It's Not About the Book
The story of Life's Undercard
Michael’s grad photo
It was Mother’s Day, and I called Michael to see if he wanted to come to my house to write since our usual spot, the local library, was closed. We had been having difficulty making progress on his memoir during the pandemic. Usually, he’d write a longhand stream-of-consciousness in notebooks, and I’d organize his thoughts and transcribe them. This tedious process bore the fruit of friendship and the bond of shared sacrifice.
As usual, he started our conversation with, “Where are you?”
But he didn’t wait for a reply.
“Instead of working on the book,” he said, “I want to take flowers to Mommy Libby.”
Mommy Libby, as Michael refers to her, isn’t his biological mother but is the woman who raised him. She is buried in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery beside his father.
I was disappointed, but once again, my wife Lizzie reminded me, “It’s not about the book. It’s about the relationship you two have — it’s beautiful.”
For me, it is about the book; that is our relationship. I’m convinced it’s also about the book for Michael, but not in the same way. I want to hold it up and declare, “Michael, your story matters. You’re a published author, and you should be proud!”
I believe he would say, “You were in my corner, and we did it together. That’s what matters.”
While volunteering at a local community centre, I’d been helping adult participants learn how to use the computer or connect with their loved ones online. Being paired with Michael was different. He wanted to learn how to type. When I asked why, he said, “I want to write my life story.”
I was excited, opened a Google Doc, and asked, “What’s your earliest childhood memory?”
Without skipping a beat, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. That would be the incident at Coney Island.”
I typed, ‘Chapter One: The Incident at Coney Island,’ and had a feeling this would be a great story; however, our scheduled session had ended.
Five years later, despite meeting weekly at the community centre’s Adult Development Centre, we still had not written the first sentence of his book.
For the first two of those years, Michael insisted that he learn how to type, but his fingers didn’t work well after years of being taped up in boxing gloves. Michael had wanted to become a professional boxer and fought undercard fights in New York for cash. Practicing typing for one hour a week with me didn’t cut it. He relented and agreed to give it up.
“Finally!” I thought, “We’ll start writing!”
“I need to get my high school diploma first,” he said next.
I was frustrated and complained to my wife that he wasn’t serious about writing his story. That was the first time she told me it wasn’t about the book. Instead, we studied his high-school curriculum every Tuesday at 2 p.m. And we sat together at the community centre’s various get-togethers and holiday parties and became friends.
I learned Michael had been homeless when he was young and how AA had, in his words, saved his life. Three years and three attempts later, he finally passed the math requirement and became a high-school graduate at the age of seventy-five.
Michael’s body was an impediment to our writing progress as well. He had knee replacement surgery, and I called the rehab centre every day for six weeks to check on him and encourage him to endure the pain of physical therapy. When Lizzie and I picked him up to take him back to his place, he introduced me to the nurse as his best friend.
I wasn’t prepared or intending to be his best friend, and I was afraid of what that meant. The sense of responsibility was overwhelming, and I experienced a moment of panic. I didn’t sign up for that. I simply wanted to help him write his story.
Freed from his pain, Michael was eager to restart our weekly meetings. It was wonderful to see him walking without a cane or a limp and with a smile on his face. I was hoping he was ready to start our project.
“I need to take a creative writing course,” he said, “there’s one at Dawson College.” By then, I had learned not to let my expectations get the better of me. I just looked forward to helping Michael with his course assignments — at least, we would be writing.
I remember Michael struggling with one assignment in particular. He was to write a haiku about a film. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ was his choice, but he couldn’t imagine how a full-length movie could possibly be reduced to so few words. After convincing him that haiku was really a thing, he put in the work and finished his poem.
But he didn’t believe in it, and I had to convince him there was no wrong answer — his poem would be as good as anyone else’s. Reluctantly, he handed it in. The professor ultimately chose Michael’s poem to share with the class. That was the day he started writing his memoir.
We went on to participate together in a memoir workshop organized by the Quebec Writer’s Federation at the same local library where we meet weekly.
Life’s Undercard chronicles Michael’s life as a biracial child straddling Montreal’s French and English cultures in the 1940s, from a five-year-old in an orphanage to age nineteen, when he enters St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary. I’ve fallen in love with the kid Michael writes about, his younger self, and Mommy Libby, the Cherokee woman who raised him.
When I watched Michael brush away the debris and gently place the flowers on her headstone, I realized we weren’t just working on a book.
Subscribe for free to get a story every Sunday morning.
Almost as long as I have known Joe, I have followed this story. Volunteering often has many layers and his experience certainly has.
Have a great Sunday, and don’t forget author’s get a little dopamine rush when you hit the ❤️