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Author Topic: STILL BREATHING - Women's Fiction  (Read 68 times)
blackhat
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« on: January 10, 2018, 07:17:49 PM »

This is the opening chapter of my novel, STILL BREATHING. I welcome your comments and reactions. Thanks in advance.


CHAPTER ONE
Leaving Hospice

THE DYING ROOM WAS CHEERFUL. Long bars of morning light poured through the east facing windows and painted a glowing pattern of blinds across the floor. Lizzie eyed the dust motes slowly turning in the sunbeams. That hopeful, inquisitive sun was sniffing around again, and this time Lizzie felt as if it was mocking her, but she liked it anyway. For her, the sun could do no wrong. She had loved its feel on her skin all her life, but her husband liked the seasons and the shade and the snow, so here was where they’d ended up, and here was where they’d stayed. Nothing to be done about it now.
      Lizzie stretched a tiny stretch and breathed in as she did it. Her back ached from the extra weight it supported and no chair was ever comfortable for long. Her eyes slid across the pastel walls where numerous photos of smiling adults and children were tacked on top of kids’ drawings and get-well cards. The effect was a friendly visual chaos of good wishes and bright lives, within easy eyesight of the occupied hospital bed. Turning her attention there, she studied the bedsheet and followed its steady rhythm as it travelled up and down: inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale.
      Jonathan Warton was on his back with his head propped up by pillows. He was well into his sixties and gaunt. His lined face looked as if it needed glasses to complete it. Small indents at the top of his narrow nose told the same story, but his lids were closed and even the eyes beneath them were still. His arms lay slack outside the sheet, and if he was awake there was no sign of it except for the tuneless humming that came from behind his lips, a humming that always came from him. It had started months ago without preamble and seldom had ceased since. It varied in pitch and timing but it wasn’t a tune exactly, at least not any she recognized. His lips had no part in it. It was just an internal humming. What did it mean? Why did he do it? Did he even know he was doing it? No one seemed to know – the doctors as puzzled as anyone else. There was so much in all of this that no one seemed to know. Jon used to like to hum when he was busy, or happy, or both, she thought, but not like this, never like this.
      Outside the room, spring was very busy about itself and the lively repetitive songs of Cardinals and Chickadees followed one another through an arbor. April was a lovely month in Eden Prairie, a time when the snow was finally gone and the ravenous mosquitoes still slept in their sanctuaries. That’s what Jonathan used to say, and she remembered it. She remembered a lot of things - silly things, sad things, unforgettable moments that only the two of them were there for, but he didn’t; he didn’t remember any of it, not anymore.
      Elizabeth Warton kept her quiet vigil seated beside her husband. She watched and waited. He breathed and hummed. She suddenly pictured the two of them arranged side-by-side on a counter, an impaired set of salt and pepper shakers. She snorted at the metaphor, wondering which was which and if she too was losing her mind. Not a cheerful thought.
      “Everything okay?”
      Lizzie looked up at the kind face of a hospice nurse who had just peeked in the open door to check the room. Lizzie nodded and smiled wearily back to her.
      The nurse stepped farther in and gazed quietly at the bed. She listened to Jon’s humming, tipping her head slightly as if about to offer a translation, and then reconsidered. She folded her arms in a companionable way beneath her draped sweater and looked back at Lizzie once again. “Can I get you anything? Tea? Juice?”
      “No. We’re fine. Thanks.”
      “You’re sure? It’s no trouble.” Her face was kind and her voice soft.
      Lizzie shook her head.
      The nurse looked around, puzzled. “Where’d the kids go? I thought they were still here.”
      “Went out for breakfast. The little ones were hungry. They’ll be back soon. They needed to let off some steam.”
      The nurse smiled and nodded. “If you change your mind, just let me know. Any of us. Whatever you need. Okay?”
      “Okay.”
      The nurse left. Lizzie watched her go until the doorway was empty again. She blinked and let her mind settle on the vacancy of the hall. She ran her fingers through her hair and yawned while rotating her neck slightly left and then right to relieve the pressure that so often perched at the top of her spine. Jonathan was the one who used to help with that. His strong fingers knew just where to push and how hard to squeeze to force the tightness out. She never had to ask. He just knew - and soon she would be without him. What would she do without him? His care had occupied all her space for a long time. She would soon be getting all of it back again. What then? What would she do then? Who would she be without him?
