Writers often draw from their life’s experiences to create their stories. Inspiration comes from everything around us: from tiny idiosyncratic habits of our co-workers we notice during the most boring day at the office, to an adrenaline-pumping disaster, to the most emotional events, good or bad. In some novels, like memoirs or fictionalized accounts of an event the writer lived through, most or all of the narrative is based on the author’s own ordeal. Those of us who haven’t been caught up in a war or survived a harrowing calamity worthy of being an entire novel’s story still have a myriad of smaller past experiences to draw from. With a twist and a squeeze, they can be rearranged to fit the scenario we’re working with, and bring depth to our characters and scenes.
In writing The Summer the World Ended, I pulled from an event that happened when I was around seventeen. (I am pretty bad remembering dates, so it might’ve been when I was anywhere from 16-18.) Suffice to say, I was still in high school. I grew up in a two-level house that had been in the family since it was built in 1908 or so. (Alas, it no longer is, but that’s another story entirely.) My grandfather (mother’s side) lived in the downstairs section, while I lived upstairs with my mother. Some years prior, my grandfather’s second wife passed away, leaving him alone. At the time, no one really talked about depression―especially not a man, especially not one from his generation. He got into the habit of coming upstairs to eat at night.
Again, I’m bad with dates, but I think it was getting close to summer. On one particular night, I had two friends over for dinner and my mother had put out an enormous communal salad plate in the middle of the table. She only did the ‘salad thing’ when it was warm out. The five of us settled in and proceeded to attack the salad with varying degrees of enthusiasm. My grandfather had worked as a teacher in a reform school, and even at 83, he had an imposing presence that kept me and my friends uninterested in conversation. However, within a few minutes, it became apparent something was wrong.
My grandfather, who had up until that moment been a pillar of health, was attempting to stab a slice of tomato from the serving platter with his fork―only he was missing it by a few inches. The repetitive clink, clink of the tines hitting the plate got everyone’s attention. His expression of grim determination (I’m going to get this tomato, dammit) melted away to one of bewilderment after the fifth or sixth miss. Such a change in a formerly confident, powerful persona filled the air with a tangible weight.
My mother asked if he was okay. He looked up, as if he couldn’t understand what she’d said. The whites (sclera) of his eyes had gone deep red. He stared into space for another moment with a look of utter confusion, and slumped face-down over his plate.
To my left, my friends sat dumbfounded – like that deer in the middle of the road watching the truck inexorably speeding toward them. My mother came unglued and panicked. Where he sat was right under the wall phone, so anyone going for it would have had to get close to him. Something my friends were clearly uninterested in, and my mother was in no state able to comprehend what a phone even was.
I remained relatively calm―I suppose it helped I was still a bit angry with him for kicking my cat a week or two ago―and moved to the phone to call 911. (There were no cell phones then.)
He was still technically alive when they wheeled him out on a stretcher. A swollen aneurysm had exploded deep within his brain, inflicting enough damage to destroy the person he had been. His brain stem kept the basic functions going for a bit. A little more than two hours later, he passed away quietly at the hospital. There was nothing to be done for him at that point.
I don’t remember feeling much of anything about the event. However, since I remember it in such detail more than twenty years later, I suppose it did leave a mark. Life is full of inspiring moments, be they tragic, joyous, thrilling, or tedious. Drawing upon these moments can bring a scene to life, allow a writer (and reader) to relive a time of happiness or perhaps cope with loss.
(By the way, those friends never did come over for dinner again.)