I know this title sounds like a total bummer of a post written by a sixty-plus-year-old loser in poor health and totally obsessed with his own imminent mortality. And I know why you might think that based on the general trends you have observed in my reflections-on-life sorts of posts, especially if you actually do more than only look at the pictures in this goofy blog. But it is not the ending of me that I am obsessed about. It is the ending of a novel.
I wrote the first draft of When the Captain Came Calling in 1996, twenty-three years ago. And I knew then that it was not finished. And I thought, perhaps, that it would never be finished. It was a hard thing to write. And I knew from the writing of the novel Snow Babies that I could not write this book without writing directly about the suicide. Something like that can’t just happen to a major character in a series of novels in between what happens in novel one and the start of novel two. It has been a twenty-three-year struggle with a plot-knot that was almost impossible to untangle.
You see, the most important character in the patchwork-quilt-book that is Snow Babies, is Valerie Clarke, a skateboarding thrasher of a girl from the 80’s based on a girl I taught in the 90’s and named after a classmate I had a hopeless crush on in the 60’s. And she could not have been the character I wrote about in that book without having survived the fact of the suicide in the previous book. But when I completed Snow Babies, the Captain still didn’t have the suicide in it. And believe me, writing about suicide is hard. It is something that has been a life-long hardship to explain and to deal with.
You see too, that suicide has been a thing I have had to deal with in real life. Ruben got himself killed in a car accident in a car-theft joy ride. Osvaldo took his own life with a gun after getting out of prison. J.J. got drunk and ran his pickup truck into a train. And they were kids I taught and learned about from talking to them about their lives. And two of them I loved like they were my own children because that’s how teachers do… And I have spent three whole days in emergency rooms and one terrible night in ERs with suicidal teens, two long conversations with kids over the telephone when I had to talk them out of hurting themselves, and I had no idea where they actually were. And I have talked to counselors at three different schools about suicidal things kids shared with me more times than I can count accurately. And some of those incidents I am listing are about family members. And my cousin’s son… Well, you can see how that kind of battle can make a suicide something hard to write about. Especially since all the scars it leaves makes you hyper-aware of how precious and fragile life really is.
But you see three, now that I have taken time out to cry a bit for having written that last horrible paragraph, that it is important, as a writer, to share your truth with the world in the best way you know how. And as the spirits of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Terry Pratchett nod knowingly from beyond, I can honestly say that the best way that I can deal with it is by writing comedy, making readers smile and laugh and feel good about enough good stuff to make up for the bad stuff that everybody faces… even suicide. And I have finally passed the test. I wrote the chapter about the suicide. I have written about Valerie’s recovery, and I am nearing the end of the book, my current Work In Progress, When the Captain Came Calling. A good story can heal the world, the way Oliver Twist did, or the way The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did. And while the jury has not yet convened on this book of mine, and I can’t begin to compare my book to those, I don’t hate it now the way I did for the last twenty-two years. It is going to get finished. And then the whole world can ignore it the way they have all my other books.