Sandell Morse, a fellow at the Vermont Studio Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, currently facilitates workshops for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance and for the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. Her work has appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In her essay “This Is Blood,” Morse recalls a visit to her father’s independent care facility, and her efforts to salvage the tatters of their relationship before it’s too late. Interview conducted by Jasmine Turner.
You provide a portrayal of your father in “This Is Blood” that is sometimes humorous and not always flattering. How did you set out to describe your father in this piece?
That’s an interesting question. I thought about your words “set out.” Originally, I “set out” to write a series of essays about my experience with the health care system. Nearly five years later, I had a memoir about my dad and me. “This is Blood” is an excerpt—with modifications—from that longer work. If I set out to do anything in my work, I set out to write a truthful story. Dad was a complex man, humorous, as you say, but also mean, selfish and controlling. He was also charismatic and charming.
Can you talk a bit more about the project you initially “set out” to do, the one on the health care system? For example, was it intended to be a research-based or more personal series?
I was intending to write a series of personal essays. Yet, I think that nearly every writing project lends itself to research. When I was writing fiction, I was researching. Now, that I’m writing memoir and personal essays, I’m researching. For example, to understand Dad’s strokes, I interviewed a neurologist, read a lot of Oliver Sachs and researched on the Internet. I love learning about what I don’t know. But a writer needs to be careful about that. It’s so easy to fall down into research and wallow around there instead of writing.
How would you describe the voice you used in “This Is Blood”?
Voice is interesting, isn’t it? I’m the storyteller. I’m also a character in the essay. I want my voice to be accessible to the reader, as if we—the reader and I—are sitting together on a couch. I want to bring my reader into my world. I think it’s through voice that a writer does that.
While writing, were you at all concerned about what your father might think if he read it?
Ah, that bird of censorship on my shoulder. Was it Virginia Woolf who spoke of that? I let go of that a long time ago. I reached a point where I said, “This is my work. This is me. I claim both.”
Looking back, how did your father’s illness affect your relationship with him?
The short answer is: His illness was a gift. The longer answer is that Dad’s lingering illness gave us the time to be together in a way we’d never been together for most of our lives. We were kinder to each other. Dad was grateful for my care. I brought him foods he liked to eat—crème brûlée, Ben and Jerry’s chocolate ice cream. Yet, he was broken, so I have no idea what he would have been like if he’d been whole. I became his Jane; he was my Rochester, a relationship that was comforting, but never wholly satisfying.
What sort of difficulties did you face writing about such personal events?
When the essay was ready to send out, I spoke with my three sons, all grown men with families of their own. At that time, I told them I was writing a memoir about my dad and me. I asked if they’d like to see portions of it or if they’d like to read a draft of the whole book before I began sending it out. Each declined, and each expressed trust in my work. What a lovely moment.
Your personality and interactions with others play a role in this piece, and at points you are pretty blunt in your assessments of yourself. How did you approach writing about yourself in this way?
In my work, I strive for a truly human understanding of who we are. I’m interested in emotional inheritance and in the way the past infuses the present. I want to shed new light into the past. How can I do that? By approaching my work with what some may call brutal honesty.
How do you feel about your—and your father’s—experiences with palliative care?
Dad and I both chose palliative care. Any kind of care depends on the caretakers. I found that hospice workers were better than Dad’s non-hospice caretakers with this kind of care. Why? Hospice workers are trained to work with a patient’s family, and they answer questions easily. Hospice is about life, not death. I like that.
What sort of things do you think were lacking in your father’s care, or could have been added to improve his quality of life?
The real challenge with palliative care is integrating both hospice care and non-hospice care. Dad was in two different nursing facilities. In each, hospice workers visited, but most of his care—that 24/7 care—fell to non-hospice staff. Toward the end of Dad’s life, he was on heavy doses of morphine, prescribed by his doctor. Yet, caretakers were often reluctant to give Dad his full dose, and he would end up in unnecessary pain. I found in certain areas, particularly around medication, the traditional approach and the hospice approach were in conflict. This conflict needs to be addressed.
Other than the issue with morphine, Dad’s last months were often pleasurable. We were among the lucky few who could pay for a first-class nursing facility. I brought Dad foods he liked. I wheeled him outside in a reclining wheel chair where we watched ducks and swans on a pond. I brought my two standard poodles to visit him. As I said earlier, in a strange way, Dad’s lingering illness was a gift to us both.
Jasmine Turner, an editorial assistant for Creative Nonfiction, is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying English nonfiction writing, political science and French.