Lisa Romeo, a member of the founding faculty of the Bay Path University MFA program, is a manuscript editor and consultant. Her work has been listed among Notables in Best American Essays 2016 and has appeared in The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, Brevity, and Hippocampus. A former equestrian journalist, competitive rider, and public relations specialist, Romeo lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss is her debut book. Janet Irvin spoke with Romeo about her memoir, which begins with her father's death but also includes the poignant details of his decline into dementia.
Janet Irvin: Lisa, there is so much to talk about. Let's begin with the inception of your memoir. When did you first entertain the idea of writing about your father?
Lisa Romeo: The morning after my father's death, I found myself writing about him. First, it was just the usual—obituary, eulogy—while I was on the airplane. Then, while I was still at his and my mother's house (they lived in Las Vegas; I live in NJ), I couldn't sleep, kept wandering the house, and went to my notebook. A lot of what I wrote were just random notes and screeds; I was so angry about how quickly he declined, about the way his doctors handled his care, and more. Soon, I was writing rough drafts a bit more seriously. I didn't know then what I would do with it all, only that I would do something.
The book didn't begin until about six years later, after I had published many short-form pieces in various places, print and online, about my grief experience, about our relationship, about trying to get to know my late father all over again. For a few years, I tried to create a linked essay collection, but eventually saw that it needed to be a more traditional narrative memoir. So that meant a rewrite/revision.
JI: Writing memoir seems like such a brutal process—risky, scary, exhausting. Does the need to tell the story overpower the desire to keep things inside?
LR: To me, the inclination to keep things inside subsides and feels less scary when I get the emotions and the bones of the narrative all down in the early draft—all the stuff that may seem risky to reveal then simply becomes an essential element and the power of story takes over and becomes more important. Also, I simply feel better once I have it all on the page, so that those disparate details are no longer clanging around my brain. For me, the exhausting part is then shaping the story by deciding what to leave out. I'm an over-writer, so it's always a matter of (sometimes drastic) condensing and/or deletion.
JI: You write about constructing a eulogy for your father's funeral; you actually wrote and presented two. In what ways does Starting With Goodbye become the third of these deliveries?
LR: Ah, interesting that you put it that way. I actually had a line like that at one point in my book proposal. Now I tend to think of the book more as a thank you letter to my father. Although of course it's meant for other people to read, in my heart I imagine the book as something private between us. What I like to think it has in common with the very best eulogies is that it doesn't put the deceased person on a pedestal or regard him as a saint of some kind. To me, the most interesting eulogies honor a naturally flawed human being and draw something from the life that person lived which can inspire, teach, or at least entertain others.
JI: After your father dies, you discuss having conversations with him, a recurring feature in the second half of the memoir. Did the act of writing itself become one of those conversations?
LR: Yes, exactly! Many times, when I was at the keyboard, it felt as if I was talking to him rather than writing about him. Sometimes after I'd type a few lines, I'd find myself saying them out loud and "listening" for a reaction!
JI: As your father's Alzheimer's progresses, you describe him "seesawing" in and out of reality. Does the structure of Starting With Goodbye feel a little like that to you?
LR: I didn't have that in mind quite so precisely as I was writing early drafts, but certainly as I began to revise and shape the later drafts, yes that was one of my intentions. I wanted the rhythm, dialogue, and story movement to create a kind of ping-pong sense in the reader. As if we were moving around in time in ways that both mimic and honor the reality of those who are experiencing memory problems—and their loved ones who are attempting to interact with them. I'm glad it seemed to work!
JI: When you revisit the memories of your childhood, you seem to search for those moments when your father was most present for you. How much do we, as grown children, desire to craft our parents' stories to match our needs?
LR: Quite a lot, I'd say, and it's one of the things we have to be careful of when writing memoir and/or personal essay that involves our family of origin, our childhood, and the parts of our parents' lives that we weren't able to witness. If anything, I think I overcompensated for this by also including many details about some of the times and ways when I felt distant from my father, both as a child and adult. Memoir demands we scratch below the surface of the obvious happy memories or the most hurtful unhappy memories and ask ourselves about those that fall between. Often that's where the more interesting aspects of the relationships lie.
JI: The relationship between father and daughter is such a special one. What clarity did the book bring to you? How do you think your memoir can help other daughters understand their complicated fathers?
