There’s a lot written about the courage it takes to write, facing the blank page, getting the critic off your shoulder etc. But this is about a deeper courage; my student and friend Nancy Davenport’s courage to finish her memoir while enduring the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. And it’s also about community, the kindness and generosity of people who share and understand the passion and necessity for writing and books.
A few years ago Nancy came to class, her guard up and her Phi Beta Kappa key flashing. Older than most of the other students, she was having health issues, but was determined to write about her life. And she made it clear that she didn’t suffer fools gladly. A few weeks later she brought in a piece to read that began with the words: “The very first thing I remember is the last time I touched my mother.” We were all riveted by her writing; the cool ironic tone she used to tell of a horrific childhood – running away from an abusive father and becoming homeless, and then getting herself into UCLA, earning a graduate degree and that Phi Beta Kappa key. And finally becoming a social worker, dedicating her life to helping abused kids. There was no self-pity in her tale, no victimhood, no grandstanding, just her keen eye and ear, her sense of irony, her wisdom and a born writer’s skill with language.
A year ago, deep into writing about her life, Nancy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With typical nancy humor she said to the doctor, “But I’ve never touched a baseball in my life.” By now her pieces had turned into a full fledged memoir and she still had a number of chapters left to write. The whole class believed her book could be published but we also knew that because of her terrible illness, she didn’t have the time left to shop a manuscript around in New York to agents and publishers. Her dream was to see her memoir published and we suggested that she self-publish it.
As Nancy lost the ability to walk, talk or even swallow she kept writing, determined to finish the book. Two of her fellow students, Barbara Lodge and Jackie Winspear, jumped in to deal with the zillion details necessary to get a book into print. Everyone gave her feedback on the new pages, voted on which of her paintings should be the cover of the book, read her pages aloud in class when she no longer could speak, and many helped with the final edit. They also called 911 for her when she couldn’t breathe. Nancy’s sister, an Episcopal priest, said that writing the book was keeping Nancy alive. When I was out of town last summer I got an emailed photo of Nancy sitting up in a hospital bed, martini in one hand, and giving the camera the finger with the other. We all wrote letters nominating her for the 2006 Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Southern California Personal Achievement award, telling the story of her courage to finish her book – and she won.
Six weeks ago she wrote the last chapter and the book was rushed into production by a wonderful publishing-on-demand company, iUniverse. The first five copies of Eternal Improv arrived last week. Nancy was in the hospital unable to come to a party we’d planned for her, so we took the party to her. Against hospital rules, we all – friends, family, and her fellow students – crowded into her room. We broke out the champagne and toasted her courage and her beautiful book, Eternal Improv. Nancy died four days later.
Read more →