The Impetus to Climb
By Patricia Sprinkle
Every other day I drive five miles to visit my mother. I park outside her large brick residence and walk up the drive to the front door. That’s as far as I can pretend this is an ordinary home and my mother an ordinary mother.
Mother has lived for eighteen months in the memory care wing of an assisted care facility. Most days she sits in the far corner of the dining room in a wheelchair, her once sturdy frame reduced to less than ninety pounds.
Mother was bright, a reading specialist who devised creative ways to help children learn to read. Now her conversation is reduced to gibberish. Mother was once vain about her appearance. Now food dots her clothing in spite of the helpers’ best attempts to keep her clean. She has developed a terror of water, so her hair—which used to be washed and styled every week by a beautician—hangs straight and greasy. The last time we tried to wash it, she spat on me.
I’m not telling this to garner pity or disgust you. Rather, I’m telling you why I have taken my writing to a new and different level.
For twenty years I wrote mystery novels. I enjoyed it. I met delightful readers, writers, editors, and bookstore owners along the way. But all those years I had other stories I wanted to tell—stories that did not involve murder and mayhem, but rather delved into the struggles of ordinary women to survive crises in their lives with a modicum of grace and success. “Someday,” I said from time to time. “Someday I’m going to write my novels.”
But someday never came. In this life we are restricted to yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. As Dolly in The Family Circus once said, “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it ‘the present.’”
Soon after we had to put Mother in the memory care unit because she needed more care than we were able to provide, I turned sixty-five. Sixty-five is supposed to be the year we retire, right?
I looked at Mother. She taught school for forty years, then retired at sixty-two to begin a new career as a successful artist—until breast cancer surgery cut a nerve and left her painting arm with a permanent twitch. Then she and dad started teaching a “how to retire successfully” course all over the country. When she had another bout with cancer, she twice called the chemotherapy center to tell them she wouldn’t be in that week, because she was teaching a seminar out of town. As long as her mind held out, Mother was always open to a challenge.
How many years, I wondered, do I have before my own mind begins to slide down a slippery slope? Possibly it won’t—my father is ninety-four, does the daily crossword, reads Atlantic and Mother Jones, occasionally still preaches, and goes to the gym three days a week. But life gives us no guarantees. Minds don’t always last as long as bodies do.
So like a trapeze artist who lets go of one bar in order to snatch another, I bunched up my nerve, left mystery novels, and offered a proposal to my agent for two books of women’s mainstream fiction. The editor liked the proposal, and gave me a contract for the two. I hope I’ll get to write two more, and two more after that.
Writing a different kind of book certainly involved leaving my comfort zone. In a mystery if the plot sags, you can always add a new clue, a red herring, or—my husband’s usual advice—a car chase. I have to confess that the first novel does have one small mystery and even has one mild "heroine in jeopardy" scene. After all, that’s what I know how to do. But as I worked harder than I'd ever worked before trying to create a new kind of book, I remembered advice from Stephen Spender on writing: “We can’t write it until we know it, and we can’t know it until we write it, so what are we to do? We write it wrong until we get something we recognize.”
By the time I'd gotten my first “unmystery” novel into a shape I recognized, I had discovered how flabby I’d gotten in mind and body, how accustomed I’d gotten to my little rut, and that I was actually glad to be stretching muscles I hadn't known I had.
HOLD UP THE SKY will come out in March from New American Library. It’s the story of four women who come together in a sweltering kitchen one summer, each facing her own crisis. They don’t even like one another at the beginning, but they discover that women’s strength comes not from independence but from interdependence.
I hope you’ll read it. I even hope you’ll like it. But whether you do or not, I’m feeling real good right now. I tried something new and finished it!
I would not wish my mother’s condition on any other soul, but if you are comfortable in a rut, visit a memory care facility. It certainly gives me the impetus every day to live out my dreams while I still can.