There's a saying, I can't remember it exactly but it's something like, 'you never really know what you've got until it's gone'. I've thought I knew how that felt many times in my life. Prior to marrying my wonderful soul mate, I had serious relationships that ended and thought I knew then. I've had long-term friendships end and thought I knew then. I've left secure jobs and though I knew then.
But I was wrong.
I did learn the true meaning of that saying though, when my parents died, almost eleven months to the day apart.
Talk about a serious kick in the rear.
My mom went first—lung cancer came on hard and strong and she was gone in four months. My father was different. He'd suffered from COPD for several years and while his health wasn't good and was only getting worse, his death after my mom's was still a shock.
It's been almost five years for my mom and almost four for my dad, yet there isn't a day that goes by without me talking to them, missing them or getting choked up about them. (Like I'm choked up at the moment, actually.)
I worked hard to have good relationships with my parents. Call me an old soul or whatever (some people call me nasty names and I admit they're right sometimes, too!) but I knew at a young age my parents were special and I made a point of keeping my relationships with them strong. Now that they're gone, I'm glad I did but I would be lying if I said I couldn't have done better. Of course I've got guilt, I think it's part of the grieving process and since I'm ridiculously hard on myself, it's probably worse for me than for others.
Shortly after my mother died I sat in a local coffee shop and watched as people moved through the line, talking on their cell phones, texting and just going along with their life. There I was, sitting there almost paralyzed by grief, on the verge of tears (I am now as I write this, too!) and these people were moving along without a care in the world.
That day I realized that I was mourning this woman...this wonderful woman who contributed so much to my life...sacrificed so much for her family and for me and she was dead and these people felt nothing. They didn't know her and didn't care. I couldn't believe she'd left the world and her imprint was so small. I felt she deserved more...she deserved better.
That day I sat down and began writing the second fiction book I'd ever written, and the first one I ever finished, Unfinished Business. I wanted the world to know my mom. I wanted the world to experience her wonderfully, annoying and amazing personality and feel her commitment and love for her family. I wanted her to be known...to be popular.
The first few runs of the beginning of the book were depressing and as I re-read and re-read them each, I realized that wasn't my mom, but my grief. I didn't want the book to be about my grief. I wanted it to reflect my mom's character. She wasn't an unhappy woman (all of the time) and though she'd gone through some rough times, she was a fighter. The only time she ever stopped fighting was at 77, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She told me then, "I'm ready to go home and be with my family." She was the only one left of her siblings and missed her parents and she was ready. I understood. I hated it, but I understood. I just didn't think writing a depressing book about losing my mom would help me, or anyone who'd lost a loved one. And I had a feeling she wouldn't want it, either.
I decided then to write Unfinished Business in a way that would exemplify my mom's true character, so I made her a ghost and gave her the ability to speak freely—even though my mother always did that anyway. She always had an opinion and didn't give a rats-behind whether you wanted to hear it or not. She was the life of the party, funny as all get out, though half the time she didn't try to be, and said and did mostly whatever she wanted. People loved her. I loved her. I just never realized how much, even though I was 42 when she died, until after she was gone.
Even though Unfinished Business is a fiction novel, there are many elements of truth to the story and at times, it was incredibly hard to write. I took several months off because it was so overwhelming and such an emotional drain. I tried hard to keep it funny while mixing in some tear-jerking moments because the underlying subject of the story called for that. Truth be told, I wasn't sure it worked. When you read and re-read your own words over and over, you lose faith and confidence in them...you become numb to the emotions in them. That happened for me, except for a few choice scenes that were factual.
In Unfinished Business, Fran comes back as a ghost because of her own Unfinished Business. With her return, she opens the door to a portal between the main character, her daughter, Angela, and the afterlife. Suddenly Angela can communicate with the dead, something she really would prefer not to do. She likes having her mother's ghost around—for the most part, but the other ghosts are a bit trying on her patience.
Fran and Angela are much like my mom and I were. She was a full-blooded Italian, and often had a trucker's mouth. We bickered, we yelled, we annoying the living daylights out of each other. She'd tell me I was fat and needed to lose weight, and then she'd say I was skin and bones and didn't I know every man likes a little meat on their woman? She'd guilt me. She'd call me and ask me to order her a pizza to be delivered even though she had the phone number on a magnet on the 'fridge. Who does that? It drove me CRAZY! Now I'd give a limb to be able to order a pizza for her again.
I tried to incorporate all of my mom's wonderful and annoying traits into my book Unfinished Business and the second in the series, Unbreakable Bonds. I've had so many reviews talk about how the relationships between the characters seem real. They do, because they are. The first book mimics life for me...except that I don't see ghosts. Trust me, I've tried to see my parents but it's just not happening.
There are scenes in Unfinished Business that were almost impossible to write. Each time I read them I still cry. Writing about people I love is easy, just not the dead ones. It sparks a plethora of emotions—some good, some raw, and depending on my hormone level that day, can make me or break me. I knew when Unfinished Business ended that I'd write a second but I didn't know how I could. The first book was hard to write emotionally but since it was based on truth, the technical aspect of the writing wasn't hard. The second book is entirely fiction but it came out a lot better than I thought it would. Would I write about another loss? I don't know. I can say this series makes me proud and I'm confident my parents are proud of me, too. It's received excellent reviews, is a finalist in InD'Tale Magazine's Rone awards and was picked up by an Indie publisher but I think that's because the character based off of my mother is so likeable, because my mom was so likeable. I'm not sure it would be the case if I wrote about others. Fran has been compared to Grandma Mazur in the Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum series and the books themselves have been compared to the series itself. I'm humbled and honored for that kind of comparison but it's really not because of me. It's because of my mom. She is the book. She is the character and she is the one people love. Oh, they love Mel, the main characters best friend, too but really, Fran steals the show.
I'm glad I wrote these books. I'm glad my mother was such a character and gave me a wealth of personality traits to choose from and write about. My father, too. Though I haven't touched on him much in this post because I can't give away the story lines. Though, truthfully, between us, I'd give up writing forever along with a limb or two for just five more minutes with my parents, because like I said, the saying? It's true. You never really know what you've got until it's gone.
RIP Mom and Dad. I love you!