This time the prompt was “FAQs,” or “Frequently Asked Questions.” FAQs pages often show up on web sites, anticipating questions people might have about a product or service. In this case, I had everyone in the group generate a list of questions they sometimes ask, or imagine a character they are working with might ask. Any questions at all. These can be profound, such as “Does God exist?” or ridiculous, such as “Exactly how many colors of cream are in the Ralph Lauren paint collection?” This is a ten minute free write, so the idea is not to think about it too much: just write.
Next, choose three to read out loud, and have everyone read them around the room, out loud, one at a time. Pause shortly between each person to allow images, words or phrases to resonate; this gives everyone a chance to write down anything they hear, or any images that stay with them. Use one of these—or one of your own questions—as the prompt, or as the place to begin. Now write for twenty minutes.
What follows is what I wrote last week.
Do dogs laugh? Do fish think? Did Dad really want all five of us?
Oh, the questions! Does he never stop?
Will anyone else in the family get Alzheimer’s? Can a cat hold a grudge? What’s going to happen to us when we’re old?
He’s so full of idle questions, fear and expectations, without faith or hope or the ability to imagine, so in need of constant reassurance. What do you do with a kid like that?
I feed him a slice of home made chocolate cake, but he just asks for more. And more. And more. He’ll eat himself sick on sweets if I don’t toss them in the compost, and even then, he’ll flip up the green lid and look through the cloud of fruit flies, longingly.
Are we going to get cancer? Will we be robbed in southern Italy? What’s going to happen to Dad?
I can handle the fear, coax him onto my lap, run a hot bath for him, put him on the phone with a close friend: I even medicate him when necessary. I’ve learned how to live with him, but I can’t stand the constant questions. How should I know if Mom fantasized about being childless, if one of my siblings carries the gene for dementia, if that patch of psoriasis is caused by something dietary? Maybe I will be single the rest of my life, maybe I won’t lose weight, maybe my personal trainer will come out of the closet and profess his undeniable love and lust for me.
“Anything’s possible,” I tell him. “You are safe. I am able to take care of us.” But like any inner child, he turns reassurance inside out by asking more questions. How can you be sure? How do you know? When? Why? How? Who? Where? He’s a little journalist, a tiny researcher, more comfortable asking questions than accepting answers. More likely to demand more than to sit back and relax.
When I want to get lost in dreamy window shopping, he wants to know what I’m going to buy and how we can afford it. When I’m in bed with a book, he’s worried about staying up too late. When I have a bad day, a bad date, a loss, a setback, an injury, he sees the end of the world coming. Big black clouds.
“Piccolo,” I sometimes say, when he is tugging at my pant leg, reaching for me, crying. “Piccolo—Little One—stop all this fuss.” And I prop him up on my lap, face him forward; his legs splay over my knees, his warm back rests against my chest. “Look,” I say, and we scroll through the photo albums in our iPhoto library: vacations in warm places surrounded by beautiful men, flowers, good friends, wine and cheese and butter cookies. We look at the brave golden dogs who have comforted and protected us. We see the faces of the neurotic family members who—in spite of everything—make us laugh. “Look,” I say. “Look how lucky we are.”
He likes this. It’s the only thing that seems to calm him down. And for awhile, he’s quiet.