Nancy Nau Sullivan’s memoir The Last Cadillac won two Eric Hoffer awards. Her first mystery, Saving Tuna Street, will be released in June 2020. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University and worked at newspapers in the Midwest. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
Writing a Memoir
My memoir started with an explosion of sorts: My mother died, my marriage crashed, and my father announced he was leaving Indiana and coming to live with me and the kids on an island in Florida. It wasn’t an easy time. My siblings accused me of “kidnapping” Dad. He had a number of health problems, and I had no idea how to deal with illnesses of the elderly, particularly cancer and dementia. But my dad and I were close. I couldn’t disappoint him. I wanted to take care of him – and at the same time do the best for my two kids still at home. And so began my memoir The Last Cadillac …
As a newspaper journalist, I was drawn to writing it all down. On occasion, I’d written feature articles about the “sándwich generation.” Now, suddenly, I was in the sándwich – in the middle between caring for my elderly parent on one side and the young ones on the other. I began to see that whether planned or not, most of us end up being caregivers, or being cared for. Many of these caregivers told me their stories, and I had to tell mine.
There is no manual for this sort of family adventure, and it was not my intention to write one. But I felt strongly I had to write about what I did right and what I did wrong, and there was plenty of the latter.
Even as I was driven to write my book, the effort seemed doomed from the start. For one, I hardly had time to think straight about what was happening one day to the next. Dad would wake up hobbled with leg or back pain; the kids had all sorts of activities: cheerleading, soccer, birthday parties. And all along, I jotted down events and bits of dialogue as we went “down life’s path” (Dad).
Getting to the heart was essential. I trained myself to stay focused on the message – about care giving while juggling life:
I knew where my story would begin – with Dad’s announcement that he was coming to live with us – and I knew where it would end. With his death. It took me a long time to write that ending. The middle was a never-ending series of mishaps and discoveries about how to stay on my feet. (Loving mostly every minute, as it turned out.)
The message kept me going and moved me along. I had a point and I stuck to it. I was writing a warning, of sorts, but I tried to be encouraging, and some of it was pretty funny. At least, that’s what they tell me, and I have to look back on some of it and laugh.
One standout from all of it was that much of the drama, disappointment, and sometimes disaster could have been averted with better planning and communication. I blame all of us for not cooling off, sitting down, and really communicating (especially the listening part). As a family, we did nothing to prepare for any of it. My parents didn’t talk about money – “How vulgar!” And my mother never used the word “cancer” when she got sick. It was “The Big C.” We talked a lot, but we did not communicate very well. With the divorce, and the kids, and then Dad and all my personal problems, I didn’t take into consideration that my siblings had just lost their mother – and now they were going to lose their father to Florida some 1200 miles away.
But we got through it. I wrote the story, which now has been dubbed “a must-read for caregivers” and “a common sense and humorous guide to surviving family relationships.” I hope it helps some people. Most of us have parents and relatives we are concerned about, and we will need to take care of them. I didn’t see it coming, nor did I do anything to prevent it when the situation presented itself almost overnight. I tried to enjoy it, and learn something from it. I did see, finally, that humor and love worked in our favor. But I didn’t have to write a book to know that. A lot of love was always there.
The Last Cadillac, a Memoir
Middle-age is challenging enough, but when Nancy Nau Sullivan suddenly finds herself caring for two children, grappling with her mother’s death, and caring for her ailing father while at the same time navigating a contentious divorce and dealing with long-simmering sibling rivalries, she wonders how she can keep herself sane. Things get even more complicated when her siblings accuse her of “kidnapping” their father and carting him and his Cadillac off to Anna Maria Island, Florida, where they are greeted by Hurricane Josephine. In this gripping memoir, Sullivan guides the reader through the chaotic whirlwind of unexpected and unwanted change and offers a common sense and humorous guide to surviving family relationships.