By Stacey Dresner
In 2015 Lesléa Newman publishedI Carry My Mother, a book of poetry about the final years of her mother ‘s life.
Now she has written I Wish My Father, poems about her late father, and the very different journey she went through with him before his death at the age of 90 in 2017. The book was published on Jan. 2 (Headmistress Press).
The poems in I Wish My Father begin at the point where Newman’s mother died in 2012. It shares how Newman’s father dealt with the loss of his beloved wife after 63 years of marriage and how hard he fought against losing his independence as he aged.
Northampton-based Newman is the author of 75 books for readers of all ages, including A Letter to Harvey Milk; October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; The Boy Who Cried Fabulous; Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed; and Heather Has Two Mommies, the first children’s book to portray lesbian families in a positive way. She has followed that up with several more children’s books on lesbian and gay families: Felicia’s Favorite Story, Too Far Away to Touch, Saturday Is Pattyday, Mommy, Mama, and Me, and Daddy, Papa, and Me.
Newman recently spoke to the Mass. Jewish Ledger about her new book of poems and how they
JEWISH LEDGER: After writing your 2012 book of poetry, I Carry My Mother, was it just a natural, automatic thing to then to write a book of poems about your father?
LESLéA NEWMAN: I absolutely knew I would write a book about my dad because he deserved a book just like my mom deserved a book, They were both very supportive of my writing and they were both, obviously, such important people in my life. But even not being my parents, they were just very interesting people, very strong personalities, very opinionated, a little stubborn – they were great source material.
JL: Your father passed away in 2017 at the age of 90. What exactly did he die from?
LN: My opinion is that he died of a broken heart. Nobody knows why he died, he was just found in this room. He had been to the doctor the previous week for his annual checkup and received a clean bill of health. I think he was just ready. As it says in one of the poems, when he moved into Independent Living he wasn’t very happy. He said, ‘Eh, I’ll give it a year.’ And he died just short of a year moving there.
JL: How has your view of aging changed after watching your parents go through all that they did as they got older?
LN: You know, my parents’ journeys were each so different. My mother’s journey was completely physical in terms of her illness. She had COPD and cancer but her mind stayed completely intact. And my dad stayed physically fit; he was playing tennis until he was 88, and driving. But he was having these episodes that kept compromising his mental capabilities… I just kept thinking, which would I prefer? Obviously, I’d prefer neither, but each situation was painful in its own unique way.
I felt it was a blessing that I had the time and resources to be able to spend a lot of time with my parents and care for them.
I don’t regret one minute that I spent with them.
And frankly, it’s also made me think about the fact that I don’t have children and who is going to do this for me? It’s a scary thought. But also, I know … it’s not a reason to have kids. It’s a little too late to change my mind. But it just made me think about ‘the world’ having to take care of me in whatever way that’s meant to be.
But it’s a privilege to be with someone for the last two years of their lives and witness what they’re going through and their strengths, their vulnerabilities, their regrets.
JL: Did writing these poems help you to heal?
LN: It definitely helped me. I don’t know if ‘heal’ is the word I would use. I don’t know if I will ever be healed from losing my parents.
But it helped me process what I went through. Writing is what I do. It helps me understand the world outside of myself, the world inside of myself, and the relationship between the two. So writing in some ways, saved me.
I felt when writing each book that my parents were keeping me company in a way and I was surprised that a very hard thing for me was when I finished each book because then I felt like I had to let go of my parents all over again. However, when I give readings from the book, which I do now only online, via Zoom, of course, it brings me a lot of joy because I feel like I’m sharing my parents with the world and keeping them alive in that way.
JL: What has been the response to these books from people who are going through the same thing with their aging parents?
LN: The book I Carry My Mother came out in 2013 so I heard from many people all kinds of reactions, from ‘I couldn’t put it down. I read it from cover to cover and then started it again,’ to ‘it was so painful to read I had to read one poem and then wait a day, and maybe read another poem the next day.’ People have very emotional responses and I am anticipating it will be the same with the book about my dad.
JL: Your father sounds like he was quite a character. How would you describe him and your relationship?
LN: We were always very close. I have two brothers, so I am the girl, and I’m definitely a daddy’s girl. I take after him in many ways. I’m a type A personality like he was. I’m a go-getter in terms of my career like he was, and I hope I exemplify some of the qualities that I admired in him, such as his generosity and his kindness.
JL: He sounds like a character.
LN: He had a great sense of humor and he was charming. I never met a person who did not love my father. He was very charismatic.
JL: The poems detail your father’s dementia. How difficult was that to go through and to write about?
LN: That was excruciating, I have to say. That was much worse than my mother’s illness because my mother’s brain and personality and take charge attitude stayed intact, so she could tell me what she wanted. And my job was to follow those requests even when I didn’t agree with them as long as she was safe.
My father really lost the ability to make decisions that were safe for him… He continued to drive long after he should not have been driving… and [it was difficult knowing] how to negotiate that.
And also, he was a widower. He had my mom and they were a team and they each had their own mold in their marriage, which worked for them for 63 years. So, you know, my dad couldn’t cook; he couldn’t do the laundry, so I had to hire someone to do those things for him.
He of course thought he didn’t need that. So, you know, there was much more friction between my dad and me because I had to negotiate ways to take care of him without make him feel emasculated and treating them like a child. And that was hard.
The publishing of these poems is very bittersweet. I did get to show I Carry My Mother to my father. And that was a very emotional moment as you can imagine. He read the book from cover to cover, and used an entire box of tissues, and kept telling me how brave he thought I was to write something like that – I’m not sure why he thought it took a lot of bravery. But he loved it and was very proud of it. Of course when this book came out I couldn’t show it to my mother because obviously she had passed first, so that was very emotional.
They’re both gone. In a way, I couldn’t fully grieve my mom because right after she died I had to really go into caretaker mode and take care of my dad. And now that they’re both gone. There is an emptiness. Their absence is present with me every day.
For each copy of I Wish My Father purchased on Newman’s website, she will make a donation to Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, an organization loved by her father. To order go to: https://lesleanewman.com/books-for-adults/poetry/i-wish-my-father/