Sarah Lemanczyk, St. Paul, is a writer and independent radio producer. She teaches radio production at the University of Minnesota's Radio K.
If you're reading this, and you're a doctor, here's a request: When I tell you that my father died of colon cancer at 40, please do not spit up whatever you're drinking. It's not comforting.
When I was 18, and my father was 40, he was just a man. A middle-aged librarian struggling to grow in his career while dreaming of ditching it and becoming a writer; a man having a midlife crisis, a man dying in the middle of his life. His death made him a legend in my mind. Huge.
Equally huge were the boxes of his papers that I insisted on keeping and never looking at. As a librarian, he had files: newspaper clippings on Native American folklore, maps of South America folded and unfolded until the creases were fuzzy, guides to rock hunting from university geology departments, lists of obscure books about Germany and World War II, drawings of what a Polish crest would be likely to contain, and a thousand would-be children's books. A life in paper.
Usually, as we become adults we have time to develop a sense of our parents as legitimate human beings in their own right. With any luck, our parents turn out to be fine people we are happy to know and share our adult lives with, and yet they remain people who can still be relied on to listen attentively to an hour's worth of sobbing about lost potential or bad dry cleaners.
I discovered my father's humanity in one afternoon: depressing. Overwhelming. I had saved his files; I had wanted his papers, his stories. I would finish every one of them. I would write for him, I would finish his life. And now, as I am 40, I finally open the files. What have I been storing in my basement, in my storage locker in Brooklyn, in the common attic of countless apartment buildings? What secrets are here?
Nothing. No secrets, just a basic humanity. A life half-lived. Letters requesting promotions, the subsequent letters of denial, letters to politicians, letters to hotels to reserve rooms. Divorce filings and child-support hearings. Reams of hospice-care information and medical supply invoices. A life in paper. Insurance forms and coverage statements, the musty air making me think that there might be thousands of dollars in insurance that was never paid out to me. I'm rich! No, I'm just getting a headache.
Passion and failures, the breakup of a marriage, an ugly and expensive death. More brochures on rock collecting and native prairie plantings. And then: The cashed check from the cemetery, proof of purchase for a grave.
Did I become a writer because I wanted to? Because a classmate in high school mentioned it in passing in the hall after English class? Because I wanted to do a better job than my father?
By all accounts, I have. He had a map of South America. I've been to South America. Most people don't read American Theatre Magazine — but if you did, you'd find my byline on an article about Native American theater. And on numerous rejection letters for unpublished children's books and obscure vocabulary lists.
Another plastic tote, less musty, holds my history. Notes from professors lukewarm on my poetry. Countless memoirs of my fallen father, written by a freshly wrecked aspiring writer. Politically active screeds passed off as short stories: pro-choice, anti-Gulf War, pro-anorexia awareness ... .
A life in paper. Farther back, a disturbingly passionate letter to Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil, proposing marriage (luckily unsent); poems about teenage sex, and stabs at writing like Joan Collins. More recently, plays written and produced, TV spec scripts achingly written and never sent, out of fear or laziness or both. Postcards of places I've been, hundreds of public transportation stubs I seem unwilling to part with.
I wonder what my children will think of what will eventually be my box of papers. My father's, they will immediately throw out after a cursory look.
Huh, more rock brochures.
But I am constantly vetting my box. The Motley Crue letter has been recycled into something useful for society. As are the random letters from friends documenting experimental college drug use and ill-advised road trips. And the bad poetry: gone.
In real life, my hair is a mess and there are coffee stains on my dress — but the life my children will find is well-groomed. Postcards from foreign travel, finished plays accompanied by their reviews, press copies of magazines.
And I realize the sterility of such a thing. Of a half-life, of a lie, of editing your own obituary. But if I feel I'm not quite a success in life, perhaps I will seem one to my children later. Only their presumption might not be of a mother whose life was what she wanted; it may be of a mother who rarely showed people who she really was.
Who played her life tight to her vest, like her father.