How To Write When Your Father Is Dying

You will sit down to write on a Sunday morning. Your final manuscript is due to your Incubator class in 22 days.

The phone will ring. Your heart will sink at the Maine area code. It will be your father’s doctor. He will ask you if anyone is coming up to Maine to visit today. You will tell him no, someone was just there yesterday. He will tell you that your father is very sick, and that maybe there should be a family meeting. You will tell him you don’t need a family meeting, you will know you are all on the same page. He will say something about decisions on final days and hospice. You will ask the doctor how your father will die if he goes home. He will tell you that the septic heart valve will disintegrate and it will be painless. You will choose to believe him.

You will call your sister, and she will know that something is wrong because you called instead of texted. You will hand the baton to her, and she will run with it. Someone else will call the plumber to get the water turned back on in his cabin so he can go home. Someone else will call the snow plow guy so the ambulance can get up the steep driveway.

You will sit back down at your desk and try to write. Your arms will feel like they are filled with molasses and worms. You will google “how to write when your father is dying” and wonder why there aren’t more articles on how to do it. You will want instructions and there will not be any.

You will think “maybe I should be sad for a few minutes and then I can write” so you will ease out of your chair onto the floor and be sad. Then you will get up, because your manuscript is due in 22 days. You will revise Chapter 24 to be in the third person.

The next day you will go to your Incubator class. Your father will be at home in his cabin in the woods of Maine with your sisters, and you will be in class glancing at your phone to make sure he is still alive.

The next day, you will go and see your father. He will be lying in his big bed, covered in blankets. Your sisters will be feeding him pastries and chocolates and morphine. Your brothers will be playing guitars. Everything is amazing, your father will say. I love you so much, he will say. I love you so much, you will say. You will hold your face close to his so he can kiss you again and again. You will not be able to write. You will not be able to breathe.

You will not write the next day. You will read texts all day and drop three plates on the ground. You will not be able to find your car. You will look at everyone you encounter and wonder if their father is dying, too. Your father will sleep more, “longer pauses between breaths,” the texts will say.

Your phone will buzz at 3am. You will reach over and pat the phone, and know that he is gone. You won’t read the text until the morning. You won’t write that day. You will read your classmate’s book, though, because that is the assignment.

You will write the next day. You will think to yourself that your father’s work is done, but yours is not. You will revise Chapter 5, fixing the part where your character meets her dead father’s girlfriend for the first time. You will think to yourself that you’ll need to revise more things now that you, too, have a dead father. You will work on chapters 9, 11, 15, and 21 through 23.

You will write the next day. You will meet your Incubator friend and get through summaries of 8 more chapters. Your manuscript is due in 15 days.

You will stay home from work and write for 3 and a half hours. Your brain will not remember how to do your job anyway. You will swim. You will have 65,856 words. You will need more.

You will go to work and write 1105 words. Your manuscript is due in 13 days.

You will stay home from work again. Your father has been dead for a week. You will go to the library and write 2000 words.

You will go back to work, and write nothing.

You will stay home from work again and write 2800 words. Your brain at this point can do one or the other. You will wonder if you should go away, to Trinidad and Tobago maybe. You will look up where Trinidad and Tobago are and decide that it is too far. You will book a trip to Bermuda instead.

On Saturday, you will write 2281 words at the library and 1408 words at home. You will have 75,000 words. You will need more. Your manuscript is due in 9 days.

You will keep writing. You will get through another week. Friday will arrive. It will rain all day.  You will write 2915 words. The wind will try to blow you back across the street when you meet your friends for drinks. The power will go out. You will drink vodka and let someone else drive you home through streets no one should be on, with downed trees and live wires and water that won’t drain. You won’t care, because, for once, someone else is driving. They will sleep next to you. You will sleep horribly. The rain will stop. Your manuscript is due in 4 days.

The power will still be out when you wake up. You will write at the coffee shop because there is electricity and coffee. You will be so tired you will want to cry. You will remember hotels and go to Boston for the night. You will write 2832 words and revel in the heat and lights. You will cry in the hotel bar while reading your friend’s manuscript, because the girl in the book sees her father again and you never will. You will sleep wonderfully. Your manuscript is due in 3 days.

The power will come back on and you will go home.  You will sit down to write. You will have no more words. You will remember when your father would read Beatrix Potter and get to the part about when the Tailor of Gloucester had no more twist. You will realize what that meant. You will have no more twist. Your manuscript is due tomorrow.

You will cry because your book is not done, but you are. You will think that if only you hadn’t taken days off before your father was dying, the days you took off after wouldn’t have mattered so much. You will wonder if crying so hard about a book that isn’t done is normal.

You will send your manuscript to your Incubator class because your manuscript is due today.



  1. Leanna-First, I am so sorry for your loss. So tough to lose a parent. It sounds like you gave each other love, and that will always be with you. This is a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing. I am in great awe that you were able to keep writing in the face of your father’s death and after. I couldn’t write for two years after my sister died although I do remember having to get back to work after each of my parents died. It was being creative I had trouble with. Death of a loved one changes us, and as writers it comes out in our writing. I am guessing you found new parts of yourself. I wish you all the best as you sally forth into your post-incubator world!

  2. Lisa Birk

    I’m so sorry, Leanna. It is tough to lose a parent. I have the same thoughts as Belle–that the love you gave and received will shore you up and that he will always be with you. And that your piece is terrific. And that death rearranges us. And you have already brought that to your writing.

  3. Rob Wilstein

    A lovely piece, Leanna. I’m so sorry for your loss and look forward to reading more from you.

  4. I was in graduate school as my mom was dying. I cared for her in Connecticut in her final weeks, and then drove to Boston for class at night. It’s auto pilot. It’s denial robot mode. It’s all you can do to get through it. I understand it. And I am terribly sorry for your loss.

  5. Jane Gilmartin

    Beautifully written and heart wrenching. I am impressed by your commitment to keep writing through that pain. I have been there and I don’t know if I could have done that… no matter the deadline. I honestly believe that this sort of pain can help in the creative process, but I think it takes a special kind of person to work through it like that. You are amazing.

  6. Evelyn Krieger

    Leanna, I echo the above comments, especially Belle’s. I hope you can take comfort in being able to say goodbye, to begin to prepare yourselves. In the midst of grief, that is something to hold on to. When my father was killed 2 years ago in a sudden and horrific way, my words, both written and in speech, were lost. Eventually, with therapy, the words came back and I was able to order the chaos through writing. It was the hardest essay I’d ever written, but it released me from part of the grief. In the end, words can save us. Wishing you continued healing.

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