This week’s guest in the attic is my very good friend, Natasha Lester.
Ten years ago when I started writing, Natasha was one of the first authors to offer me a helping hand, an encouraging word or an answer to a question. Over the years, we’ve become firm friends and writing buddies, although Covid has interrupted our fortnightly
writing chatting sessions. (Well, we do *some* writing.) I can’t tell you how much this lady has taught me and how much admiration and respect I have for her, her writing and her work ethic.
Natasha’s post is about writing in the time of covid, about her dad’s Alzheimer’s and about the need for stories now more than ever. As the daughter of someone who was taken prematurely by Alzheimer’s, this piece really spoke to me.
If you’d like to read an earlier post of Natasha’s for the attic, you’ll find it here.
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal before penning the New York Times and internationally bestselling novel The Paris Orphan. She is also the author of the USA Today bestseller The Paris Seamstress. Her latest book, The Paris Secret, is out now.
When she’s not writing, she loves collecting vintage fashion, traveling, reading, practicing yoga and playing with her three children. Natasha lives in Perth, Western Australia.
These Are the Times for Stories
“But these are not the times for such stories.
The stories of 1944 are darker, crosshatched with despair.”
I wrote those lines last year in a book I’m working on for 2021 called The Riviera House. In the same book, I’m writing about people queuing to buy food, shops empty of provisions, curfews imposed to keep people inside their homes.
The book is set eighty years ago in wartime Paris but, as I’ve been editing it over the past few weeks, I feel eerily as if I’m writing about our present. Of course wartime is deadly and continues for years and leaves everlasting scars on those who suffer through it and I’m not suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic is like a war; it’s just that I can see the parallels in some of the events in my story, events that I thought were things that only happened in a time long past.
My father has advanced Alzheimer’s. He’s had it for about fourteen years, since he was sixty. He still knows that I’m a familiar person and his face always lifts into a smile when he sees me, in a way it doesn’t with strangers. But it’s been many years since he’s known my name, or been able to say I’m his daughter.
Alzheimers takes people’s stories from them as it steals their minds. It takes away their ability to understand stories too.
My father is, right now, in a secure eight bed mental health facility for older adults after he went through a phase earlier this year when his Alzheimer’s caused him to become aggressive. A psychologist who visited the facility a few weeks ago was unfortunately diagnosed with COVID-19, thus putting the facility into lockdown. Nobody was allowed to visit my father for two weeks.
How do you explain to a person for whom words mean nothing that his family hasn’t abandoned him, that those familiar people who make him smile haven’t simply vanished, never to return?
At the same time, I have a new book out called The Paris Secret. This means I need to tell a story about my story: talking about the book on social media, in videos and in blog posts. Part of me wonders whether it’s crass to be marketing my book when people are dying in their tens of thousands all around the world, when people are losing jobs and livelihoods, when fathers sit in mental health facilities, lonely, but lacking the ability to articulate their sorrow.
Another part of me remembers that two and a half years of work went into the book, that I love the story and the characters, that perhaps stories about other times and other places, other hopes and other fears, other worlds and other lives might make a difference to even a handful of people right now.
I don’t know which part of me is right, but the latter half takes strength from the many emails from readers who have sent their mums a copy of The Paris Secret for Easter in lieu of paying a visit which might put their loved ones at risk. They offer the solace of story instead.
It will be a long time before I’m allowed to see my father again. Having three kids means I’m a perilous kind of visitor and not welcome at the facility, which I understand. We can’t move my father out of the facility and back to regular aged care right now as aged care facilities can’t take the risk of accepting new residents. So he’s stuck and I’m stuck.
I wonder if, whenever I’m finally able to see him again, he’ll smile when he sees me. Will he still remember that he knows me, or will he walk right past me? Will this prolonged absence mean he loses the last few sentences he still possesses of the story that connects us together?
Stories reach through time.
That’s what I decide as I sit in my attic and write about people queuing to buy food, shops empty of provisions, curfews imposed to keep people inside their homes.
I write about love and loss and heartbreak and joy and tears and smiles and laughter. I write about the despair, and the joy. Because that is what stories are made of. They are made of everything: emotions and words. Feelings and sentences. Hearts and paragraphs.
I don’t know what that means for someone like my father who is missing the words and the sentences and the paragraphs in that equation. When I used to visit him, I would take out my phone and turn on a playlist of the songs he used to listen to when I was young. His Alzheimer’s did not stop him from humming along to the songs, from tapping the table in time to the music. He sings in his own way, unintelligible to most, but it has meaning to me: it means there are still connections being made in his brain; that there is still a way to reach into him and find the person inside the ruined mind and the weakening body.
I still have the playlist on my phone. I still have hope that I’ll be able to play it for him again one day and, while he might have forgotten to smile at me by then, he will still hum along to the music. He will still be in there, somewhere, touched by the story in the song.
So yes, even though the stories of 2020 might be darker, crosshatched with despair, we still need them. Keep writing, and keep reading, always.
I have a very special giveaway coming up later in the week, with not one, but two gorgeous books to win.