      It was hard enough that the disease had robbed her of his mind, cell by cell, but now it was taking away his body and his soul as well. She had thought she was prepared. She’d had years to get ready, she told herself, and so what was new? She shrugged and had no answers. Nothing. It was just the end, and endings were always new.
      She abruptly noticed a change in the room. The humming had stopped. She realized she didn’t know when it had stopped or how long the room had been silent.
      Jonathan was calmly sitting straight up in bed, supporting himself without the pillows. He quietly studied the walls and the photos and leisurely tracked the sunlight across the floor and up to his wife’s familiar face.
      “Lizzie?”
      “Here.” Her voice was more a breath than a sound. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’m right here.”
      “Where am I? Is this home?” He blinked and focused harder. He peered deeper into the room. “This isn’t home.”
      “Do you know me?”
      “What? Yes, of course. But Lizzie I…I don’t know where I am.”
      Lizzie stood up carefully from the chair and moved closer to the bed. She found herself stepping on tiptoes, as if to avoid shattering a spell. “You’re in a hospice center.”
      “Hospice? What’s going on?” He looked suddenly reflective. He repeated the word carefully, tasting the meaning. “Hospice.”
      Lizzie stood awkwardly beside the bed. “Yes.”
      Jonathan gently rotated his hands and studied them. He moved his legs under the covers and marveled at the interplay of sunlight and shadows across the sheets. Smiling at some internal irony, he canted his head to look at her. “You’re kidding?”
      “No.”
      He rubbed briskly at his eyes and sniffed. “Why?”
      “Because the doctor says you’re…dying.”
      Jonathan looked suddenly forlorn, his hands settling on his cheeks. “Am I?”
      “Yes. Jon, you are dying. Really. You have been for a while.”
      He blinked slowly and watched her face for more clues. “What from?”
      “Alzheimer’s.”
      “Oh…yeah. Now I…” Recognition rose in his face. His hands sank back to his lap. “That’s why…”
      “Why?”
      “That’s why all the pieces are messed up.” He smiled sadly to himself. “It’s like one of those odd dreams…that’s why there’s so much missing. I remember why now.” He took a little breath and let the air hiss back out. “I remember why I don’t remember.”
      They shared an ironic smile and Lizzie wrapped his hand around one of hers. Jonathan slowly scanned the lovely room. “How did we end up here?”
      “It’s a long story. Are you back?”
      He thought about that; he seemed to stare inside for an extended moment before replying. “I guess. For now.”
      She sat on the edge of the bed and quietly held his hand. She was afraid to do anything sudden. It felt like an extended moment that was outside time’s normal flow. They were together again – salt and pepper, good to go. No need for words. Nothing left to say. Nowhere left to go. They just rested together until Jonathan showed signs of reawakened fretfulness.
      She studied him. “Do you need anything?”
      He shook his head and then frowned. “Sorry.”
      Liz smiled. “For what?”
      “For being such a drag. On you. On everyone.”
      “How do you feel?”
      “You’re changing the subject, aren’t you?” He smirked, “Don’t worry, I know your tricks. Where’re the kids?”
      “They were all just here.” She waved a hand toward the other end of the room. “They’ve been here a lot, you know. You’d be so proud. They take turns. Some of them spent the whole night with you. They’ll be back.” She patted his hand. “Can you stay?”
      A feather of panic brushed across his face. “I don’t know.” His eyes turned inward again as he struggled to hold onto his thoughts. He licked his lips with the effort. His knees rose as his legs involuntarily pulled tighter to his body. “It’s coming apart. Their faces are…sliding. No. Everything is sliding down.”
      Lizzie captured his other hand and held firmly to both of them. She leaned in close to his face. “Stay with us, Jon!”
      “I’m trying but – Oh, Lizzie do something.”
      “I can’t make it stop. I…”
      “No. Not that. Not what I mean.”
      Lizzie was distraught. “What then? Do what?”
      “I mean, I know I’m dying. I know it’s been a long time. I know all that. That’s all back.” His voice was rushed, frantic; his disjointed thoughts tumbling together.
      “I’m not talkin’ about me, I’m talkin’ about you! I mean after. After all this. Lizzie, I want you to just do something for yourself – something that matters – even if it only matters to you. Do it!” The muscles in his neck stood out in cords; he was racing to stay a step ahead of the disease.
      “You always did what I wanted, not what you wanted. I took advantage of you. I didn’t share decisions. And it wasn’t fair. And I’m sorry.” His voice was shrill and pleading. “And I can see it. I can so see it! I was always in your way. It’s the one single clear thing in my useless mind!”
      Lizzie was shaken by his outburst. “Shhh! Jon, it’s okay…”
      “Don’t shush me! For God’s sake, Lizzie, for once in your life will you do something…crazy? I don’t know. Something just for you?” He leaned closer, desperate. “Make it something big. Something I’d never agree with...” He stopped, an incongruous grin tickling his lips. “Something…something without worrying about me or the kids…or anybody else.”
