My father, a writer, died four years ago last night, from pancreatic cancer. Corresponding with my coauthor and friend Mark Weber last week, I remembered this piece, posted here three weeks before Dad died. —DM
Dad can't write anymore because the pills make his head fuzzy. He wants me to come up with something to write back to "all these people," a half-dozen family members and friends who have written him letters telling him what he's meant to them.
I instinctively resist because I think writers can't ghostwrite for writers, a notion he seems to think is a cop-out. "I asked David for help writing these letters," I hear him telling my sister on the phone, "and he put on his hat and went out the door."
So I try.
I tell him he's already done his part in the lives of these letter writers, and all they really want to know is that he received their letters of appreciation. "Thank you for your fine letter," I propose he writes on cards that I'll address. "And I want you to know that it meant a great deal to me, and so do you."
"But that's what you'd write," he says. "It's not what I'd write."
Between reruns of the above episode, words hold us together.
He remembers a fragment from a poem he once knew: "like a bubble it burst, all at once and nothing first." We search in vain for the rest of the poem.
We make fun of the hospice nurse, who can't pronounced a particular one-syllable Middletown street name correctly because of her southern accent.
At the dinner table, he stares at a photograph of himself in an airplane that has the numbers N1451R on the fuselage. "Five-One Ringo," he says over and over and over and over because doing so makes him feel like a pilot again.
Reading Old Cars Weekly, he grumbles about the term "swapped out" as it's used to refer to engines that are replaced with other engines. The "out" part, he says, is "totally unnecessary." He says so with such increasing force that I'm compelled to remind him, defensively, that I didn't invent the term. "Well, you need to do something about it!"
Words to us are things, every bit as much as airplanes and automobiles and oxycodone pills are things, and we hold onto them, one on each end, and we spin around together.