How I Became A Writer
|Turning Tragedy Into Triumph|
Long before I’d given any thought to a future career, I noticed that I actually enjoyed the English classes in junior high and high school. There were the usual times when I wasn’t sure how well I was doing, like any student has, about any subject. But I never lost my fascination and love for words.
Now I know why.
Even outside English class my mind would play with words. I frequently came up with some really bad jokes as a by-product of my penchant for playing with words. Clean jokes, of course, just bad. The kind many people would let out a groan after hearing.
Now I know why I became so good at it.
On Tuesday, March 8th, 1966, during my senior year in high school, I met the girl that would change my life forever.
Linda was 16, and a junior. I was 17. That night, after a pit orchestra rehearsal for the school musical, we both independently went to the conductor’s office to use the phone to call our families for transportation home. I called home with no problem, but Linda couldn’t get through to her parents. On her second try, she couldn’t even get an outside line. At 11:00 P.M. on a weeknight, in a virtually deserted school building, there was only one reasonable explanation for that to a kid of 17: fate. My father and I gave her a ride home that night.
While it was love at first sight, it took us four weeks to summon the courage to confess it to each other. On the Saturday afternoon when we found that courage and said our first “I love you” ’s, she also confessed that she had fallen for me a full three weeks before we met, back when the rehearsals had first started. While I couldn’t make a similar claim, we both knew we had something very special between us.
Five weeks later, as we returned to her home after attending the performance of the junior class play, I got the silent treatment. It had taken only seconds into the trip for me to notice, too, that Linda was a nervous wreck: totally silent, ringing her hands, rocking back and forth in her seat as she stared hypnotically at the floorboard. I wanted desperately to know what was wrong, especially if I’d said or done something to hurt her. By the time I’d almost summoned the courage to ask, she spoke first, her voice trembling with a Terror I’d only heard from characters in horror movies.
“Jim… there’s… something… I think you should know… before… Friday night,” she stammered.
I’d asked her to be my date for my senior prom, and the theatre party that would follow. But something told me that what she needed to say at this moment was far more serious than a simple, “I’m not going to be able to go to the prom with you after all”. “What is it, Lin?” I asked quietly and calmly. I didn’t want to scare her any more than she already was.
“Jim, honey, sweetheart… I… I… uh… I’m-an-epileptic… and… it’s… going-to-be-a… long night.”
I was instantly relieved that she was still going, and I also knew, just as quickly, why she was so terrified. I could imagine all the friends and classmates that had turned their back on her in the past when they found out. People always fear the unknown. Only this time she was an innocent victim of the way others reacted to their fears. And I knew, without a doubt, that in her mind, in spite of our mutually declared love, that I would be the next person to walk away and leave her behind. I spoke slowly, and softly. “Linda, look at me.” She slowly raised her head, wiped away the tears that had welled up in her eyes as she waited to hear the expected “goodbye” from the only one she’d ever loved, and turned to me. That Terror was all over her face. It silently said, “Are you going to leave like all the others?” I continued, still slowly, and softly. “Linda, there’s something that I want you to understand. It makes absolutely no difference in the way I feel about you. I love you too much for me to let it make a difference.”
It was as if she didn’t hear me, or couldn’t believe I’d said those words. Only when, a few minutes later, I repeated those very same words as we stood on her porch in a tight embrace, did she believe me. She promptly melted in my arms.
I needed a way to prove to her that I was not about to let her epilepsy come between us, or change our relationship in any way. It didn’t take long to realize that there was a way I could do just that, and capture her heart forever at the same time.
Exactly one week later, on the afternoon of my senior prom, Friday, May 20th, 1966, right after school, in, of all places, the school cafeteria, I asked Linda to marry me. She squealed “YES!” at the top of her lungs before I could say another word.
The year that followed, though, was very tumultuous for us. My parents made it clear that they didn’t want me sticking with the first girl I “fell for”; that I had to “play the field”. And, they said they didn’t want me in a committed relationship at all until after college. The legal age in Ohio, then, was 21, not 18, leaving me in a very difficult position: I was engaged to a girl I wasn’t supposed to stay with but wasn’t willing to give up, and I didn’t have any legal avenues available that I knew of because of my age.
