Show and Tell
I was eight years old and in the third grade, I got kicked out of show-and-tell
for three weeks. I'd told a story that the teacher, Mrs. Fitz, had specifically
asked me not to tell. She knew about it because I'd blabbed it to some of the
other kids first thing that morning. "I don't think that's the sort of
story to share with the class," she'd said, shocked.
Mrs. Fitz was a gentle soul, and we loved each other, but my story upset her. That's why she didn't want me to tell it, and I can hardly blame her. It was pretty terrible. Roaming around the woods and river near my house in Connecticut, I'd spotted something snagged in the shallow water. I waded over to investigate. It was a burlap bag. I dragged it ashore, opened it up, and found a drowned dog. I remember what it looked like: A brown-and-white Bassett hound. Even though Mrs. Fitz was shaking her head sadly in the back of the room as I stood in the front, I went ahead and told my story anyway. I had to. It was too good.
I know there are people who will find the story I tell in my book Death in Slow Motion shocking and terrible, and they'll think I shouldn't have told it. When my mother came down with Alzheimer's and I undertook (in vain) to save her, a calm dispassionate voice, quite separate from the desperate babble of other voices in my head, whispered: There's a book in this.
This is not to say that my motivations were identical to those of that headline-grabbing eight-year-old. I think (hope) I've made a little bit of progress since then. What hasn't changed is that I know a good story when it comes along. But in this case, I wouldn't be telling the dreadful truth for its mere gratuitous shock value; the subject matter begged for a brutally frank telling, something as pitiless and unladylike as the disease itself. And I had a feeling I could do it in a way that had not been done before.
I started with an article, and sold it to Harper's magazine. Figuring I'd done something right, I began looking for a publishing house so I could expand the piece into a book, and serendipity led me to an editor at HarperCollins. Before long I had a contract and an advance. And my editor said to me: "I don't want the book to be just a longer version of the article. I want background and character development. I want to know who your mother was, who you are."
Those words were like a chemical catalyst. The book, the work of art, the three-dimensional composition leapt to life and started growing, forming, shaping, fitting its parts together in my head all on its own exactly the way my novels had done. My job would be to run after it and capture it as best I could. The possibilities were thrilling and tantalizing: My mother was a writer, and I'm a writer because she was a writer. She knew amazing people, some famous, some not at all. We lived in a town right out of Cheever. She'd had three husbands and countless lovers. Even without Alzheimer's shuffling onto the stage, her life, the life my brother and I had because of her, would have been the stuff of literary memoir or a roman à clef. Her illness added a Shakespearian dimension of tragedy to the story, but it was not the whole story. This is not a "help" or a "how to" book, or even an "Alzheimer's" book, though there's plenty to be learned about the disease. It's the story of a woman, my mother, anything but ordinary, brilliant, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous. I hope I've brought her to life so that the reader will know, really know, what's been lost.