      She stroked his cheek now, trying to soothe him. “Stop it. You’re working yourself up for no reason. Calm down. The kids should be back anytime, Jon. Stay with us. Jon?”
      He squeezed her hand and pulled it tightly against his face. His eyes filled with alarm. “No time! Listen! Will you listen? For once, Liz! Just for this once…”
      “Jon…”
      He lost her hand as his grip relaxed and his shoulders betrayed him back into the pillows. His face began to slacken. The little hills in the sheets sank as his legs slid flat again. He’d run his race; he’d won the moment but he’d sacrificed all his reserves. There was nothing left. His drained voice held no colors anymore. “One by one and…one…”
      Jonathan’s arms dropped to his sides and his eyes closed.
      “Jon, are you still…?”
      The tuneless hum without the words was back and Lizzie let her question trail off unfinished. Her eyes brimmed with angry tears. “It’s not fair! It’s just not. None of it!” She brushed the hair off his forehead and let her tears go. “You dear, dear man.”
      Jonathan’s face remained blank as he continued his tuneless humming. Lizzie sat back down in her chair. Her spine ached. The muscles in her neck were tight. She dug out a crumpled Kleenex from a hidden pocket and wiped at her eyes and nose. “I’m so sorry the kids weren’t here. Oh, Jonathan.”
      Suddenly, boisterous from breakfast, the rest of the Warton family could be heard in the distance trooping down the hospice hall. Adult voices were shushing the children to keep the laughter and noise suppressed as they neared the door.
      Joanie, the eldest daughter at thirty-three, paused at the threshold and peered in, catching her mother’s eye with a question. Lizzie sniffed quickly, stuffing the tissue away, and rolled her shoulders, as if to confirm that nothing had changed. Mike, Joanie’s husband, appeared beside her in the doorway and smiled gently at Lizzie. The bright faces of two elementary schoolers, Sandy and Will, popped up on either side of Joanie as they squeezed by their parents and waved brightly at Grandma.
      The rest of the family poured through the door sweeping Joanie and her husband in along with them. There was twenty-eight-year-old David, Lizzie and Jon’s only son, with his dark haired wife, Sharon, and their giggling preschooler, Tomlin. Just behind Tomlin, with her quick fingers tickling the boy in that magic nook between neck and shoulder, came twenty-six-year-old Cecelia, the Warton’s youngest daughter. She was making buzzing noises as her fingers swarmed over him. Poor Tomlin was hopping and twisting his head to escape while howling in high-pitched glee. Cecelia’s wiggling hands pursued him, relentless in their attack.
      David glared at his sister. “For God’s sake, Celia, leave off, will you? I’m about to lose my mind.”
      Cecelia stopped and glanced up, grinning at her big brother. “Okay, okay. We’re just havin’ a little fun here. You know it’s fine with Ma. And Dad sure doesn’t seem to care.”
      David never wavered. “Well, it’s not fine with me. Alright? So, cut it out!”
      Little Tomlin had edged back beside Cecelia’s legs, oblivious of his father’s mood, and expectantly hunched his head down tight against his own neck. “Do it again, Cee-Cee. Do the busy bees.”
      Cecelia swept him up into her arms and patted him on the rump. “No more for now, buddy. The little bees are tuckered out.” She rolled her eyes at David. “And besides, the beekeeper’s a big old whiner anyway.”
      David tossed her a sour look but bit down firmly on any reply. Sharon, his wife, smirked and gave him a soft but solid nudge.
      Joanie settled her kids onto a small couch by the windows and then looked back with concern at her mother. Lizzie hadn’t moved from her chair beside the bed. “You okay, Mom?”
      “I’m fine, dear.” She took a breath, stood up and bustled about the room patting heads and smoothing collars. “So, how was the big breakfast?”
      Joanie wrinkled her brow. “No. You don’t look okay. You look different, somehow. What’s up?”
      Alerted, David moved to the foot of the bed and stared with concern at his dad. “Did something happen to him, Mom?” He glanced accusingly at Joanie. “I knew one of us shoulda stayed. Didn’t I say that? Didn’t I?” He moved closer to his mother. “Is Dad okay? Should we call the nurse?”
      Lizzie deftly patted David’s back. “Now, now. Relax, will you?” She stepped to the bed to smooth Jon’s covers near the railing and sat back in her chair. She faced her family and placed her hands firmly in her lap, one over the other. “No. Nothing happened. I was just thinking about the past, that’s all.” She paused to let the apparent truth of her words sink in. “Just memories, lots of memories.” Her voice grew ever firmer as she talked. “I’m glad you went to breakfast. All of you together. Don’t worry about me. And stop imagining things. Everything is the same. It’s just – just the same.”
      She patted her hands firmly against her knees and smiled widely. “Now, Will and Sandy, and Tomlin, I want to hear all about your breakfast. Tell Grandma everything that happened. Okay?”
      The children eagerly gathered around her and began to pour out their food stories, each interrupting the other, and all of them trying to be first.

