Monday, February 17, 2014

Author Spotlight: Pamela Gerhardt

Lucky That Way, a nuanced, richly engaging memoir, chronicles the joys and tribulations of a daughter who rediscovers her father as he nears the end of his life.  Ernie Gerhardt, an artist and teacher, is largely estranged from his five children, but when he suffers a debilitating stroke, his daughter Pamela must fly to Las Vegas to tend to him. When she arrives to find Ernie newly and shockingly fragile, she is hit by an unexpected wave of tenderness.  Pamela Gerhardt’s heartfelt story about a family coming to terms with their aging father’s illness and imminent death takes readers on an emotional roller coaster that highlights love, loss, humor, and sadness. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
As the post-stroke journey was unfolding I kept thinking about the emails and cell phone calls as my family tried to manage my dad's care long distance. My siblings and I at the time, like many contemporary families, were living in four different cities (St. Louis, MO; Columbia, SC; Washington, DC; and Tampa, FL). Meanwhile, our father had a stroke out in Arizona while on vacation. So logistically it was pretty crazy. And it felt different from when my parents took care of their elderly parents, who lived in the same town, a 5-minute drive away. My dad encouraged me to write it all down. He too recognized the unique contemporary hurdles.

Also, I began to research literature and books already out there on the subject of elderly care and end-of-life issues. I found that the literature fell into two categories: one, how-to books that told you what kind of questions to ask administrators of assisted living facilities or how to find the best at-home caregiver; two, sentimental, very serious stories that perhaps didn't accurately reflect the gritty, sloppy, and sometimes laugh-out-loud aspects of elderly care.  My dad was a very funny man. We were flawed humans grappling with life’s greatest mystery--the final stages of life. I believed many families and readers would benefit from a different kind of story, different from the other books. I wanted to dig deep and share my very personal story until I arrived at the universal. I think I succeeded. The positive reader responses have been overwhelming.

At the end of the day so much more is at stake than knowing the correct questions to ask the assisted living people.

Q:  What was your family like as you were growing up? 
The book highlights some of our funnier moments. My dad would do stuff like plop the head of a GI Joe doll on top of a chicken as he was dressing it for dinner. Both parents were very creative people. My mom was involved in amateur theater and sang. My dad played several instruments and painted and sang. He came from a long line of musicians and singers--so even the grandparents and great uncles played banjos, mandolins, harmonicas and accordions. My parents had a large group of friends who were musicians, singers, photographers, and actors. So that part of growing up was very colorful. At the same time, my dad could be difficult. As with many artists, he struggled with his own demons at times. After my mom died 25 years ago, those demons took on a more forceful role and hindered his relationships with his children. We realized that my mom had probably been the glue that held it all together.

Q: Was it difficult to write about your father?
No. He had a big personality so it was easy to recall his funnier moments and convey his rich personality. During the post-stroke journey, under his encouragement, I literally wrote everything down and kept copious notes. I knew I wanted to remember exactly what took place, to remember the small details and moments that created the larger story. The only part that was difficult was struggling to get it right. You want to be accurate and fair. You want to be sure that your individual perception is not skewing the information. We all go through that process of recalling family memories and wondering if the story is right. It’s a little bit like several people witnessing a car crash or some other event and they tell the police officer completely different versions of the same story. Perception is a powerful thing. So I tried hard to be fair and objective, to tell the truth--the real truth.

Q: Is there anywhere that readers can go to see some of your father’s artwork?
I currently have a few photos of his paintings on my website, I plan to upload some more photos. Unfortunately, all of the best paintings have been sold. So some of the best works are hanging on the walls of strangers. I have asked some people if they would be interested in selling the paintings back to the family. All of them say no. It’s fascinating--the paintings are a part of their family story. People have told me how they grew up staring at my father’s painting over their family room fireplace. They have more right to the work, more memory attached to it, than I. My dad worked quickly, and sold his paintings quickly. He had five children to feed and clothe. I just completed an essay about this idea of bits of my father on the walls of others and sent it to The Huffington Post. I’m waiting to hear from the editor.

Q: What would your father think about the book?
Oh, boy. He would love it. Absolutely. He would love the attention, and I hope he would find that I did him justice. His friends have told me that he would have been very pleased.

Q: What books or projects are you working on now?
I am writing essays. I just sent one to the The Huffington Post and one to The New York Times.  My past work has been published frequently in The Washington Post (you can find past articles and essays on my website). I teach narrative nonfiction at The University of Maryland, an advanced writing course for juniors and seniors, which I love.  In terms of book projects, throughout the stroke journey I became very curious about why no one has ever written about the assisted living experience from a first person perspective. Why are there no stories from the inside, from people living it? So I’m very interested in putting together a Studs Terkel type book (as in his book, Working) where I interview people, transcribe their stories, and let them speak in first-person. Showtime recently ran a documentary reality series called Time of Death. It was fabulous, but brutal to watch, as it highlighted the final weeks, days, and hours of people with terminal illnesses. I would be interested in hearing from people who are not necessarily terminal, but approaching the final years.  People who are in relatively good health but know time is running out. What’s it like when you know, statistically, you have only a short time left? Maybe we would be surprised. Maybe it’s not as horrible as we fear.  For several decades now we’ve been obsessed with youth. At the same time, the advent of modern medicine and ICUs cloak the end-of-life experience, hide it from the everyday. But hospice, palliative care and the growing home-aide industry are ushering some of that experience back into our living rooms.  As a society we are slowly moving away from Death Denial (an actual term). The Baby Boomers, a huge segment of the population and a generation accustomed to self-reflection, might really benefit from shared experiences as they face aging.