Bliss Broyard   title  
photo of Bliss Broyard


  I began the title story in My Father, Dancing shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The story describes a daughter attending her dying father in a hospital, and much of its writing was done in between attending my own father in the hospital where he lay dying. I had recently enrolled in a fiction writing course at the Harvard Extension School, and I was working on the piece to present to my class for an upcoming deadline.

It hadn't occurred to me to enroll in this class until the day an old friend of my dad's came to visit him. Andrew and my father had been young together in Greenwich Village forty years earlier. Back in those days, nobody in their bohemian crowd had much money, but what little they did have was shared among them. When Andrew needed to come up with his rent one month, my dad gave him the fifty dollars for it. Now Andrew came to repay his debt. Taking inflation into account, he figured that he owed my father five hundred dollars. (Andrew had gone on to make a great deal of money in the garment industry while my father had become a book reviewer for the New York Times, earning a fair bit less.) Andrew handed over the sum, a satisfying wad of ten and twenties.

By this time, my father had reached the final stage of his illness. He been through an emergency surgery to repair his bladder when a tumor burst its wall. The surgery extended his life, but the ordeal caused something to slip in his brain, and his thoughts and speech came in varying degrees of lucidity. After Andrew bid him goodbye, my father spread the bills on top of his blanket and patted them in the satisfied manner of a child lording over his wealth after winning at Monopoly. To tease him, I grasped the edge of a twenty and asked if I could have it. "Absolutely not," he said. "I'm tired of giving money to people with sloppy grammar, who misuse words or are sometimes dreary."

I objected to the dreary bit, but otherwise he had a point. I was twenty-three at this time. I'd been a voracious reader since childhood and had been writing poems and stories for years, and I loved language, but I regarded it lightly, something that existed for my pleasure to be used as my imagination saw fit. I didn't give much attention to any rules.

My mother offered the money to my brother and me since my father, confined to his bed, couldn't spend it. She requested that we use it for something special. My brother bought a rifle-he and my father used to shoot targets with an old shotgun in our backyard. I enrolled in the writing course.

And so I began to write the story that would become "My Father, Dancing" and for the first time, rather than language being in service to me, I was in service to it. If I found the right words, not close to what I wanted to say but exactly, and put them in an order that made sense, that, yes, followed the rules, then something that I hadn't yet been able to articulate to myself began to take shape on the page. I wasn't trying to make sense of the experience of losing my father, because the death of a someone you love cannot be understood, only borne. Rather, it was as if I were trying to build a structure to house my feelings and memories, with a floor that could hold weight and with walls and a ceiling so that other people might venture inside.

On a Tuesday, I passed around a first draft to my fellow writers. Two days later my father died. I showed up in class the following week for the critique of the work. The instructor and a number of classmates had seen my father's obituary in the local paper, and they were very surprised to see me. There was a moment of awkwardness. How, after all, could the class critique a story about a daughter facing the loss of her father when the author's own father had so recently died?

I insisted that we proceed with the discussion, and looking back now, I can see how strange my eagerness must have seemed. But I think of Henry James who at seventy-six wrote that the port he had set out from at the beginning of his long creative journey was the essential loneliness of his life. He went on to say that this loneliness was the deepest thing about a person, "deeper above all than the deep counter-minings of art." And I see my young self digging into that loneliness for the first time, and I think, thank God for the disciplines of art and writing for providing something to do with everything that is unearthed.
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Copyright © 1999 Bliss Broyard.