Forensic Biography and the Art of the Screenwriter

Ray Shea

[paper]Here is one thing I do know: I didn’t write down enough of this when it was happening, and now there is nobody I can ask. This is why I am trying to piece together, from the available evidence, what was going on in my head and in my dad’s life on the day that the stakes changed.

Here is what I found in the pockets of my dad’s puffy coat:

  • Two Kleenex, wadded up, apparently unused.

  • One comb, heavily used and rarely cleaned.

  • A golf pencil. You know, one of those little half-size yellow pencils without an eraser—like the kind you use to keep score at Putt-Putt.

  • One roll of medical transpore tape.

  • Two Sani Wipes, individually wrapped in foil pouches.

  • A receipt from the Market Basket grocery in Londonderry, New Hampshire, dated 11:10 a.m., November 15, 2013, listing groceries totaling $35.32, cash paid $40.00, and cash change back of $4.68.

  • Four dollar bills, and 43 cents in coins.

  • A folded piece of paper from the Elliot Regional Cancer Center in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on which was printed the radiation treatment schedule for Raymond Shea, on which was noted his appointment for “Daily tx IMRT” at 11:00 a.m., November 15, 2013. The same as the day before. And the day before that.

Here is one way that I think it happened that day: My father got his buddy Ed to drive him the 45 minutes from his nursing home to the cancer center, but then decided he needed to pick up some groceries first because he knew he would be too sick to do it after treatment. Since he paid for the groceries 10 minutes after his appointment time, he must have been late for his treatment. The medical tape probably had something to do with the radiation. Or, maybe he used it to strap down his catheter bag, which he always liked to do himself because the nurses never did it right. The golf pencil was the kind of thing he liked to steal from doctors’ offices, to collect them and then use them later when he was shopping so he could check things off his grocery list.

Here is something I didn’t find in his pockets: His grocery list, with all the items checked off by a little yellow golf pencil.

Here is something else I didn’t find in his pockets: The missing quarter from his change back from the store.


Here is the last thing I wrote in my notebook before my dad got sick, scribbled fragments from an October 2011 film festival lecture by screenwriter Michael Arndt:


– Audience must be invested in 2nd act goal

– Then 3rd act reveals it was a false goal

Here is what I wrote on the next page of my notebook on June 14, 2012:

not at baseline

5L oxygen yesterday

3L oxygen today


Medicare 100% first 20 days

Here is something I know about radiation therapy: It makes you sick as a motherfucker if you are an otherwise healthy human being. If you are a 76-year-old man with congestive heart failure, lung disease, and liver disease, and you’re already in a wheelchair, you probably should just take your chances with the cancer.

Here is something I know about being a caregiver for an old man who doesn’t know how to talk to doctors: If you are not physically present at every doctor visit, because you are a single dad who lives 2,000 miles away from your sick father, then the medical machine will just grind him up. Somebody will get paid for radiation treatment even if the patient is going to die, even if the radiation is only torturing an old man, because some doctor somewhere will want that Medicare money and will order up some radiation.

Here is something I believed on November 15, 2013: My father probably had a few more years to live, even with the cancer, if he continued with his other therapy, his hormone therapy.

Here is something else I believed on November 15: The oncologist did not think that radiation treatment was advisable, and so I could not get a straight answer from anybody about why he was having it done, because I was 2,000 miles away being a single father when I should have been being a caregiver, and doctors do not return phone calls to anybody, even when somebody is dying.

Here is something I found in an e-mail to my girlfriend that I wrote at 11:47 a.m. on November 15:

i have not talked to my dad in a few days and he started daily radiation treatment on wednesday. i’m a little worried.

Here is something else I found in an e-mail to my girlfriend that I wrote at 3:56 p.m. on November 15:

dad called, ambulance on its way to take him to ER because he can’t breathe.

Here is something I know about oxygen deprivation, particularly as it affects my father: It turns you, or rather one, or rather my father, into a cantankerous, impatient, mouthy son-of-a-bitch prone to flinging curses at people and making rash decisions.