Needless to say I said nothing to my parents about the fact that Linda and I considered ourselves to be engaged. They still bent over backwards to break us up. Over the summer after graduation, I could see Linda only one day a week, and then only if I dated others as well. I went through the motions of doing that so we could still be together. I hated being so unfair to the other girl I asked out a few times, but I had no choice. I felt Linda’s emotional position was too fragile to handle it any other way. She’d finally found someone who could look beyond the seizures and love her for herself after 17 years. And she’d actually told me that my love had given her a new reason to live. Besides, I wanted to be with her just as much as she wanted to be with me.
When I started college in the fall, I was told I couldn’t see her at all, or even talk to her on the phone. That I had to “buckle down and study”. My parents felt that she would be too much of a distraction for me to concentrate on the books. Nothing I said could get them to see that the reverse was true; that NOT being able to be with her, especially to know that she survived any seizures she might have, was what was going to make it hard to concentrate in class and on homework.
I went underground, through my two best high school friends. They came down from Bowling Green State University every week or two to visit their families, and the three of us always went out together on Saturday nights. As soon as I mentioned the situation to them, they insisted Linda join us on those weekends. They picked me up first, then Linda, and we dropped her home first. That way my parents never knew what was going on. Since the three of us guys had been inseparable the last 3 years of high school my parents didn’t see anything unusual about the three of us and these weekends. For Linda and I, it was far from our ideal, but it was enough time together to keep our love genuinely alive, and for her to feel secure in the fact that my feelings for her were not about to change in the least, despite the battles with my parents, or her epilepsy.
By February of 1967, though, my parents had pushed me to the limit. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Linda’s Christmas Formal dance in December of 1966. I’d had a friend of mine from high school call my house that night and ask me to go to a movie with him at one of the fancier theatres in town. I’d let my mother answer the phone all evening to be sure she took that call. I put a suit on, and left the house with, “Now don’t you go near Linda’s or the school!” ringing in my mother’s authoritarian voice behind me.
An hour into the dance, Linda’s father walked up to us and told us my dad was waiting outside. Linda went to pieces, her dad and I supporting her between us. She was so racked with deep, tearful sobs that she couldn’t even walk. Before we walked through that door, I embraced her with everything I had.
“Now don’t you forget! I love you, and I’ll be back. We’ve got a date at the altar, right?” I wanted to leave no doubt in her mind about where I stood, since I didn’t know when I’d see her again.
“Right!” she said, risking a smile.
We walked through the door. As her father helped her toward his car, I turned and shouted, “Don’t forget! I’ll be back!” That made her smile even bigger because I’d said it right in front of my father.
In late January, my parents started talking about things like reform school, Juvenile Court, and other legal ideas. That’s when I decided to see what rights I did have, if any. So, in mid February, during my second class term, I contacted an attorney that Linda’s parents knew, calling him between classes from college.
After that discussion with him, I dropped out of college, got a $50-a-week job, and moved into an unfinished and unfurnished second floor apartment for $50 a month, just a five minute drive from either my parents or Linda’s. It wasn't much. Heavy plywood sheet floors, an old army cot to sleep on, an overstuffed couch for visitors to sit on, and an old bookshelf for my clock radio. The bathroom worked, and I had a kitchen sink and refrigerator, but no stove. My dad actually offered to help me move: “I can’t keep you from moving out, Jim, so I might as well. Do you mind?” I let him, just because it made it faster and got it out of the way. He looked pretty dismayed at my new lodgings, but that was fine by me. I figured maybe he’d take a hard look at where my priorities were. Freedom to make my own decisions was priority one, because they had never cared about my feelings or what I wanted throughout this whole situation. Being with Linda, my fiancée, as often as possible was my first decision, and that one had been made from the night I’d proposed.
