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What’s Important: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Hits Hard

the-diving-bell claude and jean-do cropIf you were paralyzed, couldn’t speak and could only blink one eye, could you write your memoir?

It’s hard enough to think about revealing all that you’d like about your own personal life in writing a memoir, but in the French film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” magazine editor Jean-Do comes to the realization that he can imagine anything he wants. And he does to survive.

After suffering a massive stroke, he learns that he can’t speak, even though his mind is responding to all the questions from various doctors. As he works with a speech therapist and a psychologist, he begins to make progress. Part of his survival is writing, with the blink of an eye signaling to his therapist to write down the letter that she recites to him in descending order of their use in French. The painstaking process becomes easier, and with the help of a full-time translator, Jean-Do is able to write his memoir, completing it shortly before his death.

After his stroke, which leaves him much like someone in a diving bell, people from his life come to visit him: his former lover and the mother of his children; his current estranged lover; his associate who he once gave up his plane seat for and who wound up a hostage in Lebanon for four years; his children; and – by phone – his father.

As Jean-Do accepts his fate, he begins to appreciate the beauty in life. He recalls a scene with his aging father, who complains about life while his son shaves him; his lover, who refuses to make love on a romantic getaway because she’s trying to focus on her religious piety; his children, who kiss him on the cheek and run around him in circles while he’s confined to a wheelchair on the beach; the mother of his children, who reads to him on the beach while he watches her swimsuit cover-up rustle in the wind to reveal beautiful legs that he is, of course, at a loss to voice his appreciation of.

Yet as he begins to write his inner feelings, his prose helps him express himself in a truly beautiful way. The simplicity of the ocean foam, its searing whiteness almost blinding; the low-slung buildings near the beach that remind him of a western ghost town; the memories of his father and the others in his life that he once took for granted. It’s a powerful reminder of the fragility of life, the preciousness of love, and the twists of fate that come upon us to change us forever.

 

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Saying Good-Bye, Saying I Love You

hazel couey photo crop april 16My mother passed away last Saturday. She was 94, so wonderful and so wise, and strong and beautiful until the very end. I hope that sharing part of her story will bring me strength.

Hazel was her name, an uncommon one even for her times. She was a Georgia Peach, having been born in Georgia in the summer of 1918, the oldest child of three. A younger sister and brother shared a lifetime of love with her until they passed a few years ago.

When she was four, her family moved to Houston, Texas. She was a teenager during the Depression and had such high hopes and dreams. The times, however, made it difficult and sad. Her father left the family, making it even sadder. Still, she endured the hard times, found strength in friends and family, and became a wonderful, popular, and inspiring woman, a natural leader with an irresistible kindness that was evident to all.

In 1940, she married my dad, Tommy, and over the next 12 years they had four children: three boys (I was the youngest of them) and then my baby sister. My mom was the epitome of the classic housewife and mother of the era, raising children, going to church, selling Beauty Counselor products to earn extra money for us, and then later helping my dad, once he quit the refinery work he was doing, run the business he started out of our garage, Hollywood Boat Works. The boats, fishing and ski boats, were a success and changed our quality of life drastically. We moved from our humble beginnings and were part of a brand new neighborhood, a new school, and a new life. But it wasn’t to last as far as their marriage was concerned. It was the 1960s by then, and the pending social revolution hit our family early and hard.

They divorced in a time when divorce wasn’t that common. It was even considered a social stigma. My older brothers had already gone off to college, and my sister and I were there to take the brunt of the dissolution of their seemingly wonderful marriage. It was painful, and the pain never really went away. They both remarried and moved away from Houston and went their separate ways. But I’m not sure that either one of them was really happy without the other. Sure, their lives continued. They had different families and in-laws and holidays and so forth. My mom picked up golf as a hobby, and she played cards and dominoes with the neighbors and sought solace in the church and bible study classes and grandkids.

She moved back to Houston when her husband died in the late 1990s, and eventually ended up living with my sister the last seven years of her life. The two of them reconnected and healed their relationship, and that was a good thing. And my mom was back where she could be close to her sister, her brother, and other family. They got together often.

With the advent of satellite communications and cable TV, she faithfully followed her favorite teams the Houston Astros, Texans, and Rockets through all their many games, win or lose, but especially enjoyed it when they won. She watched almost every game on TV, clapping her hands, and yelling, “Be there!” She was a true fan.