Here is another way I think it happened that day: My father went to the radiation center and told them to go fuck themselves because he couldn’t do this any more, because he couldn’t breathe, and then he went shopping at Market Basket. I think maybe it happened this way because he bought milk, which is not something you would buy before your appointment because it would go sour. The time on the receipt and the time on the treatment schedule are roughly the same time, which I have trouble figuring out. But later that day he went to the emergency room because he couldn’t breathe, which meant that probably everybody he met that entire day could go fuck themselves.

Here is why I think this version of the story is closer to the truth: Because I like the idea that everybody he met that day could go fuck themselves.

Here is another e-mail to my girlfriend that I wrote on November 18:

all of a sudden the weight of everything hit me and i feel very alone.

Here is a voice mail from my dad that I still can’t bring myself to erase, dated November 20:

Yeah, uh, Ray, this is Dad. Finally got some good news. I’ll be moving over to Pleasant Valley, uh, Friday. And they’re gonna get Medicare to pay for the first 90 days, so, uh, when you get a chance gimme a call, and I’ll let you know. And you know what? I feel great. They’re working more on cardiac than they are on the breathing, and the breathing’s great. I’ll tell you later when you call me. All right?

Here is what neither one of us knew on November 20, 2013: In 20 days, he would be dead.


Here is how I think about the cancer treatment when I’m thinking like a screenwriter: It was the false goal of the second act, and that weekend in November was the second act reversal. That was when the stakes were raised, the false goal was overturned, and the third act began.

Here is something I’m pretty sure I know: The last time he went outside in anything but an ambulance was the last time he wore this puffy coat, on the day he was supposed to get radiation therapy and instead went to Market Basket grocery and bought Hill Tuscan Turkey Breast, Deli Select Honey Ham, two half gallons of Hood Whole Milk, an eight-pack of Pepsi, an eight-pack of Canada Dry Ginger Ale, a loaf of white bread, four individually-wrapped cake donuts, a bottle of Gatorade Glacier, and eight Market Basket brand single-serving pies (two pineapple, three chocolate éclair, three apple).


Here is what I know I did on the morning of December 14, 2013: I went to the funeral home and picked up his ashes in a TSA-approved receptacle appropriate for carry-on luggage, and a flag from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which I got for his service to my country.

Here is my favorite joke about carry-on luggage, which I did not make on this trip: Pretend it’s spelled “carrion.”

Here is what I know I did on the afternoon of December 14: I went to Goodwill and dropped off the last of his clothes and books. I laid the empty-pocketed puffy coat on the top of the cart, pet it, said goodbye, and watched as the volunteer wheeled it away into the giant warehouse full of the discarded belongings of thousands of strangers, both living and dead. And then I went to the car, and I discovered that I really did know how to cry after all, how to heave and sob so hard I felt like my lungs were going to come flying out through my nose like a wad of snot.

I cried for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, I’m not really sure, while cars came and went through the Goodwill drop-off driveway behind me, while my car windows fogged and the parking lot iced over and the last of the December sun faded out behind the first of the pre-snow clouds.

Here is what I know I did on the night of December 14: I sat in my hotel room and ate some Market Basket brand single-serving pies (just the apple ones) and drank some Canada Dry Ginger Ale, and I watched the winter storm roll in and swirl maelstroms of snowflakes around the lights in the parking lot.

And then I put on my big winter coat and I walked, and I walked, and I walked until I came to an old cemetery, and I fell over backwards into the graveyard snow and made angel after angel.

Here is what I remember about what I had in the pockets of my coat that night: Nothing. I remember nothing at all except the snow, and the headstones, and the angels, and not feeling cold or wet or sad or angry or anything at all.[/paper]

Ray Shea’s work has appeared most recently in The Rumpus, Hobart, apt, and Sundog Lit. A native of Boston and New Orleans, he currently lives in Austin.

 You’ll find biographies for all contributors to Phoebe 43.2 here. 

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