LR: Writing Starting With Goodbye made me remember how a father is usually a girl's first crush, her first exposure to a male adult in a marriage, her first idea of what she wants to move toward or move away from.
I think it's important at some point in adult life to develop an appreciation for parents as individuals as well as "mother" or "father." Writing the book helped me further try to understand who this man was, separate from being my father, as well as what kind of a father he was able to be, given factors in his upbringing, personality, and circumstances.
If the book is in any way helpful in coaxing other daughters to investigate their relationships with a father who perhaps was difficult to know, that would be wonderful. I'm certainly no expert, but if I can offer any small bit of advice, it would be to slow down and start by asking who he was in the larger, broader sense. That helped me—beginning from the wider angle, and then when I understood more, seeing how that influenced the father-daughter scenario.
As close family and friends have read advance copies, they've shared memories that I had forgotten. I suppose that will continue to happen, and I'm glad the book spurs those conversations for me, and perhaps it might for others remembering their own fathers.
JI: Now that the memoir is finished, do you have any lingering doubts or regrets about the writing itself or the episodes you recount? Is there anything you would change?
LR: In general, I don't overthink or regret what I've written. It's done and must stand on its own. I do try to learn something from the process. I wish I'd known earlier on that I'd want to talk more with the very old people who were still around and could have shed more light on my father's younger life. By the time I realized that I could have benefitted from their stories, they were mostly gone. There's a lot in the book about how much we traveled when I was a young girl, and had I the budget and time, I would have loved to revisit some of those places.
JI: Of all the places you visited with your parents, which is the most memorable?
LR: That changes depending on what spurs the memory! In the winter, I fondly recall all the warm places—Southern Italy, Bermuda, St. Thomas, Southern California. Spring will always remind me of Miami Beach, where we spent every Easter week for about ten years. When I hear classical music, I think of Austria. A fluffy down comforter brings me back to Switzerland. A lot of popular music from the 1960s and 1970s brings me back to [musical] showrooms in Las Vegas. Even as a young child, my parents rarely left me behind, so I'd be watching Ann-Margret, Mac Davis, or The Supremes live, right along with them, even late at night. I'd listen for a while then put my head down on the table and sleep!
JI: Which incident was the most difficult to write about? The most interesting? The most heartwarming?
LR: The most difficult to write about was the emotional weight of not having been physically there more often in his final months. Hindsight made me forget the realities and accuse myself of selfish behavior. That was hard to process.
Most interesting was probably when I was writing about his youth and early adulthood and discovering all the ways that his background contributed to how he conducted himself as a husband and father. Everything is so much more connected than we think!
I had the most fun writing about events from my earlier life when my father's involvement made a big difference—how he financed and supported my equestrian dreams, college education, fledgling ventures as a freelance writer. And writing the handful of childhood experiences that made their way into the book, especially the travel sequences, really did warm my heart. Like the scene when we were trying to get through customs after an extended European trip, which I, a too-honest nine-year-old, made much more difficult!
JI: You indicate that a number of the chapters were published prior to the whole. As a writer, can you share the process you used to incorporate those essays into the broader scope of the project?
LR: A number of essays were published over several years and many of them became the foundation of certain expanded chapters or passages. At first, I thought it would be as simple as laying out the essays in a pleasing order and then writing connective tissue. It was much harder than that! The process felt more like I was building an entire city when I thought I had a shipment of prefabricated houses to count on, only to find I had to first deconstruct each one and rebuild from parts.
I'd go looking for sections in essay A that worked with (thematically or chronologically connected) sections of essays B and D; then search through essays C, F, and G to see what else might be related; then ponder how and where to put those pieces into place, while simultaneously getting it to all work within the larger narrative arc. But once I decided on an outer chronological frame—from three months before his death until about two-and-a-half years after—that helped me understand what could stay and what had to go.
JI: What's next up on your writing projects list?
LR: For book number two, I'm mulling three very different ideas based on some new essays. One of them I hope will grab me enough. It does feel like time to begin anew, much like in a scene near the end of Starting With Goodbye, when it felt right that my days talking to my dead father were winding down: "I keep thinking: it's okay now to move on. Move past the mental bridge, cross that midline."