Above all else, Hazel enjoyed studying the Bible and going to church on Sundays. She found such solace in reading the Bible, underlining passages, and praying. In the last years when I would visit, we’d sit around the kitchen table and talk about old times, sometimes talking about the times when she and my dad were still married. Times before his alcoholism led him to make terrible decisions and then stay away from us even though she would have forgiven him if only he had come back. It was something that was hard to understand for both she and I all these many years later.

Now she’s at rest. She’s in a peaceful place, and I’m sure she’s with her sister and brother and mother and they’re having fun, just like the old days. I miss her. But I know I’ll miss her more as each day goes by.

Aging Eyes

aging eyesHer aging eyes, cloudy brown after more than 90 years, smile sweetly. And it rings true: somehow we become the parents of our parents. Caretaking, giving, encouraging, sometimes sitting in a hospital room staring at a sleeping heart attack patient that once raised us, taught us, loved us. And still loves us.

The familiar laugh scratches its way to the surface of our minds, still unchanging after decades of heartache, of living life, of seeing friends and loved ones and husbands and brothers and sisters pass on. Missing each one day after day, beckoning a memory of a conversation to return, but only silence answers. Familiar nicknames whispered to no one now.

Doctors try, with gentleness, sometimes with a blunt statement, to ease those in their care into a reality unsought. A greater unknown speaks louder. The physicians’ wisdom is sought after in the hallway outside the room, their news often shattering instead of uplifting. The low tones and beeps, the blinking lights and the neon graph lines of the expensive equipment dangling near the hospital bed muffle and tweet and track across the screen. Young nurses in purple scrubs float in and out, tucking a sheet here, reminding their patient to follow instructions there, at last disappearing from a cold dim room.

Pills and potions, milliliters and injections, elevated beds and elevated blood pressure readings are all part of the daily routine. A Bible verse is flipped from a daytimer, a morning paper read in its entirety joins a stack from the days before on the side table of an easy chair.

At night the blinds are drawn on that eastern window, and in the morning they’re opened again. Frail fingers leave the walker momentarily to complete the task. Daylight to dusk, daylight to dusk. The passing of days, the passing of years, the passing of life.

Yet beauty is seen in those very hands. And love is felt in that laugh scratching the silence. And dawn gives way to daylight. And hope shines on the roses still sleeping in the morning dew.

On Writing: Revisions Lead to New Tactics

Resistance got me down for quite a while. Resisting listening. Resisting revising. Resisting the inevitable. Blame the old ego. Once I let go, revising a novel became a lot more clear. Revisions are pretty much the norm. Not pretty much. Required.

But now, six months into a major revision of a novel, I’ve come to another realization: my style has changed. And that change can be read “improvement.”

I’m part of a writers’ critique group. We’re all novelists, fictions writers. And as I got to the critique session for my final revision of additional new writings to add to the opening, the one where I now pick up my novel where I left off… Well, I knew I needed to add a new beginning to my novel. That came in the form of three new chapters that took me the better part of six months to write. All of this new additional writing has now been presented to the critique group, and has been judged, rewritten, revised until now….voila…I have arrived at the point where the original story begins.

I submitted the first chapter of that (with a little revising to make it fit with the new beginning) and got the results back. “Too much detail.” “Why did you write that?” “This fits better here.”

I digested the comments and came to the realization that my style has changed. I’ve grown. I’ve (hopefully) improved. That ‘s why the group was so questioning with the latest submittal (the old Chapter 1) after reading the first three new chapters. It took me a while to realize the point of the questioning. I thought I could create three new chapters and then cut and paste the original story in. Wrong!

The reality is that I’ve created new characters, a new storyline, and a new style. In essence, I’ve grown and now I have to face the facts: there’s no shortcut to writing a novel. I will have to go forward with the thought that whatever I’ve created with the addition of the three new chapters to open up the story is now critical to what happens—not in the old original story, but in the new story that’s now being written.

It’s an interesting problem. It’s a good problem. I just have to keep writing. Have you had a similar experience?

 

Crossing Paths with Coach Darrell Royal

Austin, TX—Coach Darrell Royal of the University of Texas was memorialized here today, one week after his death from Alzheimer’s.