For her 18th birthday the following month, I gave her an engagement ring and made things truly “official”. She shouted it to the world. And I liked seeing her that openly happy for the first time in her life. It felt great to know I was making such a difference in the life of someone I loved so deeply.
Linda and I planned to wait until I was 21 to get married. She’d always dreamed of a big, fancy church wedding (if she was ever fortunate enough to get married), and I didn’t want her to lose that dream. Not after what she’d been through for so many years. But, two years later, both of us at 19, we couldn’t stand the wait any longer. She decided that being together was more important than that big wedding. We eloped to Kentucky, where the legal age was already 18, and were married on Friday, August 16, 1968, the day after my mother’s birthday.
I called my parents after the wedding and told them. I didn’t want the need to do that haunting me anytime into the future, much less on my wedding night. My only conversation was with mom (she had answered the phone). After telling me I could still get out of it (to which I made it very clear that I had no intention of doing so), and blaming Linda’s parents for pushing me into it, all she said was, “Well, you just remember: I don’t want her in this house.” I didn’t say it, I bit my tongue. But my thought at that moment was “That’s fine by me. I’m not planning on going back there anyway.”
Our “honeymoon” was a one-night stay in a local hotel, but turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. After finding out we were newlyweds, the clerk offered us the bridal suite at no extra charge. We took him up on the offer before he could change his mind. The bridal suite for a pair of wonderfully love-struck teens, for only $16.12!
Following that night, we began a life together that was as close to a fairytale as any couple could hope to come. No, it wasn’t perfect; we were human, after all. But it was certainly close enough for us. That life included, for me, a career in computers; operating, then programming the big business mainframe systems. I’d become fascinated with them years before, and thoroughly enjoyed the profession.
The seizures that had scared others away from her for so many years became an integral part of our love and devotion. My willingly caring for her after seizures showed her that my love was still there, as strong as ever, and that I wasn’t about to turn away. Ever. She reciprocated by doing everything she could for me, and consistently letting me know, in actions as well as words, how deeply she loved me, and how very much she needed, and appreciated my love and affection. I became quite adept at protecting her from injury if she had a seizure when I was around, and she let me know that was just as deeply appreciated. Our mutual love and devotion only grew deeper as each year passed.
Eleven and one half years later, on the evening of Monday, March 3rd, 1980, while I wasn’t home, Linda had a seizure, striking her head on the tile wall of our bathroom. She died instantly. I found her an hour and forty-five minutes later. She was 30, I was 31.
My world was gone. Our devotion to each other had been so deep, so wonderful, so consistently beautiful and all-encompassing for all those short years, that I literally had nothing left; nothing worth having, anyway. She was my world; my very life. Had it not been for our mutual, strong faith in God, I’m certain, even to this day, that I would not have survived her passing.
Within a week or two of her funeral, I decided I had to capture every possible memory of those years while I could. I began a daily ritual. I’d come home from work, grab a bite to eat, and start pounding those typewriter keys. Yep, typewriter keys. We didn’t have PC’s then. Ironically, the typewriter I was using was a Smith Corona electric my parents had given me to use for college. I still have it, and it still works.
The words flowed effortlessly to the paper. I didn’t even have to think about what I was typing. They flowed so smoothly it seemed as if someone was dictating to me and I was simply typing what was said. Names. Dates. People. Places. Events. All of it. Fourteen years of my life. I often stayed up, typing, until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, even though I had to get up later and go to work; and even later on the weekends.
About six months later, what would become the first draft of an autobiography was finished. I say it that way because at the time I had no plans to take it beyond my personal use, mostly to refresh my memory of those wonderful years when I could no longer remember them clearly on my own. That draft lay dormant until 1999.
My wife Paula likes to rearrange things every few months. Sometime in 1999, when I glanced at the bookshelf on which that draft had been placed, it was gone. I asked her if she remembered where she’d put it; she didn’t. In a mild panic, I searched all the bookshelves and other reasonable places, to no avail.
