06/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Our Stories Matter

The last time I called my father, he asked me what time it was.

"Don't you have a watch, Dad?" I asked.

"No, they always take those away when you travel, and the clocks in the train station are all wrong," he answered.

"He thinks he's going on a trip," said my brother, who'd driven down to Myrtle Beach from New York to visit Dad in the hospital. "He keeps trying to do up his seatbelt."

Dad was going on a trip. It was his last journey, the same one we all eventually make. For him, the journey came just after Christmas. I'd been to see him the first week of December, and we'd managed to play a game of Monopoly, though his hands were so shaky that I had to move his little cannon around the board for him. Still, Dad's blue eyes gleamed with the hope of landing on Boardwalk.

He landed in the hospital two weeks later with pneumonia. Given his emphysema, his prognosis wasn't great. I wanted to fly down to see him, but Christmas and New Year's were in the way and our four children were coming home from college. Plus, the doctors were noncommittal. He might bounce back, they said. Let's get him into rehab. I made a reservation to fly down from Massachusetts to South Carolina the week after Christmas. Dad died the day before I arrived.

I flew down anyway, taking off from Boston in a blizzard on the last plane to have its wings de-iced for the day. I drove so fast out of the Myrtle Beach airport that a tiny, sunburned, Napoleonic cop handed me a ticket for $100.

"Do you have any idea how fast you were going?" the cop asked.

"Not fast enough," I said.

I spent the next week helping my mother clear out Dad's closets and dresser drawers, marveling at how my father, a career Navy man who served his country during the Korean War and Vietnam, still folded his briefs and t-shirts in that tidy military way despite his palsied hands and lack of breath. The neat rows of shining shoes bothered me the most, clear evidence that Dad never went anywhere at the end. Only his slippers were scuffed.

I kept a soft flannel shirt and a few family photos. Otherwise, off it went, all of that detritus of life carted away to the Salvation Army in the mafia-sized trunk of my mother's lumbering American sedan. My last stop was at the funeral home to retrieve Dad's ashes, which weighed so much that I staggered when the funeral director handed me the brass box.

Death is seldom convenient, but for me, Dad's death has a peculiarly sharp resonance because I wrote a book about him that he never saw. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, is due out today by Harmony. To research the book required spending many hours with my father, talking about how and why he, a Navy officer, became so entranced by gerbils -- "pocket kangaroos," he liked to call them -- that he retired from the military and raised them on a grand scale. My dad was a world- renowned gerbil expert, a Gerbil Czar with nearly 9,000 gerbils housed on our 90-acre farm in Massachusetts. We kids were his first employees.

Despite what some readers might think after James Frey published his memoir-that-wasn't, A Million Little Pieces (which probably made more money because Oprah gave him such a sound scolding for faking it), most people who write memoirs are not fanciful liars, but dogged researchers. In my case, I interviewed family, friends, my father's employees, and anyone else I could get to talk to me about Dad, hoping to capture a life on the page.

At Dad's memorial service last week, our family gathered for an outdoor ceremony at a cemetery that is, literally and figuratively, on a dead end street in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Standing in this cemetery, you get no sense of the world beyond. There are no traffic sounds or children shouting, no ambulance sirens or buses honking their horns. None of that busyness of life to interfere with our contemplation of that last journey we all make, leaving behind our shoes and hats and families who love us. When the minister sang, though, a mockingbird sitting high in an oak tree above us suddenly started chattering and singing, too, louder and louder over the minister's fine soprano until we were all laughing.

"That's Dad, having the last word," my brother said, looking up at the bird.

"I hope so," I said.

For all I can think, as my book makes its way into the world, is this: what if I got something wrong? Dad read the book before he left for his last journey, but what if he missed something, too?

Ah, well. As the brilliant writer Jim Harrison says in his poem, "Larson's Holstein Bull" from In Search of Small Gods, "Death steals everything except our stories." That's why it's so important to tell them as best we can.