*     *     *

Lizzie sipped coffee from a Styrofoam cup in the church gathering hall. She watched the long lines of friends and family working their way through the cheerful post-funeral buffet. She smiled to herself and thought again of her friend Ruth who loved any church gathering that involved food. Ruth would stand next to her in line, her plate filled with samples of everything offered, and shake her head, “It’s a fact of life, Lizzie. One of these days it’s gonna be macaroni salad and red jello over us, you know.” Then she’d laugh and smile indulgently down at her plate, “But not today!”
      Lizzie heard a familiar voice call her name and looked deeper into the dining area. George, her youngest brother, stood up from a folding chair and waved her over to a table full of relatives. Balding on top and shining with perspiration, he too was in his sixties and shared her size but didn’t carry it as well – in fact, he seemed to be limping.
       “Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie, I’m still so damn sorry about all this.” He gave her a side hug and tapped her shoulder as he spoke. “Poor old Jon. It’s been such a long haul for him but that’s just the way it is.” He smiled sadly at Lizzie. “You know what I mean? You and me, we’re at the wrong end of the hill, and that’s for sure.”
      George dropped back into his chair with a thump and a heavy wheeze. Lizzie smiled tolerantly down at him and planted a motherly kiss on his forehead. “Speak for yourself, George.”
       “Yeah, okay. Well, I just wanted to tell you that you and the kids did a great job.” He squeezed her hand. “Really. Strictly first class.” He looked around the table at the familiar faces. “Didn’t we all say that? We were just sittin’ here talkin’ about that.” Everyone nodded and agreed. George looked back at his sister. “Jon woulda been so proud.”
      Lizzie nodded. “I hope so.”
     
Jon’s funeral had been crowded and touching, with plenty of flowers and a eulogy filled with humor and good words. Oh, there had been plenty of tears, and difficult moments too, but plenty more of laughter and grins. The kids had pulled together and stayed up very late to help Lizzie sort and choose the photos. The grandkids fell asleep on couches in the living room, or with their little legs spread wide across cushions laid out on the rug. Joanie, David and Cecelia ate sandwiches and cookies at 3 a.m. at the dining room table. Lizzie had gently pushed aside the piles of pictures to make room for the food.
      There was so much to recall and cherish, so much forgotten and now remembered, and each memory linked to other memories and other times. How could they leave any photo out? In the end, eight large display boards were needed to hold the images. At the crowded wake the night before the funeral, family groups would clump in front of certain memorable photos. The old tales would be retold and friends would join, attracted by the noise, to add their versions, and the old stories would change and expand with fresh bits and new pieces, and suddenly, for a moment, Lizzie could sense Jon standing among them, entering in. She actually turned once, half expecting to see him. The irony wasn’t lost on her: the fact that these shared memories, which were so healing and so powerful for a grieving family, were the very things that were denied Jon by the plaques and tangles of that hideous disease.
      Through it all, Lizzie made sure everything went the way Jon would have wanted. “I don’t want people checking me out and saying stupid things,” and so his casket stayed closed. There was a violin duet in the middle of the funeral service called “Ashokan Farewell” because it was his favorite. As the draped casket was smoothly pushed down the aisle towards the hearse, the choir sang “On Eagles’ Wings” because Jon had maintained that it was, “the best damn hymn ever written.”
      In short, it was a good goodbye, in exactly the style that he had said he wanted, but in the end, Jon was still gone and Lizzie was alone. Nothing unusual about that, she consoled herself. Most women outlived their men, so what else was new? She didn’t miss the Jon of the disease, and she was thankful to see him released. However, she bitterly missed the Jon of before the disease, but that agony had transitioned into a familiar ache many years before he took his last breath. She didn’t feel like a new widow now; she felt like a seasoned widow wearing someone else’s black dress.
      Still, funerals are celebrations of the past, and while Lizzie valued the memories, she felt as if she had been living on the fumes of their history for the last decade. She didn’t want to live there any longer. Somewhere during Pastor Anderson’s eulogy she gave herself permission to recall Jon’s surprising outburst in the hospice room, and to consider her present and her future. She felt a twinge of guilt to be doing this now, during the service, but after all, the present was the present, she reasoned, and she might as well get used to living in it again. So, Lizzie sat with quiet eyes in the front pew, surrounded by family and friends, properly somber, dressed in black, but with a mind brightly straining against the harness that had long been fastened around her shoulders. It was an oddly delicious struggle and not one that she could have easily explained. She cautiously banished all signs of it from her face while she appeared to attend to her kind pastor’s labored words meant to honor Jon and to comfort her.
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jcwrites
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« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2018, 08:05:28 PM »

