What is your most meaningful work?
For me, there is a definite answer - Writing about my father.
At my father’s request, phrased – “You wouldn’t be willing to help me write my autobiography would you?” I assisted him in writing a memoir he wanted to leave for his descendants. (In the process I learned he asked my mother for a first date by saying, “You wouldn’t want to go out with me, would you?” She said, “Yes” and he hung up thinking she had refused. She had to call him back.) By the time in his life he asked for my help, my father had suffered heart attacks, strokes and been declared clinically dead twice.
He had a realistic expectation that he would not live much longer. There were things he wanted to tell his grandchildren and great grandchildren about his life. He seemed surprised that I immediately answered that I would be delighted to help.
We started with face-to-face interviews. Later he sent me tapes with long phrases I could not make out either because of his slurred speech or because He let the microphone drop far enough from his mouth that the tape recorder did not pick up his soft speech. I would write what I could understand, send him a copy, ask questions and make corrections based on his feedback to me. In left-handed writing that he developed after his stroke since his dominant right hand remained nearly useless.
My poor health slowed the process. I needed a bone marrow transplant to treat my multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer.) It was at least six months before I could continue the work.
The most difficult part for my father was recalling his experiences as a combat infantryman.For several years after coming home from the war, my dad had nightmares about what happened to him. Bringing up memories he had tried to forget brought back those nightmares.
To me, my father had always been an imposing figure. As a child I knew nothing about the effect of trauma or posttraumatic stress disorders. I only knew that my father became angry easily and had limited tolerance for noise and disorder. He was brilliant, impatient and ambitious. I had no doubt that he loved me, but frankly, he scared me at times.
As he reviewed and relived his days, I came to better understand the boy and then adolescent who became my father. In my father’s voice and face I found the young man torn from a safe existence and sent to Europe to kill or be killed. Stories about his experiences in the army I’d heard from my childhood acquired different significance as I learned details my father had omitted to protect his children.
Dad was impatient to finish his story. Before it was as polished as I wanted, he told me to make one last revision. I made a last effort and sent it back as he asked. It was his story to tell. He had it typed up and bound at a local copy shop. Maybe he knew something I did not. It was not long after that when he started to show symptoms of dementia. Fortunately he is still living but he could not begin to tell the story of his life now. When he introduces me to his friends he says, “Warren wrote my autobiography.” If I had not been a writer, I would not have the opportunity to know my father as I came to know him while helping him write his memoir. I doubt if anyone outside the family will ever read it. Believe me, as a writer I know it needs a lot of revision. Still, to me it is the most important work I have done.