Vo l . 7 N o . 1 Leota’s early chapters’ drafts were kooky, funny, smart and informative. In part, they dealt with her “Angels”: after an evening of drinking wine with a woman friend while they experimented with a Ouija board, she’d begun to hear voices which forced her right hand to write their messages. Yet the way Leota spoke about these Angels was the opposite of the breathless awe common among New Agers. Leota found her Angels annoying and described them with some disrespect: Since that inauspicious beginning, (the drunk night with the Ouija board) something -- something that I eventually decided to call “the Angels”-- had been writing lessons, health advisories, past life analysis, legal advice, warnings of impending danger, dental diagnoses, and the reason why three horses had jumped a fence in Utah... That had been my life for the past two years: Angels whispered in my left ear, refused to be ignored and wrote notes through me: their words simply traveled through my right hand onto paper from wherever the Angels were -- in my brain or an invisible someplace. My own will had no part of it. She’d begun going to Kubler-Ross conferences because she hoped that “the death and dying doctor” would help her get rid of “those damn Angels.” Instead, Leota experienced mat therapy, became a Kubler-Ross disciple and evolved into a trained, licensed therapist using Kubler-Ross methods. Mid-way through writing the memoir, Leota told our Saturday group that she’d just been diagnosed with virulent, multi-system cancer and was going to try chemotherapy. When her treatments left her too weak to attend our group, we went to her house. I hooked her up with medical marijuana, which had recently been legalized in Arizona. The pot helped, but she quit chemo anyway, feeling it was so awful that life wasn’t worth living. Still, it had bought her some time. For the next eight months she was well enough to attend our group and work on the memoir. Then cancer invaded her kidneys, spleen and liver. The day she gave our group this news, I stayed with her after the others left. “I’m gonna die,” she said. “Yes.” Matching her matter-of-fact tone helped
73 me contain my grief. She’d become a close friend and I was about to lose her. Perhaps only writers will understand my next words: “Leota, you have to finish your memoir.” Regret hit me. Her priority now must be her family, not her book. But she was nodding. “I’m working on it every minute I can.” “I’d love to polish it when it’s done, if you want. I won’t mess with your style. I’d keep it true to your voice. I’d just, you know, fix spelling and stuff.” I believed her style was influenced by growing up in Appalachia in what she called a “non-reading family.” Also her post-stroke dyslexia showed up in her punctuation and funny, mis-used words. When I made the offer, I figured that many writing friends wanted to help with her book, and since I was a comparative newcomer among them, I wouldn’t be asked. But shortly after Leota died, her closest friend Elaine announced that Leota had requested that I be the one to edit and revise the memoir. “She trusted your judgement.” I nearly burst into tears. At the same time I wanted to jump around the room with joy. In my head, Leota’s Appalachia-tinged voice was again calling me “The Real Deal.” What a fantastic bequest. What an honor. What a serious responsibility. During the initial phase, the editing wasn’t solitary. Guided by Elaine, the Saturday group reviewed sections of the manuscript and wrote suggested changes. Then I got possession of the manuscript and everyone’s notes. The next morning in my home office, once a sitting room an elderly maiden lady used for birdwatching, I set the manuscript’s hard copy and everyone’s notes beside the laptop computer on my messy desk. Took several breaths. Clicked a computer key. Leota’s Chapter One appeared, its Courier New font making it seem a 1940‘s document typed with a worn ribbon. Joy and terror coursed through me: joy because editing the book would feel like reconnecting with Leota; terror because I must somehow fill in missing details while preserving her unique voice and personal truths. Reading the first page, I wondered why she identified herself as Jan, not Leota. In the five years of our friendship, I knew her only as Leota, a name I found as strongly individual as the person herself. Setting that aside, I read the set-up and laughed.