Your query is about Lizzie going off to Africa, her last--if not only--grand adventure. Given Lizzie's age, that's an intriguing set-up, promising a story that I would follow.

But you're not opening there; you're opening in a hospice. Although the narrative style flows well and you exhibit firm control of the mechanics, it is, as Lizzie says, "...a good goodbye." Don't start with a good goodbye. Open with a good hello.

Pick a point in Lizzie's life where her life changes (not to say that the death of a spouse isn't a massive life change), but your story is about Lizzie's life thrusting forward. Determine that story point, where she goes from Lizzie in mourning to Lizzie with new hope. Then you back up a beat or two to establish setting, time, mood, etc., and let it flow.

Reveal the depth of her grief later, after we get to know Lizzie and care and can feel it.

 

 
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Zooks
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« Reply #2 on: January 10, 2018, 08:15:49 PM »

I agree with jcwrites.  Start off with Lizzie starting her new life and then putting in the hospice stuff.
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blackhat
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« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2018, 12:51:23 PM »

Thanks jcwrites and Zooks for your suggestions and I understand them, I really do. However, a query is one thing and a novel is something altogether different. Yes, the trip to Africa is at the center of the novel and is more visually grabbing for agents but the journey that Lizzie takes is one of the heart. So, bear with me as I make my defense.

I struggled long and hard about where to begin Lizzie's journey and finally settled on this moment during her husband's hospice. Why? This is the instant that Lizzie emotionally changes directions. The late apology by her husband for always being in her way cracked open a realization that she either never considered or hadn't considered in a very long time. This is a woman who took her marriage seriously, took her child-raising years seriously, took her church seriously, and took care of her ailing husband for ten long years. She never thought of herself, not really. But suddenly, right in the middle of her husband's death she is given the opportunity to reconsider her direction. The radical changing of her character starts right there. So my novel begins in the middle of the action, it's just an internal action, not a physical action.

For me, STILL BREATHING is as much a character study as it is the grand adventure of an older woman. At this point in the story she has no idea what she's going to do, she only knows that she has, for the first time, given herself permission to choose whatever she wants to do with the rest of her life. It's a heady moment for her, and one that is almost entirely without precedence in her life. We get to go with her as she proceeds in her typically thorough way to make decisions and then follow through. Of course, all her preparations and expectations go by the wayside once she begins her actual physical journey, but that's all part of having a grand adventure. I know you want me to accelerate to the adventure part because that's where the sizzle is but I'm resistant because I'm trying to prepare the steak so the sizzle has substance.

Another way to explain it is that the first major movement of the story goes from the moment she realizes she's free to choose her own way up to her arrival in Entebbe. The second major movement goes from being slapped down by the actual realities of Africa and then continues until she understands what's really possible and what unexpected advantages she brings to the party. The final movement is when Lizzie finally gets her stride and not only fits in to this foreign culture but triumphs over parts of it until some unexpected twists in the story make her realize the true costs of what she's learned and what she's done.

I know, I know, probably too much misty mental weather in response to deceptively simple suggestions but I want you to know my reasons for starting where I did. And, in the end, if the story never finds an agent or a publisher, perhaps, you'll be proven right.

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