How to Know Each Other
by Nell Casey
Issue #107 • July 30, 2008•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
“Why won’t you people let me go home?” my father bellows. “I just want to go home.” He is sitting painfully straight, as if heaven were already drawing him upward. One hand consoles the other in his lap. He’s wearing his bathrobe tied loosely at the waist, a scrap of breakfast egg caught in the fuzz of his terry cloth collar. His face has narrowed with age, the flesh of it ripples down in an accordion of wrinkles; his silver hair, catching the sun, glints in a cruel way.
The nurse, Mercy—I took this as a promise and hired her—gives me a sidelong glance. “He’s been at it all morning,” she says wearily and then pushes past me to go to the kitchen. Mercy is always pressing her ample body against mine, even when there’s plenty of room.
In the kitchen, she scrapes crumbs off the chipped antique plates with the cresting blue border. My mother inherited these plates from her mother, along with a fair amount of money—neither of which offered the protection they seemed to promise. Mercy doesn’t even bother being careful with the plates. Though, it’s true, they’re no longer worth it. The knife lets off a kind of whistle every time it hits the china. For a flickering millisecond, I am filled with dread about what my mother will think, but, of course, I know that she is dead.
Nell Casey is the editor of the national bestseller, Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and, more recently, An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. She also writes for such publications as The New York Times, Slate, Salon and Elle.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
NC: Ten years ago, I cared for my sister when she was hospitalized, and for a time after she was released. Since then, I’ve been very interested in the experience of family members taking care of each other. My own experience ended well: My sister got better and I was able to feel the relief of having helped her through. And yet it felt so much more complicated and painful than that as we were going through it. I began thinking about the more common, and much more difficult, caregiving relationship—the one where the person who is ill isn’t going to get better and the person doing the caring isn’t going to come out of the experience without tremendous loss.
I also wanted to explore the feeling of being plunged into an intimacy that has not existed within the family before: a daughter who hasn’t been close to her father, though she has wanted to be, and how she handles the kind of hot-breath nearness of caring for him as he dies.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
NC: I felt a little destabilized by how far out of reach the story became at times. I’m fairly tight and controlled in my writing—sometimes too tight and controlled—and I found I had a hard time loosening up and letting there be life outside the story that wasn’t necessarily going to find its way in. I am primarily a non-fiction writer, which seems to me to have clearer boundaries. At least, you’re not just making it up along the way. It was liberating to be able to use my imagination in this way but it also meant there were entire personalities and relationships being concocted as I wrote. As the story grew, and the characters altered, I would have to shift the world in my head slightly to accommodate these changes as I went along. At times, it felt like I was trying to gather up water. It all just kept rushing away from me.
HT: You recently edited a collection of essays called Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Have you had much personal experience with caretaking of family members, and did this drive the narrative of your story?
NC: Well, as I mentioned before, my experience with my sister sparked my interest in the subject but, after that, it was more about imagining different, more extreme, circumstances of caregiving. And I had parenting in mind too when I wrote this story. I was exploring the idea that not all parents can adapt to parenthood every step of the way. And they aren’t always simply bad parents, as I might once have plainly thought them to be. They’re not capable. The father in this story wasn’t able to continue a sense of closeness with his children. Maybe he’d once been able to—when they were babies or at different stages of their childhoods—but he wasn’t able to sustain intimacy with his children as adults. My mother once said that she felt better suited to mothering during certain periods of her life, and when my sister and I were certain ages. This makes sense to me. I think that’s likely true for most parents but it’s difficult to admit. Anyways, it is an interesting notion and, without even being conscious of it at first, I brought this into the story too.
HT: Your story addresses so many different emotions associated with caretaking and sickness—anger, fear, sense of duty, nostalgia, relief, embarrassment, guilt. Was it difficult for you to represent such a broad spectrum within such a small space?
NC: I’m happy to hear the story does represent such a broad spectrum. That was a big part of my desire to write about caregiving—to offer an honest portrayal of the intense range of emotions it brings up. It wasn’t difficult to describe the different emotions, really, but it was hard to know if they were coming across meaningfully and realistically. One of the best stories about caregiving that I have ever read is “Meanwhile” by Ann Harleman. That story, to me, is the ideal. It so poignantly portrays the complex and contradictory emotions of this kind of relationship. I came back to it often while trying to write this.
HT: In the story, Mercy seems to take a realist’s stance toward the care of Maggie’s father, while Eve takes an idealist position. Where do you think Maggie falls on that spectrum?
NC: I think of Maggie as having her own shy idealism. Eve comes off as sort of dopey with her new age optimism but Maggie too is hopeful. She is taking care of her father with the hope that they’ll find a way to know each other. The fact that they do unite in such a crossed-wire way—oddly connecting while also completely missing each other—that speaks to the enduring mystery, and sometimes foolish aim, of love.
HT: Throughout the story Maggie seems to be her mother’s daughter, admirer, rival, and doppelganger, could you go into deeper detail regarding Maggie’s relationship with her mother?
NC: Here is one of the ways the story spiraled away from me: the mother. She doesn’t ever appear in person in the story but she has a very big presence. It was confusing because I wasn’t working her personality out on the page; I was figuring her out off-stage. I had trouble pinning her down. And now facing this question, I realize I haven’t quite pinned her down yet. I think of her as someone who was able to love the father—and be loved by the father—without difficulty. But I haven’t got a complete sense of her relationship with Maggie. Though Maggie, too, in my mind, loved and felt loved by the mother with a kind of ease that is missing between the other members of the family.
HT: The final scene between Maggie and her father is extremely powerful. Was the final scene difficult to write? How did you go about composing such an intricate sequence?
NC: I didn’t feel it was painful to write but then I was also rushing through it as I wrote and re-wrote it. So maybe I was finding it painful and not realizing it. In editing the story, Hannah Tinti finally slowed me down, made me think more about the senses—what was Maggie seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, smelling. Poor Hannah. She even had to remind me that Maggie would probably not just rip off her father’s bathrobe and suddenly find him naked. Taking the bathrobe off would be a loaded task—and, more than likely, as Hannah politely pointed out, he’d be wearing some kind of pajamas underneath.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
NC: About three years, all told. I started writing it shortly after my son was born, so I can date it by his latest birthday. But I came and went for long periods of time over the course of those years. It helped a lot to get edits—first at Sirenland, the writers conference that is co-hosted by One Story, and then from Hannah in the process of working on this for publication.
HT: What are you working on now?
NC: It’s always a mash up of stuff. I write a column for a parenting magazine called Cookie. I’m a contributing editor for another magazine. I write freelance pieces and book reviews occasionally. I’ve begun writing another short story. And I’ve just finished a book proposal which, like every other writer in the world, I hope will make enough money that I might be able to stop doing twelve things at once and concentrate on just one or two projects for a while.