Through her new book, In the Backyard: Relearning the Art of Aging, Dying and Making Love (Guernica 2018), Mary Melfi attempts to make sense of life, and answer the big questions that arise when we are faced with the nasty realities of poor health and unrealized aspirations. Recently, she sat down with Accenti to talk about her work and her life after the death of her beloved husband (and in-house therapist), psychologist George Nemeth.
What inspired you to write this memoir?
I never actually sat down and decided now is the time to write a memoir titled In the Backyard which focuses, in large part, on love and loss. When I started the book (about 12 years prior to its publication) my husband was in good health. I had no idea at the time that I would eventually be writing about death and dying. What interested me back then was how I could learn to deal with the difficulties and challenges of getting older. I wanted to age gracefully, but frankly I couldn’t do it. So I turned to my husband, George Nemeth, a psychologist, for help. I didn’t expect to write a memoir, nor did I expect to write a self-help book. But I was on the look-out for information on how to cope with the fact that I wasn’t young anymore. To be a woman in today’s world means having to contend with cultural ideals of being forever young, and of course, forever thin, which can wreak havoc on one’s psyche. Feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, ashamed and admittedly defeated by the natural aging process, I felt compelled to write about all this. So perhaps Terror with a capital T was the motivating force behind the need to write about this not-so-adventurous adventure called aging.
Why is this a story that needs to be told?
This makes me think of another question, which is: “Why do fools fall in love?” Because, well, it is what it is – fools fall in love, birds sing, and writers foolishly keep building nests out of words, hoping someone will come round and think they are of use. Some memoirs revolve around great feats performed by great men and women, providing wonderful accounts of what it is like to be exceptional. My memoir is not such an account. It touches on subjects that many women over fifty experience. It details the difficulties and challenges of losing a partner, and then looking for that second chance at love. It’s an old story, but hopefully I told it well enough that it will retain a reader’s interest.
Writers must be careful not to confuse fact with fiction when they draw on personal experience for inspiration. What creative liberties did you take in writing this memoir; if any?
Can one tell a satisfying story without using one’s imagination? Personally, I think it can be done and the reason is simple – truth is stranger than fiction. On any given day an individual’s life can range from wonderful to terrible, or vice versa. Stories simply document what goes on around us all the time. Half the conversations recorded in my book are with my late husband. At last count, the dead don’t speak. Obviously, these conversations are “imagined.” That said, the events I write about in my book are true. My husband did get diagnosed with “terminal cancer” but managed to surprise the doctors by living as long as he did with the disease – nine years. Did I exaggerate his love for me? I don’t think so. Did I exaggerate the grief I felt when he died? I don’t think so. Did I take steps a year after he died to find another partner, and did I find one? Yes, I did.
How do you make sure not to fictionalize your own experience as you write it?
While all the events recorded in the book are based on fact, I did edit certain conversations I had with my friends. My aim was to get at the essence of the conversations, rather than record word-for-word dialogue. Also, I might have inadvertently given a somewhat “idealized” portrait of my late husband. And the reason for this is not because I wanted to brag about what a great man he was, but rather, because in the book, he is presented as a psychologist. He is more than just the fellow I ate and slept with. He is the therapist to whom this wounded creature called Mary Melfi looks for healing. What I wrote about is a common enough experience. Most women and men over a certain age have to deal with the loss of a loved one, and it hurts like hell. We do our best to mitigate the hurt. And that is, I suppose, what In the Backyard is all about – how to mitigate the hurt.
Where does a writer cross the line between embellishing and fabricating?