He was the Texas Longhorns coach from 1957 to 1976. His influence on college football, on the University of Texas and on players and students alike is impossible to measure. I would love to have known him better, or gotten up the courage to say something when our paths crossed, which happened several times.

Take 1978 for example. Cisco’s on East Sixth Street was, at that time, the gathering spot for power brokers, legislators, sports notables and local celebrities. On a Saturday morning in October, especially with the Longhorns out of town for a game, there were maybe six people there. And one of those was Coach Darrell Royal. I was sitting a table or two away, but didn’t have the nerve to speak to him. He would be doing the color commentary on television later that day, flying up to Lubbock after breakfast to cover the Texas Tech-Texas game; it would be one of the first times for him to do a broadcast since he left coaching two years earlier.

Then in 1990, I again crossed paths with Coach Royal. In my job at UT, I had the great assignment of writing and producing a video on the life of Professor J. Neils Thompson, a professor of engineering. The college would be honoring him with a dinner that featured the video. Neils was the president for several years of the NCAA, the governing authority of intercollegiate athletics. He served as NCAA president back in the heyday of Coach Royal and the Texas Longhorns, the wishbone offense, national championships and a 30-game winning streak. Together, these two men made great strides for college sports. At the dinner, the video was played. The coach attended and was asked to offer some comments from the podium. It was one of the proudest moments of my life when he said—in that Southwestern twang of his—“Well, that’s one of the best videos of its kind I’ve ever seen.” Wow!

In the late ‘90s, I took our youngest son, Adam, to a Longhorns basketball game. I nudged Adam and said, “Let’s move down there.” Great seats. But about five minutes before tip-off, I glanced around to see Coach Mack Brown and Coach Darrell Royal coming down the aisle toward our row. “Please, Lord, don’t let us be sitting in their seats.” They breezed past us and sat across the aisle a few rows closer to the court. Whew! Kids came up to Coach Royal the whole game, asking him to sign their shirt or their cap. He never refused a single one.

Six or seven years ago, a friend of mine was in a band that played country and western music. I went to the airport-area hotel where the band was playing at a gathering for the Texas High School Coaches Association, and took a seat. Who should be at the next table but Coach Darrell Royal. People asked for autographs or stopped to chat with him, and it looked like he was enjoying every minute.

Finally, in 2007 I was honored by the university with a service award. Seated on the second row, I soon realized I was sitting directly behind Coach Royal, who also was being honored that day. I was called to the front by the university president, who briefly described my accomplishments. On the front row, Coach Royal was looking at me, listening and smiling, as if he knew all along that I would one day make him proud. I’m so glad our paths crossed. I will miss him.

Jersey Shore: Sweet Memories, Gone Forever

The heartbreaking scenes of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on the Jersey shore are almost too much to bear. New York, Manhattan, Virginia, the Carolinas, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware – the whole Eastern Seaboard – share in the disaster, surely the worst of its kind in modern history.

I’m married to a Jersey girl and have become familiar with the phrase “the Jersey shore.” In Texas, where I grew up, we went to “the beach.” But in New Jersey, Cherie went “to the shore.” And the Jersey Shore is the best there is. I’m not talking waves, swells, sets, surfing categories. I’m just saying for an outing to the ocean, the Jersey shore is it.

New Jersey takes abuse of all kinds from comedians, and particularly from New Yorkers – and that abuse is passed down to listeners who believe what they hear, even though these comedic images of Jersey are nothing more than fiction. In reality, New Jersey is a beautiful state, and the Jersey shore in particular is a beautiful place, treasured not only by those from the state of New Jersey, but by New Yorkers and visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy the clean sandy beaches, the cold Atlantic, and the boardwalks that give the area its unique character.

Hurricane Sandy changed all that. The storm hit hard as it moved onshore at Atlantic City and moved on to wreak havoc for 500 miles in several directions. Boardwalks disappeared, 80-mph winds and torrents of sand inundated picturesque seaside communities.

So when you hear about the “Jersey shore,” understand that it holds a special place in people’s minds: fun at the ocean, romantic boardwalks lit up at night with roller coasters and ferris wheels, the smells of foods of all kinds being prepared. A day at the shore, sadly, won’t be the same for quite a while.