My father tells about a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who gave, year after year, the same final exam: List in order the books of the Bible. Students in pursuit of an easy boost to their grade point averages, of course, clamored for admission to his class. Imagine the chagrin of an unfortunate group he confronted instead, perhaps in a wicked humor, with the much more demanding task, Criticize the acts of Moses. One student, not to be dissuaded, wrote loftily, “Far be it from me to criticize the acts of Moses. Here are the books of the Bible….”
I don’t know whether the student earned his A, but I found myself in a somewhat similar position while being interviewed by a Miami Herald reporter for a story on caregiving published a few years ago. My close friend and media consultant, Beverly, had advised me to stick, no matter what the question, to three main message points about my book. “Just briefly answer whatever the reporter asks,” she said, “then bring the focus back to one of these three ideas.” She gave a few hypothetical examples to demonstrate how easy this would be. She is the same person, I am reminded, who tried many years ago at Topsail Island to teach me how to water ski. “All you do is stand up,” she instructed, “when you feel the tug.”
The reporter was prepared. She had read my book, and she had one main question: “Why did you write it?” I tried to answer this question by toggling back and forth between my message points, and when that effort fell flat, launched into wordy elaborations of them. Unsatisfied, she persisted with dogged determination. “Yes, but why did you write the book?” It was an experience not unlike floundering in the calm waters of a North Carolina bay with boards strapped to my feet, after having been yanked repeatedly for a few miserable yards.
I could sense her confusion at my unwillingness to disclose the whole story. But it’s a difficult story, and I’m well practiced at evading questions about it. I felt disappointed, after we ended the call, in the tepid answers I had given; I decided in a middle-of-the-night epiphany to tell her (and whoever else might be interested) the harder, more personal truth in a blog post the next day. When the article* came out a week or so later, and I unfolded the paper on the dining room table, I was as shocked by the length of it and the focus on my own story as that class of religion students must have been when handed their final. Unlike those students, however, I was grateful — for the reporter’s careful sensitive writing and for the unexpected lift it gave my book launch.
To wrap up, I have three main message points from the among the many reasons I have to be thankful: I’m thankful to have known and loved Wayne Cail, to have shared deeply his life; I’m thankful for the chance to bring any good out of the awful grief of his death; and I’m thankful for friends like Beverly, who have stood alongside me, accepting with great compassion what I’ve faced, and have gone out on a limb many times to help.
*The link is a reprint from the Seattle Times. The original article was in the Miami Herald, Tropical Life, November 15, 2011. I also told the story in more detail in the preface of the book’s new edition.