My father died.
Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road. And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.
I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.
His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.
And when my father died, my editor died.
I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.
My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.
This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.
All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.
“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”
Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.
In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.
In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.
I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.
Dad and I were on Chapter 42.
I am on Chapter 43.