A blog post in support of #HoldOnToTheLight SF/F Authors and Fans for Mental Wellness
Sometimes your writing has lessons that you didn’t grasp when you were writing. Lessons for yourself that no one else might understand, or needs to.
One day not long ago, I posted a story on Facebook about a time when my father had surgery. He was suffering from dementia, and when he came out of anesthesia, the surgeon pointed at me and asked my dad, “Do you know who this guy is?”
“My brother,” Dad replied confidently.
“I’m your son,” I said.
My father looked confused. “Why don’t you want to be my brother?”
Someone commented on the Facebook post: “I loved that story in Vampire Empire between Dmitri and Gareth!”
What? I used that story in a book? I didn’t even remember until the reader pointed it out.
In Vampire Empire, Dmitri was the father to our hero, Gareth, and a leader in the vampire war against humanity despite his misgivings about the war’s wisdom. When the reader first meets him in The Greyfriar, the once-great Dmitri is already mentally unstable and under the care or control of others.
The inspiration for Dmitri was no secret. During the time Susan and I plotted and wrote the first book, my father was dropping into dementia. His memories slowly faded and his grasp of reality dispersed. He went from living alone, to assisted living, to skilled nursing. He grew emotionally and physically frail. He was easily confused and alarmed, but not so much that he couldn’t dial my number on the phone. For years, calls came at all hours, sometimes every few minutes. Eventually his frantic calls were compounded by others from the facility or nursing home. I ran between my house and his room at all hours of the night or day, took time off work to calm the latest disturbance, spent hours in the emergency room or hospital.
After years of steady decline, my father finally died. Frankly, it was a relief. That’s a terrible thing to admit, but it’s true. I wasn’t glad my father was dead, but he hadn’t been my father for years and I was just thankful the long nightmare was over for everyone.
After what we’d been through, it was a natural thing to add a character in the throes of dementia to our writing. I knew how those characters acted and talked. I found their mental acrobatics fascinating, sometimes humorous, and often poignant.
When I started thinking about what to do for this blog post, I planned to write a piece about how I used my experience with dementia to inform our books. However, Susan kept insisting that the point should be that I had written Gareth and Dmitri’s relationship to come to terms with the difficulty of my own situation.
I laughed and dismissed the idea: “They were nothing like me and Dad. Gareth ran away from his father. I only wish I could’ve run away.”
Gareth avoided the burdens of caring for his father, but his decision to run away had nothing to do with Dmitri’s mental state. He had noble reasons: he hated the brutality of his kind and nurtured a fascination with humans that alienated him from his fellow vampires. In fact, Gareth often lamented the loss of his father whom he loved and admired, and hated that his father fell under the claws of his ambitious younger brother.
To be clear, I didn’t decide to become my father’s primary caregiver because I feared sinister siblings seizing our vast family empire. My brothers are good guys and they helped as much as they could. It was just the luck of the draw that I lived a few minutes away from my father. It was sensible for me to be the point of contact.
Much of my personality came from Dad. I got my love of books, movies, and writing from him. While my mother was determined and hard working, Dad was easy-going and laid back. He wasn’t exactly ambitionless, but certainly not a driven man by any stretch. I’m the same way.
However, long before my father’s illness, my mother suffered a stroke and I watched him care for her every single day without question or pause. For years, he devoted himself to nothing but her, and never thought of doing otherwise.
So when he needed help, I helped him as best I could. What else could I do? That was how I was raised.
The idea of running off to an isolated castle in Scotland to live with cats must’ve held some allure even if I didn’t realize it because that’s what I made Gareth do. But even though he performed an act I fantasized about subconsciously, apparently I understood the high cost of such an act, because I made Gareth pay it. He was tormented by abandoning his father and regretted the terrible events his absence precipitated.
In retrospect, writing the story of Gareth and Dmitri was a subliminal way of reinforcing the lesson I already knew: Do the right thing or you’ll regret it. Just answer the damn phone and do what needs to be done.
It’s not like an adventure story. Nothing melodramatic or heroic. No plots or schemes or clashes of ideology. The darkness is real enough though.
“Sir, your robe.”
“Oh, thank you, Carolus.” Dmitri slipped into the robe naturally and cinched it around his waist.
Gareth moved to face him, tight-lipped. “My name is Gareth. Do you remember me at all?”
The king nodded as he laid his arm across the prince’s shoulder. “I have a son named Gareth.”
“He is a good son. A bit bullheaded, perhaps. I taught him to think for himself, and he learned that very well.” Dmitri narrowed his eyes in thought, actual deep thought. He worked his jaw side to side in contemplation. “But he didn’t learn when to put the clan above himself. Sometimes you can be right, but you still have to give way to others. That can be a terrible undoing. I don’t know if he ever grasped that.” Then the king smiled generously. “But I’ve always been proud of him. Will you tell him so, if you see him today?”
Gareth stared deep into his father’s gaze, seeking a hint of recognition, a flicker of the past, some shadow from their time together. Dmitri’s eyes were honest, even charming, but they were deep chasms with no horizons. There was nothing in them to assuage Gareth.
The prince paused to find a steady voice. “I will.”
Dmitri looked wistful. “I miss him. I miss seeing him.”
“He misses you as well.” Gareth looked at the floor as he adjusted the king’s robe. His chest ached that his father hand no idea how often Gareth visited him. He then guided his father back to the bed and helped him to lie down again. “I must go, Your Majesty. I hope to see you again soon.”
“Good,” Dmitri said. “You’ve been very kind.”
Gareth cupped the back of the king’s damp head. Then he silently turned to leave.
“Why don’t you want to be my brother?” Dmitri asked.
Gareth smiled sadly. “I will be your brother if you wish it.”
“Good. Everything is all right, then.” Dmitri drifted off toward a satisfied sleep. “Good night, Carolus.”
“Good night, Dmitri.”
The Rift Walker
Vampire Empire, Book 2
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in a effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental-health related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HOldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/.