The cursor blinked impatiently at me like a yellow traffic light warning me I only had a few seconds before it turned red and if I didn’t go now I’d never make it across the street. This was my urgent thought as I faced the computer screen, eyes glued to the blank page in Word, fingers hovering over the keyboard. Writers Block. Not a word came from my lips.
I was at a writers retreat in Rodanthe, North Carolina; a thin strip of land on Hatteras Island engulfed by the Atlantic ocean. I’d come there to produce 2000 words per day but at eleven in the morning on the second day I still hadn’t written a word.
My gaze turned outward to the turbulent sea hurling its waves onto the beach. The crashing waves were muffled by the closed window but I could feel their relentless pounding under my feet or was it my own heart shouting to be heard?
I brought my mind back onto the blank screen and as if by magic the face of a petite silver-haired 60ish woman appeared. She was rubbing moisturizer on her dry, wrinkled face; her sad eyes puffy from a vale of tears. I tapped “Marisa” onto the keyboard, who then moved away from staring forlornly into the mirror, walked out of the bathroom and into a lofty space, a New York City downtown loft. Marisa stood in front of a well-worn red leather armchair and started talking, then stopped and cupped her face in her hands.
Why was she speaking to an empty chair? I asked myself.
That question cracked open the seed of what was to become “The Drummer’s Widow.” An autobiographical novel that has kept me occupied for these past three years, except when I am taking care of my husband, a long-term cancer patient and a funk drummer like Marisa’s deceased husband Jules in “The Drummer’s Widow.”
But my Jim is very much alive and we have just settled into our summer hameau in Teyssieres, France, where he practices and writes music in an ancient sheepherder’s bergerie high up in the mountains. His companions are the geckos, jiminy crickets and grazing sheep who don’t care how loud he plays his beats as long as he doesn’t trample their clover.
Back at our 16th century hameau, which was once the sleeping quarters for goats, I use the second bedroom for my writing room. And, after an invigorating early bike ride to the boulangerie to pick up freshly baked baguettes, I settle down at my computer to make the final revisions to that novel I started three years ago.
Before Jim left for his bergerie in the sky, I handed him the revised first chapter and asked him to read it over. That’s asking a lot because the connections between Jules and him are quite obvious, except Jim’s alive and Jules’ isn’t.
The mid-summer sun was still glowing and the sky a canopy of cobalt blue when JIm returned that evening. I had set our cocktails and a half dozen French cheeses on the terrace table. But Jim didn’t feel the late afternoon sunlight warming his back and he didn’t want anything to eat and I knew why and felt responsible for this sudden depression. He’d gone out this morning a happy man glad to be alive until he read my chapter.
All those times he has been in the hospital fighting for his life, he has never seen me cry, he has never seen me falter in my determination to find a cure for his disease. And why would I want to share my pitiful tears when he is trying so hard just to stay alive? Instead, I bury my premature wails of grief and sorrow under the streaming showerhead and let my tears flow down the drain unseen.
It wasn’t until his third remission when I thought it was safe to bring my hidden feelings to the surface and write them into a fictional accounting of how I overcame the overwhelming, sometimes suffocating fear of my husband’s pending death. During his many illnesses, I have turned to the consoling memoirs written by widows and widowers and I felt knowledgeable enough to write Marisa’s story about how you go forward on your own after a profound loss.
On the terrace in the twilight hour, Jim handed me his edited version of the first chapter and asked me why I hadn’t shared with him my fear of losing him to cancer. I told him I was sorry but I wanted to protect him. He had enough to worry about without adding me to his plate.
The next morning I watched him silently and fastidiously make his lunch. A baguette spread with duck paté over Camembert cheese and a thinly sliced heirloom tomato placed on top. He wrapped the baguette in paper, never plastic, and slipped it into his backpack. He frowned when I handed him the second chapter, but he took it, kissed me on both cheeks and left.
At my desk, I flipped through the twenty corrected pages that had notes in the margins and lines crossed out with an indelible red pencil. Jim had made his edit applying the same diligent and exacting care as when he thinly slices tomatoes for his sandwich. With a razor sharp pencil, he’d incisively made cuts to the first chapter. And where I scrambled my words, he instinctively knew what I really wanted to say and gave the paragraphs clarity.
I was thrilled. All these years I’d been living with a brilliant editor and hadn’t known it until I asked him to read my book.
As the dog days of summer slowly came to an end, we’d sit on the terrace at our cocktail hour and discuss Marisa’s grief and how she reinvented a life without Jules. We discussed plot flaws and character weaknesses. Jim offered suggestions. I countered with my own.
Later, when I worked on the revisions, I’d often laugh when I read a line he’d added to Jules’s dialogue as if it was him. Other moments, tears welled when I read his encouraging comments and I felt Marisa’s heartache when Jules’s voice began to fade from her consciousness and I made sure she had the courage to go on without him.
When we returned to our home in California, Jim was diagnosed with a second deadly blood cancer. It was two weeks before “The Drummer’s Widow” release date. Had I brought bad luck down upon us by writing about a husband dying from cancer and leaving his wife to fend on her own. Was it too close to home to call it “The Drummer’s Widow.”
“No,” Jim said, emphatically, sitting up in his hospital bed. “It’s a strong title. Don’t change it because of what might happen to me. And, by the way, I’m not going anywhere until I see that book published.”
Family and friends who know Jim’s long battle with terminal cancer are squeamish (giggles, gasps, lips shaped into O’s) when I tell them the title of my new novel, even look confused, but if Jim is standing nearby, and he often is, he laughs and says, “Yes it’s true, she imagined my death and we got over it.”