The book Nancy Whitfield sat down to write was not the one she ended up with four years later.
What began as an endeavor to put humorous anecdotes to paper evolved into a touching and deeply personal exploration of the human spirit in the face of family strife and waning physical health.
Whitfield’s recently published memoir, “Broken Places,” captures a life punctuated by the struggles of an absent father, the balance between professional and family life and, later, Parkinson’s Disease.
The Ocean Isle Beach resident said her first book taught her as much about the process of writing as it did about herself. And she’s hoping her own story will help bring comfort and strength to others. She is donating profits from “Broken Places” to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, an organization she turned to after her diagnosis eight years ago.
A former Tennessee school teacher, Philadelphia college administrator and New York City non-profit staffer, Whitfield had often thought about trying her hand at writing. She had even started several projects in collaboration with co-authors but was never able to see them through.
“I found myself without a co-writer and thought it would be a good time,” Whitfield recalled. “I always kept journals and wrote but never thought of writing a book on my own. You know, it’s easier on your own because you are on your own schedule. But it’s harder because you’re isolated. But I had a good feeling it was the right time to do this.”
A memoir was what Whitfield had in mind. But it was meant to be a lighthearted collection of life’s funnier moments, inspired by the humor that struck the southerner the night she found herself attending a dinner with the queen of Sweden in New York City.
“Then, I actually sat down to write and it turned into something completely unexpected,” Whitfield noted. “The book turned into experiencing difficult times and not giving in or giving up.”
As it turned out, the memories so vivid in Whitfield’s mind were not the happiest of moments. And then there were the hidden impressions, things she did not realize had made such an impact.
“When I first saw ‘mother’ and ‘father’ on the page, I thought, how did that happen?” she said. “I never in a million years thought this book was going to be about my family. I only met my father once in my life, when I was 26.”
Her parents married young before the start of World War II and Whitfield said like many couples during that era, they rushed into family life without really knowing each other. Her dad eventually left his family behind and returned home to Kansas City.
Whitfield never thought her father, a man she never knew, played any part in her life. But the more she wrote, she realized the significant presence of his absence.
“All the sudden, he becomes this shadow character who was always there. That was an interesting observation for me,” she said.
In researching her father, she came across his obituary. It was there she discovered she had a half-sister she never knew existed. She is currently trying to track her down and even sent her a book, in care of her dad’s second wife, to help her understand their father’s former life.
“I’m hoping she was given the book. I’m hoping that in her life she has these questions answered. And I’m waiting for a reply every day,” she said.
Another revelation was the power words have to change perspective. Although writing itself was often a challenge, Whitfield found a victory in finishing “Broken Places”—it helped her put “Parkinson’s in its place.”
“There are 35 chapters in the book. Parkinson’s didn’t come up until chapter 34,” she said.
That Parkinson’s wasn’t a constant theme throughout made Whitfield remember that, as much as it had overtaken her, it was only one brief notch on a timeline marked with a lifetime of success and sadness, obstacles and opportunities, laughter, love and loss.
“Sometimes when your life becomes consumed by an illness or disability…it’s easy to forget you’re a person first,” Whitfield noted.
Her illness actually gave her strength and courage when it came to putting herself out there for the world to read.
“I think having Parkinson’s makes me look at life in a different way and value life in a different way. The concept of worrying about being exposed didn’t bother me,” she said. “If I could help someone else, that became bigger than being exposed.”
And committing her book to a cause, she added, gave her the motivation to do what she was meant to do all along—write.
“When I first started writing, I quickly realized that this was going to take longer than I thought. I thought it might take a year but I had no idea it would take four. I think with anything debilitating like Parkinson’s that just gets worse, you value your time more. I knew I was serving a bigger purpose than just me…and that made the writing more worthwhile.”
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.