My father, my stepfather died before I saw my dreams come true
Joanna Quinn is the author of “The Whalebone Theatre”, her first novel and October’s choice for Reading with Jenna’s Book Club. In a personal essay for TODAY, she writes about the lesson her fictional characters taught her about loss.
Do you remember the strange reunion we had in confinement? When we met in a garden or park and had socially distanced picnics.
As someone with a birthday in February, I was especially grateful to the family members who braved the freezing weather to mark the day with me on a beach in 2021. It was the smallest of celebrations: we had tea flasks, pieces of cake and kites. .
It was also the last day we were all together before my stepfather Chris died. I had barely seen him for months before as we were in isolation and did not see him again afterwards when he went to hospital for cancer treatment as we had no no right to visit him. Looking back, that day on the beach looks like a makeshift life raft – a piece of driftwood we climbed on briefly before the current carried us away.
Nine months later, my father, Tony, also passed away. He fell and went to a barely functioning hospital, overwhelmed by the demands of the pandemic. By the time my sister and I got there, Dad had deteriorated so badly that we were only able to get him transferred to a hospice, where we stayed with him until he died.
It was disorienting to lose them both in such rapid succession. And because I hadn’t seen them much during the confinement, their permanent absence seemed unreal to me, hard to believe. It didn’t seem possible that they weren’t with us anymore, especially as life was starting to get back to normal.
In addition to the shock of losing two very beloved men, I felt special pain. A childish little disappointment – one I felt embarrassed to admit, especially in the face of my mother’s grief at losing my stepfather, Chris, her partner of over 30 years. I was sad that they died before my first novel was published. A sadness that seemed insignificant and selfish.
“The Whalebone Theatre” had been sold to a publisher just before my father-in-law died. He had been so excited by the news that he called me to congratulate me on the extra loud voice he used on the phone, then called all his friends. Dad was also delighted, and I was able to read the first chapter to him when I was with him at the hospice.
I was especially sorry that Dad couldn’t read the finished thing, since many of the scenes were inspired by books we had enjoyed together. My parents divorced when I was young, and although dad and I didn’t have the usual father-daughter relationship, we shared an interest in history.
Dad was born in 1937 and his earliest memories are of World War II, including fighter jets roaring overhead. When he was a young man, the UK still had national service, so dad flew to Malaysia and Singapore in his own military uniform – an eye-opening experience for a young man from a classy Irish family. factory Girl.
He remained interested in war experiences and stories all his life. I first learned about wartime spies in a book I bought for him and one of his last messages was a thank you for a book on decryption. Books were our common language, but Dad could never read mine. He would never see it in his local bookstore. And neither he nor Chris could look back and see their names in the acknowledgments.
But as I was going through my novel manuscript, preparing it for publication, I realized that I had written about a very similar situation.
“The Whalebone Theatre” includes World War II, and in writing it I had thought about how war doesn’t just end lives, it takes away the future people thought they had.
My young characters had imagined their adult life – a wedding in the village church or the creation of a theater troupe – and they imagined the people who would be with them to see these things happen. But the war had dismantled their hopes like movers, taking away spectators and leaving chairs empty.
Our aspirations rarely show us alone – we populate our dreams with those who will share our happiness. The father who gives the bride. The proud brother cheering from the crowd. What does our success mean if those people are gone? Is it even success without them? How can we celebrate?
These are questions I was thinking about, and oddly enough, my book had answers for me. One of my characters talks about how strange it is to celebrate victory when so many people have been lost in war, and another called Myrtle replies, “We have to celebrate when we can, honey. It does not happen often. »
I thought back to Myrtle’s words the night we launched my novel on a nice evening in a London bookstore. It was as if she was speaking directly to me. She was right too — it was important to capture those moments of joy, especially after the harsh years of the pandemic. And what kind of unsightly curmudgeon would I be, if I sneaked into my own party?
My main character, Cristabel, also had a lesson for me. After the horror of war, amidst personal sadness, she returns to the theater she created from the skeleton of a whale and puts on a show for local children. She thinks it’s something ‘useful’ she can do – that the show can still have value for others, even if it feels hollow to her, even if people in the audience are missing .
The publication of my book turned out to be something “useful” for my mother. A happy distraction for her, at a time when many other things were dark and there was an empty seat in her house. It was a small life raft, like my birthday on the beach. It’s strange, but when you’re writing a novel, you’re so engrossed in your own creation that you rarely think about what it might mean to others. It was a gift to see my book come out into the world and to have a life beyond me.
Musician Nick Cave wrote of the “uncanny foresight” of his songs. He discusses the idea that they might be mysterious channels of intuition and emotionally describes how this notion comforted him after the death of his son. He says, “You write a line that asks the future tense to reveal its meaning.
These days, I’ve come to believe that creativity – whether it’s songwriting or fiction – can sometimes allow us to access that wiser, instinctual, and expansive part of our brains. that tells us things we know but often forget. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, it also teaches us lessons that someday we really need to know.
This article originally appeared on TODAY.com