A memoir is classified as non-fiction and so it’s assumed that everything in it is factual. The question is – is there a difference between fact and fiction when it comes to how one remembers specific events? Memory tends to distort reality, rather than clarify it. Is it possible I failed to remember correctly what happened in certain events I allude to in my book? And the answer is, yes. Even though I had no intention of misrepresenting what occurred, I may have inadvertently misremembered and/or misunderstood a few things here and there. Memoirists are supposed to strive for honesty, and avoid the use of “composite” characters, and while this is laudable, the fact remains that if one is writing about “real” people, one can’t simply report everything they say without fear of hurting their feelings or worrying about being sued for libel. When I extracted bits of conversations I had with female friends, I had to be very careful in how I described what took place. I value my friendships and the last thing I had wanted to do was jeopardize my relationships with them. Often, it’s assumed that what a memoirist includes in his or her book is an embellishment of what took place, but in fact, it could also be the opposite. What’s included could be pared down, and could easily be less dramatic and less interesting than the real story. It might be immoral for a memoirist to embellish and fabricate a story, but it’s just as immoral for a memoirist to tell the truth and hurt those whom he or she loves. I think it’s possible to write about an ordinary life and make it appealing to a reader. A memoirist doesn’t need to embellish or fabricate to tell an interesting story. Still, while honesty is essential when writing a memoir, the problem is that memory can’t be relied on to give an honest account of anything, let alone one’s own life. Memories do their best to hide the truth from us. It shouldn’t be so, but often it is.
What are the responsibilities of children and parents to one another when they grieve the loss of a loved one?
This is a question I dare not answer. Grief by its very nature tends to isolate individuals and, no matter how much love one receives, it does not necessarily mitigate the bad feelings. The emotional wounds are so deep that one really needs professional care. As I am not a professional, I cannot offer an opinion on the subject. However, as I have done research on the subject, I can relate the information I gathered. Grief counsellors suggest one has certain responsibilities towards those who have lost someone: 1) they should not treat the bereaved as if something unnatural or disgraceful has happened; 2) they should not avoid the bereaved or fall silent when they enter the room unless they indicate they want to be left alone, 3) they should clearly acknowledge what has happened, 4) they should not say everything will be OK (it might not be), and 5) they should allow the bereaved to express their pain. Personally, what I found to be of help in coping with my husband’s death was participating in a grief counselling support group. This might not work for everyone but it did help me. Experts in the field believe that we all have powers of resiliency. The bereaved can rebound from hardship and grief, and lead gratifying lives, albeit with some scars to show for their experience.
Where do you think we go after we die?
I would like to think we all go to heaven – a place as real as the one we’re currently inhabiting, except it’s new and improved. I would like to think the Christian version of the afterlife is the correct one, with the exception that no one (not even those on death row) go to Hell, as there is no Hell. Some mystics have proposed the idea that living on this planet is our purgatory. That’s an attractive idea.
How have your thoughts on that changed since completing your memoir?
My thoughts on where we go after we die have changed over time. Since completing the memoir, and more specifically since my husband died, I want to, more than ever, believe that heaven is for real. But just my wanting to believe it doesn’t mean I truly do. My thoughts on the afterlife change from month to month, week to week. Some days I am convinced life as we know it is a run-of-the-mill fairy tale, and because it is, everyone gets their happily-ever-after, if not in this life, then in the next. However, there are some other days when I am not so certain life as we know it is a run-of-the-mill fairy tale; at times it feels more like a horror story. I wish I could be certain heaven is for real, but I can’t say I am. I have my doubts, but on the other hand, when I am strolling about in a garden my doubts dissipate. Unlike walking out of a space shuttle and beholding the splendor of the planet from above, walking out the back door of my house and into my backyard poses no risks whatsoever, and the experience still evokes wonder. Actually, it doesn’t have to be my garden; strolling about any garden evokes wonder. And because Mother Nature never fails to surprise and delight me, my faith in God (the mighty Magician) is renewed. And as soon as that happens, I start to consider the possibility that no one dies – our souls simply jump out of bodies and head towards some other dimension – what we call heaven for lack of a better word. When I am in a garden, I am certain that life is beautiful and because it is, then heaven has to exist. How the two are related, I’m not sure, but that’s what gardens do to me – they fuel my optimism. Gardens are places of refuge; they take away the torment of feeling out of place, lost, broken, imperfect, messed up. When I am in a garden, any garden, I believe no one dies; we all end up in a perfect world where everyone has a house and a garden and plenty of people to love.
Liana Cusmano is Accenti editor-at-large.