The Big Idea: Pamela Ribon
Pamela Ribon is one of the funniest humans I know. Much of what makes her so is not about her ability to make me or anyone else laugh; it’s her knowledge of people and how they work, even in situations where’s not necessarily a laugh to be found. Her latest novel You Take It From Here is funny and also knowing — about people, about relationships, and about the responsibilities we have to the people we make our family of the heart. Here’s my friend Pamie to explain more.
You Take It From Here deals with a lot of bossiness. Stubborn people, one-track-minded illnesses, the conviction that comes with knowing someone loves you whole-heartedly, and what can happen when you’re faced with the terrifying enormity of the unknown. It’s about the lengths we will go to for the people we care about the most, and how much we can handle in order to hang on for the ones who need us. We act like nobody knows how he or she going to die, but that’s not exactly true. Some people know. They know with utter certainty. Sometimes they even have a pretty good idea of when. When those people need you, it’s hard to say anything other than, “Tell me what to do.”
I first thought up the idea for this novel when I was on an airplane. My first set of scribbled notes has the telltale signs of a bumpy flight. I work well on airplanes – trapped in a tiny seat, facing forward, usually no Internet, trapped with strangers and questionable food choices. I find the words come freely the more uncomfortable my situation. (This also explains why I enjoy working in television.) A friend of mine does an impression of me in what she calls my “writing stance” – doubled over at the edge of the couch in a protective hunch, attacking the keyboard in an attempt to get the words out before I pee myself. That is exactly what I’m doing when I’m at my most inspired.
So I was up in the air when I first started mulling over the idea of one friend asking another to take over her life. I’d gone through a lengthy divorce, and for a couple of years I’d let my bossiest friends take over. I needed them to tell me what to do, how to get up, what to put in my empty apartment, what antidepressants might work for me, how to wear make-up to hide puffy eyes. As I got my life a little more in order, as I found how to dress myself and go to work and fall in love and stand on my own again, I didn’t need so much bossing around. I don’t think I weaned them properly, the bossy ones. They were a little in shock that I was no longer needing their strong guidance, that I might have some opinions and decisions I’d made on my own. I could easily imagine one of them deciding that my life had become one that was more expendable; I wasn’t having that much fun living it anyway, so why not take over theirs? “I mean, I’m important.”
I was deciding whether it’d make a better screenplay than a novel, wondering where the story could go, when I got distracted with some deadline and dropped the idea.
A few months later I was sitting on the bleachers above the roller derby track (see: the last time I had a Big Idea) where I’d torn a ligament in my knee only the day before. I was searching for a comfortable position with my knee brace as I watched that night’s practice for my attendance requirement, counting the minutes until I could go home and take my first, hard-earned Vicodin, when I got a frantic phone call.
I don’t use the word “besties,” but my friend would. I might use “bossy,” but she’d call it “besties,” and she’d say that bestie status would give her the right to tell me to get on a plane immediately and fly 1400 miles to her side, as her daughter was in the hospital and was “very, very, very, very sick.” My friend was past hysterical and into the shock-sobs, where the words don’t all come together into real sentences, but I was able to figure out that her daughter, who had been in the hospital for a few days with a kidney infection, had taken a turn for the worse, and was on some emergency antibiotics. “You need to get here,” my friend wept into the phone. I made one feeble attempt at keeping my plans for the evening. “Can we maybe do this by Skype?” I asked. “If you just need someone to talk to; I’ll stay up all night for you.” She hissed back,“If your baby was in the hospital — if you ever had a baby — you know I would do it for you.”
And that was it. By the time I hobbled myself into my car and got home my boyfriend had packed a bag, secured a (not cheap) red-eye flight and hailed a cab to whisk me away to LAX. Less than twelve hours later I was in Louisiana, groggy and in miserable amounts of pain. I was greeted at baggage claim by my bestie’s hubby, who informed me that his daughter was now feeling much better, and was to be discharged from the hospital that afternoon. He looked to the ground as he stammered, “Um, that phone call might have been made after she’d had a little too much wine.”
This is what happens to best friends who love with all their hearts and wallets, but it especially to the best friends who have no babies, who are childless and therefore seemingly carefree. We are expected to book the flights to come visit, never to spend a single holiday in the comfort of our own homes. We hire the dog sitters and cat sitters and house sitters and rent the cars and find hotel rooms and pack the bags and stuff our carry-ons with presents for the kids. For without a child in your care, there’s no excuse you could give that’s good enough to miss Christmas. To skip that New Year’s gathering. To be unable to attend a fifth-grade graduation. Only: “You need to get here.”
