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Author Carol Alma McPhee Remembers Her Friend Ann Fitzgerald

From the BookShelf Writers

The BookShelf Writers consist of four Estero Bay women who have been writing and critiquing together for over five years. For more samples of their work, please visit www.the bookshelfwriters.com

Each issue, this column will feature one of the BookShelf Writers: Debbie Black, Catherine “Kiki” Kornreich, Judy Salamacha and Susan Vasquez.

January 19, 2024

January 2024! Have you discovered a locally written book lately? Indulge me as I officially thank Linna Thomas, Coalesce Book Store, and Carroll Leslie, Volumes of Pleasure Book Shoppe, and their staffs for all they do to accommodate readers and local authors! For the last couple years, my focused contribution to the Bookshelf Writers column has been to feature local authors. Writers love to write, but we rarely like to write about ourselves or promote our works!  

Thomas and Leslie have always featured local authors by creating special sections for our books, selling them, and even scheduling book signings to introduce us. As a published writer myself I understand how exceptionally supportive their efforts have been for local writers. Believe me, not all bookstores carry locals’ books unless we’re listed on the New York Best Sellers list. From our hearts, thank you!   

One way I know I can say “thank you” especially to Linna as she starts her 51st year in business in Morro Bay is to recognize her friend, Carol Alma McPhee. She is one of the many published authors Linna has nurtured. Her latest publication is “Releasing the Light A Journal of Caring.” McPhee writes in the acknowledgements, “This book would not exist without the long-time encouragement and support of Linna Thomas and the welcoming ambience of Coalesce Bookstore, Morro Bay.” 

In 2001 McPhee committed to writing a daily journal. It was her process to make sense of her time spent – her last twenty-six months with her companion, Ann Fitzgerald. For 25-years their relationship included writing together, including co-authoring “Feminists Quotations” and “The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig.” When Ann was diagnosed with cancer McPhee decided to move into Ann’s home. Although she admits she was never meant to be a caregiver, she became her primary caregiver until the end.  

At the same time, McPhee maintained daily visits to help an aging husband. She also kept in touch with her three daughters, growing grandchildren, community friends, and continued her own personal writing. Mid-way through her caregiving tenure, she reminds Ann, “I want this to be clear. I’m not here because you need taking care of. I’m here because this may be our last days and I don’t want to miss any.” 

Some will call it the ultimate sacrifice, but for McPhee her journal reflections seem to conclude a personal quest. She writes about seeking “… a life knowing you were missing something without time to find out what.” She also adds various frustrations. “Keeping a journal is a joyless act. I don’t know if it will help me understand the experience.”  

 It took twenty years after Ann was gone plus the encouragement of Linna to share her journal experiences. In the introduction to readers, she writes she never intended to publish it, however, “It’s my hope that other couples on similar quests for peace, love, and companionship during the ordeal of a final illness can find solace here.”  

Routine details fulfill McPhee’s promise to explain what individuals and couples might experience. It was a roller coaster ride anticipating the worst news, settling into living with the diagnosis, allowing hope during a brief remission, and then facing the fear of death when the cancer returns to cause more progressive debilitating pain. 

And yet the mundane McPhee describes becomes like “… a chessboard of moves from light to dark – dark to light.” The readers learn intimate details about shopping for groceries, her daily visits to take care of her husband’s needs, the barrage of endless doctor’s appointments, learning to advocate for critical information, maintaining an ever-changing medication plan to alleviate the constant pain, and maybe the biggest challenge being balancing caregiving while encouraging and allowing Ann’s independence as she tries to maintain various daily functions.  

When Ann was feeling stronger, they would seek a bit of joy and normalcy eating out at their favorite Morro Bay restaurant or attending school concerts featuring McPhee’s grandchild and Ann’s namesake. Holidays and birthdays were celebrated and mutual opinions about politics of the day were discussed. Philosophical readings and life lessons were shared. They would come to realize “The human spirit can survive even the worst circumstances.”

 Ann questioned, “Why write?”

“To bear witness,” said McPhee. 

Ann also asked, “Are you scared?”

“I’d be a damn fool if not,” McPhee answered adding it was mostly fear of being left alone. 

Ultimately it was a friend and bookstore owner, Linna, who convinced McPhee to “bear witness” to their story because Linna believed their story had a message that needed to be documented.  

How might anyone heal from the trauma of loss? Writers write but anyone can record memories to try and make sense of the hurt that is happening. And this deliberate act of writing just might become the mental magic needed to heal those left behind. 

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