How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, Part Three
Today’s installment draws a comparison/contrast between Water Signs‘ main male character, Ken Lockheart, and Dr. Joseph Rose, the two most important men in heroine Madeline Rose’s life. As I’ve noted in previous posts, both are representations of the American Dream, though generations apart, and both are based on real people who impacted my life to varying degrees.
Dr. Rose (based on my father) is the offspring of immigrants, and a member of that generation that falls in-between The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. While he himself had been too young too have served during World War II, like my own dad, he certainly knew of those — including close family members and neighborhood friends — who had. Some of these noble men made the ultimate sacrifice, while others were fortunate enough to have returned home safely after honorably fighting for the cause of freedom.
My father did serve in the US Army during the Korean War, although this real-life fact is not obviously noted in the novel. Nevertheless, I grew up in a home that respected the US Military and celebrated traditional American values, quintessential holidays (Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc), and the right of the individual to pursue any path he or she might desire, whether it entail a career in medicine, law, journalism, engineering, graphic arts or countless other noble fields in which one could put their talents and abilities to their best use.
Although my dad was a practicing surgeon, he never imposed his dream on his children. Like my mom, his fervent desire was for each of us to create the life and career of our own choosing. And though his work schedule necessitated an upbringing in which my mother did the heavy lifting in terms of administering discipline, teaching values and prayers, helping with homework, providing transportation to and from extracurricular activities, planning family outings and parties, and otherwise managing all of the duties associated with raising five children (including one with a handicap), when my dad did arrive home, he was completely engaged in the family. (I will devote a separate post to my mom and her character, Monica Rose, both of whom are quite deserving of their own analysis)
Thus, our dinner (when he was able to make it home in time) conversations always centered on what we learned in school that day, what was going on in our lives and yes — what we wanted to be when we grew up. My response as a young child to that last question typically vacillated between: “I’m going to be a novelist!” or “I’m going to be a journalist!” To which my dad would always follow-up with approval and encouragement (Good thing, too, because although I was an excellent student, my obvious strengths were English and the humanities; math and science were a daily struggle and almost always marked the difference between the achievement of First or Second Honors in high school).
Another aspect of my father I didn’t fully appreciate until old enough to understand the pressures of the medical world (including the pervasive, sometimes devastating impact of trial lawyers and government) was that no matter how tough the day had been, he always came through the front door whistling. More often than not, he’d greet my mother with a cheery, “Che fai, Rosie?” and a kiss upon arriving in the kitchen, where she’d normally be preparing dinner. As a small child, I remember running to the foyer to greet him, where he’d always scoop me up and say, “How ya doing Little Lady?!”
All of these remembrances had their most profound significance in hindsight; I’m not exactly sure why it is so difficult to fully appreciate the gifts you’ve been given (e.g. a stable, loving family) when you’re young. But as I matured and met other peers in high school, college and far-beyond, I began to realize my good fortune of being born into a family that — while far from perfect — had almost been ideal compared with the familial circumstances of others.
Which brings me back to the character of Ken Lockheart. In Chapter Two of Water Signs, Ken completely throws Madeline off-guard by actually following up on his 3 a.m. promise of meeting her at the beach in Ocean City — a declaration made under the influence of an alcohol-induced buzz. He’d driven her back to her car in the nightclub parking lot, after the couple had gone out for breakfast at a local Jersey diner, and stated his intentions with conviction. Without the benefit of pen or paper, Maddy wrongly concludes that while cute, entertaining and interesting, this guy is far from serious about her. Part of this stems from her own insecurity, and part from her inability to let go of a previous hurtful relationship, both of which are explored in the novel in great detail.
After returning home from church much later that same day, Madeline gets the shock of her life when her sister announces that Ken is on the phone, wondering where she’s been all this time, as he’s been waiting patiently for her at the beach as promised. This ultimately results in the extension of an invitation to breakfast with the family, suggested by Madeline’s mother, Monica. After a brief bout with nervousness, Ken accepts the offer and enthusiastically joins in the conversation around the table, amazed by the way in which the Rose family relates to each other. He’s also blown away by their accomplishments, from Dr. Rose to Maddy’s attorney-siblings Greg and Lori, and absent brothers Damian (a pathologist in Nashville) and Louis (the Down’s brother who was working in PA that weekend, staying with family friends).
Later at the beach, he’s even more amazed by how the Rose family welcomes him into their circle, and by Madeline’s ability to express herself intelligently in bursts of enthusiasm and passion on everything from politics to pop culture to sports. I recall conversations from real life in which “Ken” would share his admiration of the way in which my family members ate together, amid sometimes boisterous but always engaging conversation on a variety of topics. With some puzzlement, I’d asked him why this was such a big deal. Didn’t his family participate in the same kinds of activities?
His response was something along the lines of “not the way your family does.” It was a telling example of another seemingly unimportant detail of my upbringing, and one of the first reminders that not everyone I’d meet would share the same kind of family experiences.
In a later chapter, Maddy (as did I) learns of the troubled relationship between Ken and his father, instigated by Ken’s admirable decision to enlist in the US Navy to serve his country, earn money for college and to avoid, in his own words, “turning into a surfer bum.” During an evening spent perusing photo albums from his years in the service, a teary-eyed Ken admits to her that — unlike his supportive mother — his father never once visited him when he was on leave, nor wrote him one letter, although he did show up for the ceremony marking the successful completion of his son’s time in the Navy.
As with real life, “Ken” goes on to simultaneously complete his college degree and find success in the corporate world.
In the novel, I explore the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation through several characters. In this particular case, recalling the tension between Ken’s human counterpart and his father afforded me the opportunity to start with a real-life element and carry it through the entire work of fiction.
Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day of that same year, “Ken” had spent several days hanging out with my family and me at our home in Pennsylvania. I clearly remember his emotional dilemma on New Year’s Day, wanting to call his parents, yet dreading having to speak to his father — an issue he shared openly with me. After listening for a while, I suggested that he follow through with the call, mostly for his own sake, as it was clearly causing inner turmoil. Further, by doing so, he’d take the high-road, demonstrating respect without actually conceding that his dad was correct in his unfair criticisms of his son. Ken subsequently took the advice and they had a cordial conversation.
Both of these incidents served as starting points to chronicle the evolution of the troubled father-son relationship between Ken and Carl Lockheart. By the book’s end, Carl has developed a healthy respect for his youngest son’s decision to embark upon a dramatically different path than the blue-collar, union card-carrying one he’d initially envisioned for his offspring.
Having spent several years apart from Ken mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically, Madeline is thrilled to discover this incredible father-son milestone when circumstances conspire to bring him and his family back into her life. In a purely fictional chapter, she finally meets Kenny’s parents when she joins him for Mother’s Day dinner at their home, where, among other things, they enjoy a round of karaoke (inspired by my own karaoke experiences with friends at a friendly, Pompano Beach bar). This scene is but one of many examples of coming “full-circle” in the novel, and one of my favorites in terms of the writing process. Unlike me, Madeline has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, which is one of the countless qualities that Ken finds so intoxicating about her.
When I first met “Ken”, the similarities between him and my father were not obvious to me; only in hindsight have I been able to fully see and appreciate them. From overcoming difficult obstacles on the way to achieving success, to possessing an incredibly attractive, genuine love of God, country and family, there are many ways in which Ken and Dr. Rose mirror each other. Yet, perhaps the most significant of these is their shared love for Madeline — one as the man who brought her into the world, and the other as the man for whom she forever alters his.