A Last Salute to the Sergeant

Robert Bentley, surrounded by his family, 1958

Writing is connection, whether with words that precede, or words that follow; writing can be framed with themes and directions only hinted at, only suggested with faint trails. Sentences are families of words, sometimes taut ropes of enduring bond, other times rambling things, of loose alliance, dim fellowship or tangled expression.

I just returned from a holiday week with my family. An interesting time: my father, who has been deep in Alzheimer’s grip for many years, and essentially bed-bound for the last couple, was notably alert. Always a warm man, he was visibly pleased to be in the company of all his kids. He delighted in eating, still feeding himself from a bedside tray, shaky and slow with the spoon, but still managing. One time I brought him his food, and he looked up and said, “What do I owe you?” He was a man quick with a joke all his life, but it was still a surprise when he would surface from the glazed, almost frozen state that marked the bulk of his day and venture out with some words, a connection, before returning to the quietude of his condition.

But in that condition, there was still a man in there, still pushing time. He remembered my name a couple of times during this visit, and amazed me when he had been sitting in his wheelchair (helped in and out by caretakers, for short periods a few days a week) and had been staring silently into his stillness for a while, but turned to me reading on the couch and said, “Hey, what book are you reading?” I was taken aback—and delighted—by his abrupt spark, and related the book’s title and contents, and then he smiled and returned to his cloistered musings.

Yesterday, he fell ill, and was taken to the emergency room. His big heart, repeatedly remarked upon by his doctors for its steady strength in his advanced age, was fluttering and weak. He fought through the night, but left this plane for the next, a bit after 6am this morning. Sarge Bentley, a good man, my father, gone this New Year’s Day at 93. A life—how can you sum it up, count and consider its gestures, its feelings, its words, its connections?

I loved him, and will miss him, as will all my family. I’m grateful for this Christmas, and for the long years we had him. I’m grateful for being able to tell him I loved him when I said goodbye to return home a few days ago, and grateful for the integrity of his life.

Emotional Writing Can Cut the Cake (But It’s Not Always Sweet)

Channeling emotion to drive your creative writing can be a two-way street: Writing fueled by emotion can pulse with the power of realness, show broken skin or broken heart; it’s where you write from being in the game, rather than watching it. But writing from a personal current can also produce florid overwriting, work that’s colored by mawkish hues, or even blindly inaccurate prose that freezes on a fixed point of view. I think focused, emotional writing can smack a ringing bell, but that misdirected emotion in writing can dilute its strengths, making it merely personal.

I was thinking these things because I’m down in my Southern California home town, staying with my parents for a bit. In the last year, my 92-year-old father has fallen deeper into his advanced Alzheimer’s, and is now mostly confined to a bed, only “rising” by means of a hoist that has to be operated by two people to maneuver him into a wheelchair. But he’s still at home, still sloppily able to feed himself, still brightening when people enter his room and greet him, though he’s likely as not to not recognize the greeter.

I’ve written about his condition before, when his diminished capacity wasn’t as advanced, but lately he’s turned a corner, and even if his body lingers, his mind is becoming more ghostly, his world a small, small corner, with dimming light. I again want to write about my father, want to write again about how I never truly knew what he wanted, what his aspirations were, whether he judged his life a good one, if he even did pause to judge it.

Fathers and Sons, Arms Linked, Arm’s Length
I’ve previously touched upon how my father’s manner resembles mine in some ways: a person quick to make a joke, but in the joking also perhaps making a space between himself and others, perhaps more comfortable with a certain distance. I know that is true of myself, but I don’t absolutely know if it’s true of my father, because I never felt intimate enough with him to probe. I know he’s always been a warm man, a reliable caretaker of my siblings and mom, a war veteran, a guy who taught me, to my great pleasure, to play baseball and basketball. But those are thrown-off evaluations, resume-writing; the core of the man is elusive to me.

So, my father, diapered, his country now a small bed, the tv on to keep him “company,” attended by my valiant, near-blind mother, at 87, herself slowing to time’s great watch. And I want to write about it, with emotion, but accurately, with the precision my father is entitled to, not to force anyone (or myself) to feel my discomfort, but just to write with the deserved passion that testifying about someone’s life requires, without twisting the words to torque feelings.

An aside: I’ve been reading my friend Jule Kucera’s blog, where she is recounting the early days with her husband Trent, some years before his untimely death. Her writing is frank, revelatory, vivid and sometimes embarrassing. And undoubtedly painful for her; I can feel its emotional power—and yet there’s still a writerly sensibility and restraint. I appreciate Jule’s model.

Here’s to writing that’s real.