I knew more about him than I know about my husband.
That’s what happens when you sit with another person hour after hour for four years, asking to hear the story of their life. Sessions with William felt like a cross between good old-fashioned storytelling and psychotherapy. Weekly, for several hours at a stretch, I’d record his words as he unfolded memories. Occasionally I’d interrupt with a question.
Certainly I’ve never engaged in this kind of rigorous exercise with my husband. Even if I did, there’d be two big differences: William appeared to have almost photographic recall, and he’d experienced enough traumas and stark challenges to make his life an indelible kaleidoscope.
For our book sessions William and I met in the quiet of his daughter’s house while Dorothea was away at work. Why there? William’s dachshund, Eric, was an attack dog. The one time Eric joined us, he bit my ankle as I sat typing. This behavior was typical, said William, and I shouldn’t take it personally. He put the little dog in another room but he barked relentlessly. Eric was a rescue animal that William’s wife asked to adopt in her final years, and he was protective of both her and William. (As William was dying, Dorothea agreed to take in Eric, and he soon became far more sociable. But she keeps Eric away from small children, just in case.)
A number of problems arose during our meetings as William talked and I listened, rapt. The first was my own shortcoming. I was too fascinated by the information pouring out of William. Often I’d return home to realize that I hadn’t asked enough questions. At first I sent my queries in emails and he responded in writing. That was okay but slow going, especially if I had a new set of follow-up questions. I decided to save queries for the start of each meeting. Still, sometimes it seemed as though we might repeat this process endlessly. Nine decades is a long time to live, and I soon saw that I needed to set priorities and focus on the most dramatic periods of William’s life.
The second challenge was that William’s stories could lead us all over the place. While talking about events in his late thirties, he might remember an incident from his teens. The more the picture of William’s life filled in, the more unwieldy the mass of information collected; back at my desk, it became trickier and trickier to find the right spot in which to insert new information in his emerging memoir. Or, during one of our meetings, William suddenly might think about his wife and how dear she was and how remiss he’d been in telling her he loved her. His regret led us into explorations of his depression and loneliness. Or he might describe a recent conversation with his daughter as it related to his personal philosophy, which might cause me to point out that it wasn’t too late to tell Dorothea he loved her. Or he might begin a session by asking for help posting a profile on Match.com that would find him a traveling companion. Or ask for advice about evicting a woman from his home. We might not work on the book at all, but instead go together to the sheriff’s department or to a legal aid office.
The third problem was that William did not often express emotion. He assumed that I’d know how he felt when a particular incident happened. If I asked, he’d say, “scared” or “happy.” After so many hours together, I thought I could imagine the depth of his emotions, but if you didn’t know him, would you? Calling forth the emotional landscape required practice on my part. I needed to be far more intrusive than was my usual habit with others. “What made you finally strike back?” “What did you hear while you were on the train… what did you smell, what did you see?” “What was it about the Reidhead-Harrises that made you feel good … or reassured… or loved?”
It surprised me that William held still for the prodding and never complained. It seemed worth it to him to have his life acknowledged. And, in his grief and loneliness over the loss of his wife, he appreciated a sympathetic ear, someone listening and learning with respect. I believe I gave him that.