We are hurtling through the absolute country darkness of western Wisconsin: no light pollution, no other cars. There's only the sunburst of our own headlights, illuminating the road just ahead of us, just in time. E M Forster said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night with the headlights on: you can't see your final destination, but you can see enough to make the whole trip that way. The truth is this: I am not getting better. I do not know my destination. All I know is the circle of light just ahead, its shifting geography. And suddenly, more than anything else in the world, I want to write down what I see. Because it isn't a shame so much as a wonder, if only because it's so far away from anything I might have imagined or dreamed. The way my father's life is different from what he had imagined, coming in from the field, coming home from the san, and thinking it was all over for him when, in fact, it was only beginning. It is not that I believe the things that happen to us happen for a reason. I certainly don't believe that things have a way of working out for the best, something I've been told countless times by well-meaning doctors, family members and friends. But I do believe that each of us has the ability to decide how we'll react to the random circumstances of our lives, and that our reactions can shape future circumstances, affect opportunities, open doors. The truth is that I love my life, and to love it fully, I must acknowledge that it could not be what it is had I not fallen ill. And I told my father all of this as we drove toward Minneapolis. I told him how important it was for me to write about his illness, as well as my own.

It was the perfect opportunity for him to say he understood, to tell me I was free to write whatever I wanted, with his blessing. If this had been a fictional scene, he would have done so.

But it wasn't fiction. It was just another moment in the random sprawl that constitutes real life. In fact, several years would pass before he'd phone me one day, without motivation, to say that if I wanted to write about his time in the san, I could do so. I thanked him. He changed the subject. That was in November of 1998. We have not discussed it since.

For years I told myself that I couldn't write about my illness because of the promise I'd made to my father, and the story was so convincing that I believed it whole-heartedly. The truth, which I am gradually learning, is that there are many reasons I did not write about it, and that was only one reason, and another one is this: I wasn't ready. I did not know how.

But I'm learning.

These days, I've been working on a memoir, a geography of illness which is nothing, it turns out, like the logical landscape of fiction – with its linear plot lines and thematic justifications – but which reflects, instead, a terrain that is more like life itself: capricious, frequently truncated, punctuated with false starts and frail promises and unexpected moments of beauty.

There are no explanations. There is no steadying railing of cause and effect.

It's easy to see why someone might think I'm making it all up.

© 1999 A. Manette Ansay

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