(image by Ballantine Books, 2001)
My guest today is Don J. Snyder, author of Of Time and Memory: My Parents' Love Story [Random House, 2001]. Welcome to OpEdNews, Don.
Joan Brunwasser: Of Time and Memory is about love but also about secrets, big ones. What compelled you to write this story?
Don Snyder: It was the winter of 1998 and my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I began to think he would leave this world without me ever knowing who he was really. I mean, the man he was beyond my father. From the time I was a little boy, I felt drawn to understand why he was always gazing off into space, why he seemed to belong to some other world far outside my world. He was just a mystery to me all my life. Then he got sick. I was 48 years old, perhaps feeling that I was nearing the end of my own youth. Time. Time seemed to be running out for us. I mean the time we'd shared, the time when we might have gotten to know each other was almost lost and gone. That seemed profoundly sad to me. I wanted to do something about it. You know, who our parents were before we knew them, and the love story that carried us into the world remains a mystery to most of us. Who were those people in the old black and white photographs?
JB: You discovered all kinds of things in your quest to draw closer to your father. Can you start us off, please?
DS: Yes, of course it took some time but it came down to my father telling me that my mother, the only mother I had ever known, was not my real mother. My real mother was a girl he had been married to for nine months in 1950. And she died sixteen days after giving birth to me and my twin brother. Her name was Peggy. He was her first love and she was his. She was nineteen years old. We went together to her grave for the first time. Then I set out to learn their love story and to write a book about the time they had shared. I spent months tracking down everyone who had ever known her and him when they were young. All the people I spoke with told me they had been told that she died because her heart was not strong enough to bear twins. My father told me the same thing. So that was what I wrote in my book, Of Time and Memory which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999. Soon after the book was published, I was on the Today Show talking about all that I had learned and written in the book. When I went back to my hotel room there was a call from home that a doctor had called me. This was Peggy's doctor. All he said to me was, "I read your book. You got it wrong."
JB: I'm sure that shook you up! So what did you do about it?
DS: I called the doctor and he refused to talk with me. He was very angry about the book. I called him once a week for several months and then I turned away. I had four little children to raise and to provide for. I wrote three more books and a movie. I just buried myself in that work. Of course, I was haunted by the thought that I had failed to write the whole truth in Of Time and Memory. My clothes never seemed to fit me again. I fell into a deep depression that lasted for years. I did my work on these other books and on the movie, but my heart wasn't in that work really. I kept asking my father why Peggy's doctor would have told me that my book was wrong. My father didn't know. He didn't know anything.
The years went by. And then, out of the blue, the doctor called me again and this time he was willing to tell me what had really happened to my mother, his patient, this nineteen year old girl. He laid it out for me. He began with these words-- "I could have saved her life." He had diagnosed her with preeclampsia in the fourth month. And he told her that if her condition worsened he would have to take her baby in order to save her life. She was furious with him.
But in the sixth month when she was very sick, she returned to him and agreed to let him take her baby. He was just going to induce labor. Everyone in town would think she had miscarried. It was a Sunday morning. He was examining her with his stethoscope before the procedure and he heard two hearts beating. Not one. When he told her that she was carrying twins, she refused to let him continue. He said to me, "I sent her home to die. I knew that she would not make it." She carried her babies to full term. He delivered her twins at three in the morning on August 11. Sixteen days later, she died. Right to the end, she believed she would pull through. And she made her doctor promise never to tell anyone what had transpired because she didn't want her twin sons to grow up knowing they had caused her death. She didn't want her husband to know because she was afraid that he would not be able to be a good father if he knew that we had caused her death and that she had chosen us over him.
It was 2007 when I finally knew the whole story. I began then to write a screenplay, a movie that would tell the whole story. I have worked on that screenplay ever since. And on the last night of my father's life, I was alone with him for hours and I told him the whole truth so that he would finally know why he had lost this girl he loved. I was able to tell him before he left this world.
4 month old Don and David's first Christmas
(image by Don J Snyder collection)
JB: How did knowing the true story help you? As a reader, it's difficult to digest. I can only imagine what it might have been like for you. Did it give you closure with your dad?
DS: In a way, I felt like I had fulfilled my destiny as a son, to finally have learned how my mother died and to be able to tell my father so that he finally knew after fifty years. But still, my responsibility as a writer is to carry the whole story, the true story out into the world. And so, until the movie is finally made, I will not be at peace.
JB: What's happening with the movie? You undertook writing the screenplay, correct? Did you have any experience to do that? It's not like writing a book, fiction or nonfiction, from what I understand.
DS: In 2001, Hallmark Hall Of Fame bought the film rights to my novel, Fallen Angel. I had never written a screenplay before but I insisted on writing that script so I could learn to one day write the script for my mother's movie. I locked myself in my room for about seven months and studied all the great scripts. That was how I learned. A screenplay in its finished form is around 100 pages. I wrote 3,762 pages before I finally finished my mother's script which I am calling A Way Home. Right now, it is with Joely Richardson who starred in my movie, Fallen Angel. She has a 20 year old daughter who is just beginning her acting career and who would play Peggy. So I am hoping Joely and her daughter will "attach themselves" to my script so we can then seek the financing to make the movie independently.