In many ways, the first printing of By Way of Water was a dream: me, from a town of two hundred, without an agent, had a novel acquired by a literary imprint of Penguin Putnam. I was thrilled beyond belief. I was living in Norfolk with my boyfriend – we’d come to Virginia so he could do research for a novel after a six-week road trip through the West. In the fall of 2001, in the shadow of 9/11, final edits for Water were overnighted from Port Townsend, Washington, the evening before we camped in the Olympic National Forest. I can still remember the sound of our footsteps on the thick humus as we hiked amidst the temperature rainforest, only the two of us and the hundreds of trees, the way clear, the pace steady.
In April of 2002, when I was now in Virginia, my father went into emergency surgery that saved his life by placing metal stints into the pathways from the kidneys to the bladder. All five of his children went home to see him. His battle with colon cancer was not going well, and the many close calls and lack of health coverage were adding up: we knew he wouldn’t be long on this planet. So, my oldest sister stayed in Northern California for six weeks, helping him get his paperwork in order. And on May 15, I replaced her, my role a little less clear. In my mind, I was there to help him die a peaceful death, to have tough conversations, to help him navigate his way toward his last breath.
Six days before my father’s 60th birthday, ten advance copies of By Way of Water arrived by UPS to the gate at the bottom of his dirt road. My father was suspicious – usually things from the outside world only brought pain or misery (think IRS and death notices of far-flung family members). In the cabin on the ridge, I opened the box, my father only a few feet away. Below is an excerpt from a memoir piece that I wrote about this moment:
Dad creeps closer.
“You going to let me see one of those?”
I place a copy in his extended hand, my nerves wired tight. Mom hated the early drafts, hates that anything that resembles her life could be judged by others. Dad’s never seen one word of it but since I wrote that new ending, I haven’t had any nightmares about him. That new ending was the pivotal point that lets me be here with him now.
Dad reads the dedication out loud, the words I practiced when I got stuck: “For my family, For the community, For the land, For all our different strengths. In memory of too many.”
Dad nods. “You did it right, this.” He rubs a rough finger over the looping letters.
“Whatever you wrote in here, it’s okay.” Maybe part of him feels redeemed, that his struggles to survive have ended up recorded, even in a fictional form. This is a leap for all of us, for all the moments we were kicked out, beaten, spit on; all the nights we’ve come home with weariness in us instead of blood, the times we’ve turned on each other, the worst in us rising and taking over, all of it gets to re-align because one of our stories has been told outside the circle.
I think about a line from a book, In the Country of Country: country music told the lives of people who didn’t see their stories in print, not in newspapers, not in books.
My father died seven days later, in his own bed, his children close, his last view that of the mountain he so loved and had worked so hard to secure for us. Seventeen days after that, my writing mentor was found shot in the chest in the Albuquerque airport; he died the next day. One month after holding the book with my father, the literary imprint responsible for my book was folded by Penguin. For a good chunk of time, I wandered inside, dropped into a landscape of grief with no navigation, no tools to even identify the path had there been one.
Now, that boyfriend is now my husband, and we have a beautiful nine-year-old daughter, Hope, that looks, to me, so much like my father. Now, these navigation tools have come to me: keep writing, keep teaching, keep the heart open despite the pain. Now, eleven years later, By Way of Water will be put out in the world again, and I couldn’t be more grateful, more pleased, more sure of the way through the forest.