By the end of that night, the travel and pain medication and torn ligament and lack of sleep and the exhaustion of a day at the hospital finally caught up with me at three in the morning, when I found myself trying to find a way to kneel on one leg to vomit an exceptional amount of wine into my friend’s toilet. And that is when I thought, “Yeah. There’s definitely a story in here.”
I outlined the novel on the flight home. If being in an uncomfortable writing position was all I needed for inspiration, I had reached the ultimate – on an airplane, hungover and trapped in the middle seat with a leg that couldn’t bend, unable to take any painkillers because I needed to be alert enough to have someone wheel me to the proper gate during my layover, furious that I’d just dropped more than a grand only to visit a peppy teen girl not dying of what turned out to be a urinary tract infection.
You Take it From Here also explores another unstoppable, rather constant force in my life – lung cancer. We’ve lost quite a few celebrated loved ones in the past few weeks to it (Donna Summer, Kathryn Joosten, Nolan Miller, George Marino); my own family has already lost two to lung cancer this year, and it’s only June. Ten years ago my father died of lung cancer, and I still have a lot of guilt over how it all went down, and whether or not I was a good daughter to him when he might have needed me.
Cancer seems to have two speeds: unfairly immediate or tortuously slow. My father went the slow way, more than seven years of fighting, off and on. I wasn’t able to be there for him for much of it. I was in college when he went through chemo and radiation. His cancer was in remission when I decided to move to Los Angeles. I’d just finished unpacking my final box when his cancer returned, and he’d decided to refuse treatment. I will never forget that phone call, when my father said in his slow, calm voice, “So you might want to come home for Christmas, as it’ll be my last one.”
Part of this novel comes from the guilt I have that I missed a lot of time with my father as he went through his struggle. It’s not entirely my fault—Dad pushed everyone away. He didn’t like being seen as weak or helpless; he didn’t want people asking him questions or giving suggestions. Dad wanted to deal with cancer like he did all of his problems: alone, where he could ignore it without anyone getting in the way. And who’s to say if that was right or wrong? It seems unfair to those who loved him and wanted to be there, but in the end he was the only one who had to die – why shouldn’t he go out exactly how he wanted to? My father liked to be in control, and I can only assume the thing that pissed him off the most about cancer was that it was firmly in charge.
My father did a lot of rather confusing things for someone facing a terminal diagnosis, especially towards the end. He didn’t write a will. He put my mother’s name on all of his credit cards, so that someone would have to pay off his debts. He erased the hard drive on his computer. He bought a new wardrobe. He went to the eye doctor for a new pair of glasses. Soon after he died, my mom got his new drivers license in the mail.
Think about that. Two weeks before my father entered hospice care, my dad decided to stand in line at the DMV.
I used to think Dad was prepping for what he thought he’d need when he got to Heaven – a brand new wardrobe, glasses that would work for all of eternity, all debts handled and a license to drive. But now that I’m older, now that I’ve lost more people to this selfish illness, I think I get what Dad was doing in those final days.
He was stretching them out.
If you only had a few days left, filling them with friends and family and good times would turn them into a blur. But if you scheduled nothing but the mundane, the minutes could stretch until they felt like hours. Your day could seem like a lifetime. And for that moment you aren’t a guy dying of cancer. You’re just another guy in line at the DMV, taking care of a few errands. You’re not about to go anywhere. You’re sandwiched between some strangers, waiting for your turn to get your picture taken.
Although, going back to the Heaven scenario, maybe Dad thought of the DMV as a test-run for waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Wanted to see if he’d be patient enough. I honestly think he might have bailed halfway to Heaven to see if there was an open craps table somewhere in purgatory he could hit for a few decades. But I wonder sometimes if he wanted someone standing there with him in some of those lines. If, towards the end, he regretted how much he’d pushed us all away. If he had more to say, but nobody there to listen. Maybe that’s why he went to the eye doctor. Someone to talk to who wouldn’t say a single word about how he had days left to live.
This is the part where I need to tell you that this novel is mostly a comedy. It’s about friendship and history and small towns and love affairs and yes, cancer, but it’s really about that bond you have with your very best, lifelong friend, and how it can survive pretty much anything.
Perhaps because there’s no legal way to sever it. You can’t divorce your best friend. You can’t get emancipated from her. A restraining order only sends her to the boundaries of what will still be an audible yelling zone. You are stuck with each other, even if you spend years ignoring it, even if you pretend each other dead. You will still talk to each other inside your heads. You can hate each other like siblings in the back of a car on week three of a month-long family vacation, but you will still need each other like lovers reuniting at an airport. Nothing can split that bond. Not even death. Because you know that girl will find a way to haunt you. So you’d better be nice to her while she’s still around.