Two days after that, Mr. Peabody – a little terrier mix I’d picked up off the street twenty-two months earlier – disappeared. I waged a desperate campaign to find him, and included search dog teams, posters, neighborhood canvasses by a pet detective and a postcard mailing campaign. I spent over $10K. No PeaB. Still miss the hell out of him.

In the middle of January, Mom – still recuperating from her accident on Christmas Day – collapsed. I rallied the troops to move her and my sister into a house they’d bought six months previously and never occupied. In the meantime, my two year-old and hideously expensive Liebherr (German) refrigerator died, and has still – at this writing – to be either repaired or replaced (don’t ask).

Now, I wonder. Do I want to write this book or not?

Let’s put butt in chair and find out.