Before I was a writer, I was a reader; just like every other writer on the planet. My parents, while not particularly educated people, were voracious readers, and I think that’s a trait that was both nature and nurture. There was never a time when there was not a book, usually marked with either a matchbook cover or a page torn out of the T.V. Guide (let thee not dog-ear the pages of a book to mark it, lest thee be beaten within a half inch of thy life) on the arm of my Dad’s easy chair. It always seemed to me, in my six-year-old imagination, that those books were friends, who were patiently waiting at my old man’s elbow to be picked up and carry on an important conversation.
I was not a particularly smart kid, but in a house so well inhabited by books, I could not help but emulate my parents and read with a healthy appetite. Reading was a habit that was rewarded, and in a time when we did not have a lot of money, my old man was always willing to take me to the second hand bookstore and reach into the pocket of his battered Levis to spend fifty cents or a dollar on a book I fancied.
As I grew, my reading habits changed and it was a significant rite of passage – in my own mind, anyway – when my old man handed me one of his own books to read.
I was eight or nine years old, and had just finished tearing through the most recent middle grade book I’d pulled from the thrift store shelves, and was standing in front of the shelf built into the wall of our living room reserved for my Dad’s books. I was running my finger over the wide, crinkled, paperback spines – or the less plentiful glossy hardcovers – when my old man stood behind me.
“You need something to read, squirt?” he asked. (He addressed me as squirt, even when I had four inches and ninety pounds on him.)
I shrugged, in the non-committal way pre-teen children do when addressed with a question they’re not sure about; I wanted to read one of my Dad’s books, but they were all so thick, and intimidating. I imagined the conversations with those books would be in voices so deep I’d be unable to comprehend the meaning.
My Dad crossed his wiry arms, then rubbed a nicotine stained finger across his stubbly chin. Finally, he reached to the top shelf and pulled green book out of a tightly-packed row. The spine was so bent, folded into nearly a crescent shape, that it was illegible, but the cover said “Eyes of the Dragon”, and below that, “Stephen King”.
“Try this one,” my Dad said as he handed to me. “And if you tell your mother I gave it to you, I’ll kick your ass ‘til your head rattles.”
I clutched the book to my chest like a golden prize, or perhaps a game winning football. I felt as though I’d been handed a one way ticket to a promised land, like an invitation to move from the kiddie table at Christmas dinner and sit with the adults. I scuttled into my room, switched on my bed-side lamp, and opened the crackly spine and began to turn the frayed, yellow pages.
I finished that book in a handful of days, reading every moment that was not engaged with something vitally important. After I finished that book, I replaced it (with the aid of a short stool), and pulled out the next one in line. Within a year I’d torn through every Stephen King title on the shelf with enough understanding that I could talk to my Dad about his favourite books. “The Shining” was his favourite, maybe because he’d struggled with alcohol the same way Jack Torrance did (my old man referred to himself as an alcoholic, although was “on the wagon”, so to speak, and never had a drink in my lifetime). Regardless of the title, we would always read it, one after the other, and then discuss it, weighing whether it was Stephen’s best book or his worst, and anxiously await the next one.
Since then, I have always associated Stephen King with my father. They were nothing alike, except that they were from the same generation (born a few months apart) and both liked scary stories, but I could not think of King without thinking of my Dad. Even long after I’d grown up and moved away from home, whenever I walked through a bookstore, and saw the latest King title, I could not help but think fondly of my old man.
At the end of my Dad’s life, he was very ill. In the months before his passing he was in so much pain, that exhausting kind of pain that leaves you energy for nothing other than being miserable, that he didn’t even have the strength to hold up a book. I think it was when he stopped reading that I knew my father was going to die.
When my mother called me and told me he’d been taken to the hospital by ambulance, I knew the end had arrived. I had bought him a copy of “Doctor Sleep”, a sort-of sequel to “The Shining”, and it was sitting on a shelf in my living room, waiting for the next time I saw him. I picked up the book and dropped it on the back seat of my truck, thinking that if he didn’t have the energy to read, perhaps he would have the energy to listen.
When I arrived at the hospital (several hours after I left my house), I found that he was past the point of listening. He was not yet gone, but within an hour of my arrival he had shuffled off this mortal coil. At one point, during the final moments of his life, I was alone with my Dad while my mother was making a couple of calls, and my wife was holding her arm to keep her upright.
As I watched my Dad, alive but uncomprehending, I realized I still had “Doctor Sleep” in my hand. I had already said the things I needed to say to him, told him the things I needed him to know, and in order to fill the silence in that small hospital room, I opened the book, leaned close, and read him the first page.
The first page is as far as I got, because my wife and my mother returned, and the end followed swiftly behind them.
When I returned to my own home, I put “Doctor Sleep” back on its spot on the shelf and didn’t touch it again. It has been over a year since my father’s death, and I have looked at that book countless times, but I have not been able to pick it up. I felt like there some kind of connection between that book and my Dad, and if I were pick it up and read it the connection would be gone. Lost forever.
It was my Dad’s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and he has been on my mind a lot. I have missed him every day since his death, but his birthday, for whatever odd reason, hit me harder than any other day, and I have felt a distinct ache in the center of me that nothing will soothe.
Last night I was standing in front of my bookshelf, scanning my “to be read” pile, finding nothing I was particularly interested in. I picked up a couple different books, read the first few pages, and then put them back, because nothing was hitting quite right. As my gaze wandered, and I grew more frustrated, my eyes landed on “Doctor Sleep”.
I looked at it a long time before I finally picked it up.
I sat on the couch, beside my wife, opened the book and began to read. While I had previously believed the magic in that book lived in its unexplored mystery – the beginning of the final thing I would ever share with my Dad – I quickly realized the wonder in that book was between the pages. The story, in itself is not magical – it is not a bout of brilliance that exceeds any other book that Stephen King has ever written – but it is familiar. And it is that familiarity that makes it magic.
Between the lines of script, I see my Dad. I hear his voice. I feel the rumble of his laughter in the story’s subtle jokes. In the picture of Stephen King on the back cover, I see a ghost image of my father, and it makes my heart glad. I am happy, now, to be reading this book. It makes me feel a little closer to my Dad’s memory; the last thing we are able to share.
As I read the story, I cannot help but think of my own, often neglected, storytelling. I have been doing well, lately, with my own work; an agreement has been reached with my publisher for my second novel, and I’m currently working on the first, heavy round of edits. But, as I experience “Doctor Sleep”, and through its pages feel so close to my Dad, I feel as though I should be doing more.
It is not just this singular story that has given me this experience- it is the greater body of Stephen King’s work that made me feel close to my Dad when I was a kid, and keeps me close to him now. Is it reasonable for me to hope that I, too, will one day effect someone the way that Stephen King is currently effecting me?
I suppose the hope is reasonable, but the actual doing of it will take a lot of work.
As always, thanks for reading.