In My Own Words
As the season turns to fall, I find myself thinking of my friend and writing partner, Jon. We both loved the change of seasons afforded us in North Carolina.
Jon fancied himself as the 21st century Peter Pan. He said he was never going to grow up.
However, he accomplished some very grown up things in his too-short life. He made a solemn promise to his partner’s father, Rock, that he faithfully kept. Before Rock died, he pulled Jon close to him and asked for Jon and Lewis, Rock’s son, to leave their lives in New York City and move to Davidson to take care of Eugenia, Lewis’ mother.
Eugenia was blind, and Rock had devoted their later years to her care. He couldn’t bear the thought of Eugenia having to leave their home of almost half a century. Jon, without a moment’s hesitation, made that promise to Rock. They shut down their marketing business and within weeks were living in Davidson with Eugenia. Soon, Jon and Lewis realized that it was Jon who had the patience and temperament to care for Eugenia, so Jon took over being her primary caretaker.
Jon embraced life in his small town, while the adjustment was harder for Lewis, even though Lewis had been born and reared in Davidson. Jon loved that he could walk into town, that he knew all their neighbors, and that the members of Eugenia’s Cornelius Presbyterian Church became a new extended family for him. He felt the power of these interconnections, available to him in ways that he believed the big city never offered him. He also loved his children in the Philadelphia and New Jersey areas, his brothers, sister, mother, and relatives in New York, and he wasn’t about to give them up. He made sure that he saw them as often as possible, which allowed him to settle in fully to life in Davidson.
Eugenia lived eight more years with Jon and Lewis and spent only one night in a hospital at the time of her death. While Eugenia was still alive, Jon and Lewis approached me in the fall of 2003 to work with them on a historical novel, with a fictionalized version of Lewis’ distant relative as the main character. I couldn’t quite figure out how this shared writing would work, but I said I would give it a try. Soon, it became clear that Jon and I would work on the book together full time and Lewis would return to his marketing work for the state.
We wrote almost every day in a tiny room at my house, with me at the computer and Jon in a chair next to me. We never had a real argument, and disagreed strongly only once over a plot device. That’s lots of hours spent jammed in a small space. Before we were done with this manuscript, “The Ninth Parallel,” we could finish each other’s sentences.
As we were writing the sequel to the Ninth Parallel, I told Jon that I had to switch gears, that I had a character pounding in my brain who had to get out. I heard her voice clearly and had to tell her story. Jon thought about it for a few minutes, and then he said, Sure, I would love to write her story with you. Thus, was born “Madame President,” first published in 2011 and republished in 2014. We had a special reason to bring out Madame ourselves when we couldn’t persuade an agent to take us on. Lewis had a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in May of 2010 and he put up a valiant effort for two years to live fully in the moment. Jon, once again, became the caretaker for a dying loved one and he gave it his all. We put Madame in Lewis’ hands in 2011, a joyful day for all of us.
Lewis died in July 2012, never spending even one day in the hospital. With the help of Hospice over Lewis’ final months, Jon provided the way for Lewis to stay at home, with Lewis never having a round-the-clock caregiver, other than Jon himself. Like I said, Jon had grown-up demands on him. Peter Pan would have flown off after the first week of such responsibility.
Jon fought demons in his life. He readily admitted to being a recovering addict, clean since the 1980s. Sometimes, he embellished the truth, probably due to some long ago insecurity, thinking he needed to be seen as somehow more accomplished. The truth is that he was far more accomplished than most any of us. He was diagnosed with chronic, but non-life-threatening illnesses, and all those seemed under control until the spring of 2014. He became depressed over headaches and memory lapses. Finally, he was diagnosed with brain seizures but the medicines to treat this were almost as toxic to him as the illness itself. In July 2014, I went to Jon’s house because he hadn’t returned my calls and texts that day. I found his body that terrible night, where he had fallen and died, perhaps because of a seizure and the effects of medication.
Finding the way to let go of Jon has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done, and I still haven’t quite accomplished it. He was a daily part of my life, and our work together produced two fine novels, of which I am proud. He was funny and quirky and a true political wonk. We talked national and world politics for hours on end. His understanding of the national political scene was encyclopedic, and he could tell me with certainty who would win a race for Congress in an obscure part of any small state. He was my very own Nate Silver.
Even more important, I knew that Jon would do anything for me within his power to do. If I needed a ride to the dentist, he was there. If I were sick, he would bring chicken and dumplings, and he made the best. If I needed company, he would drop what he was doing, and we would grab lunch. I hope he felt and trusted the same friendship from me.
Unlike my mother’s death, Jon’s death was unrequited. He wasn’t finished with life. He had more books to write, and much bigger, he had children and grandchildren to love and watch grow. He had a mother, sister, brothers, nieces and nephews to see through more adventures. He had friends in Davidson and around the country who needed him. He wasn’t nearly done. And we weren’t done with him.
But he is gone. I will pick up the pen and paper and write on now without him, building on some of the characters and stories that we began together, but I can tell you with certainty that it won’t be as much fun. We wrote together for ten years. Over the next years, I bet there will be times in my little upstairs computer room when I will hear his New York accented voice and feel his presence in the words on the page, his grown up, loving presence.
Rest in peace, Jon. I miss you.