In desperation, now, I began rewriting as much as I could from scratch. Paula felt a bit like she was competing with a ghost for my time and attention until I explained to her that it was only to preserve the memories for myself as I’d originally intended. But I wasn’t sure how much she believed me. I began working on it, then, only on lunch hours at work, or after Paula had gone to bed. She did, though, accept the fact that it was something I just plain had to do. She isn’t the sentimental and emotional type as I am; she just thinks the whole idea is a waste of time.
I began to realize there was meant to be more to that draft than just to preserve my own memories when, after completing 12 slightly rough chapters from memory, the original copy reappeared, along with a box of floppy disks for my old Commodore 128 PC, on which the very last copy had been done. I immediately decided, “Someone must have a purpose for this book”.
I merged the new chapters with the originals, as I’d actually done a better writing job on some scenes in the newer version, and now felt seriously led to delve back into the project. I put the combined version on my new Pentium PC, adding photos, such as our prom pictures, and documents, including our marriage license, for readability and authenticity. Also added were a large number of additional memories that had come back to mind while all this was taking place.
Amid the wonderful ecstasy that I felt in once again working with, and reliving those wonderful years of my life, and in working with the book in which I intended to preserve them for all time, I realized that what I now wanted, and needed, was to be a writer. Suddenly everything fell into place. Why I enjoyed playing with words all my life, and why I’d enjoyed English class all those years. Why I’d felt so much pleasure and satisfaction writing that original draft on that Smith Corona. It wasn’t just the memories after all. I’d taken a short story writing course a few years before Paula and I met. Now I knew why I’d done that, too.
As I worked away on that, and succeeding drafts, through 1999 and 2000, the writing bug bit deeper into my being. And it was enhanced / encouraged by the fact that seven people, all coworkers and friends, have read various drafts of the book along the way, and two others, including my minister, are reading the latest (6th) draft now. All seven that have finished reading it have said it should be published. And they’ve all said it helped them personally in their lives. Either in their relationship with God, with their spouse, or both.
As I said, I now know that there is meant to be more to that book than preserving my own memories.
Likewise encouraging to my writing spirit is the fact that a number of short essays I’ve derived from portions of the book have also been well received by those who have read them.
Like all aspiring writers, I hope someday to see my works published. And I will enjoy all the writing I do not only while I’m waiting, and working for that to happen, but also after it has happened, because it is genuinely what I want to do.
I owe that very discovery to the two most important ladies in my life. To a sixteen-year-old, shy, withdrawn epileptic who came into my life ever so quietly, but with a twinkle in her eye and a love in her heart that lit a flame of true love within both of us that drastically, and wonderfully changed both our lives forever. And to an adult, less emotional, more practical lady whose penchant for re-arranging everything in the house reawakened the dream I’d never really lost: to be a writer.
Thank you, Paula, for tolerating those feelings of competing with a ghost and still handing the original draft back to me when you finally found it again. And, as much as it drives me crazy, thanks for re-arranging those bookshelves that summer of ’99. If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be working on that 6th draft, much less writing this piece right now, or anything else.
And, more importantly, thank you, Linda, for every single moment of our 14 gloriously wonderful and romantic years together, sharing a teenage love that never grew up, and therefore never grew old. For awakening my spirit for life, and allowing me to be the one to awaken yours. For keeping alive the child within me, by sharing the child within you. And for using your love, and your childlike blind faith, to lead me closer to God than I’d ever been before.
Finally, thank You, Heavenly Father, for bringing them both into my life. And, though it totally devastated me at the time, and still haunts me today, thank You, Lord, for not allowing Linda’s death to be in vain. For using it to ignite the writing spirit within me, to lead me to share the life Linda and I had with all who ask, that they may learn how to deepen their own relationship, and to lead me fully and totally to Your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
A Footnote. Paula and I peacefully divorced in July, 2003 after she decided she didn't want an intimate side to our relationship. (Look at my handle. That part of a relationship is important to me - smile.) But I still mean what I said above. She was still instrumental in my writing coming back to life. JAW - 8/20/2003