Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Yesterday was a long but really good day with my subject, a 97-year-old doctor whose book I am ghostwriting. She is whip sharp, her eyes dancing and assessing at the same time. Her brain isn't what it used to be, she says, but give her time and she'll find that telling detail in the caves of memory. I adore her. I suppose that's okay, to fall in love with your subject, to find inspiration and grit and wonder in the details of her life.
I have written 10 chapters so far, including a foreword in my voice setting up the book, and an introduction in her voice, and we have decided that I will read the chapters to her, and she will interrupt me to offer corrections if anything is inaccurate, and fill in specifics where needed. Yesterday we got through five of the ten chapters. Today, we will continue. She is a great sport, indulging me in all the tiny facts I seek, understanding that a book-length piece of writing requires such details as the smell of the air as an oil-soaked burlap wrapped cross burned in the yard. There is so much history here. At every turn, this extraordinary woman's life brushed up against the story of this nation. But she didn't just witness history, she went out there and made some of her own.
To my relief, she seems happy with what is on the page so far. She closed her eyes and tears spilled from their corners, and she said, "I am just overcome." She said I had given her a feeling a great accomplishment, that finally she had done something with her life (an overstatement, given how much she has already done with her life!), and I rushed to say, "No, no, no, not yet, you're not done yet. You have to hold your book in your hands so don't start feeling too accomplished yet!" We laughed then, because she knew exactly what I was getting at. And she promised she wasn't going anywhere yet, so don't worry about that.
We got through one of the hardest parts of her story, the thing she had not shared with anyone before she started writing her book, the thing she wasn't sure whether to include. When she told it to me before, she said, "You have a problem on your hands now. How will you write that? I don't know what words you will use." Yesterday, when I read her that chapter, she kept her eyes steady on me, her slender tomboyish body perfectly still, and when I was done she said, "The crisis is past. You did it."
She is prone to superlatives; it's one of her very endearing qualities. She is grateful for everything, but she's canny and suspicious, too. She said, "I cannot ever repay you for what you are doing for me," and I said, "But you don't understand, this is a great gift to me, too. A privilege and a learning. It is I who should be thanking you." It went like that. The two of us, grateful, laughing, crying, being.
I am so glad I didn't miss this, or her, in this life.