Sunday, September 11, 2011

Love, Loss and Grief on NPR

(Adrian Nicle LeBlanc and her father Adrian)

By Dylan Foley

In January 2003, journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s 85-year-old father entered the terminal phase of his battle with lung cancer. The grief-stricken LeBlanc, while caring for her father at his Massachusetts home, made the decision to tape their conversations in the last two months of his life.

Forty hours of tapes have been shaped into a beautiful and heart wrenching 12-minute radio documentary called “The Ground We Lived On,” which chronicles the steadfast bonds of love and humor between a father and daughter and the grief over imminent loss. The documentary aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” on November 13, 2006.

LeBlanc’s father and namesake, Adrian Leon LeBlanc, was a labor organizer confronting injustice against workers in Leominster, Mass., outside of Boston. During the Depression, he hopped freight trains, and fought in Italy during World War II. “Sometimes I thought my father did the taping with me because he thought it would help me,” said the 43-year-old LeBlanc in an interview from a New York City cafe. “Other times, I think we taped the conversations because we’d always planned to, but never did.”

The collapse of her father’s health coincided with the publication of LeBlanc’s acclaimed book “Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx,” which followed four young people in the illegal drug trade for 10 years. “I said to my father, ‘I don’t care about the book publicity. I want to stay with you,’” she said. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to do this. You gave your life to this book.’”

As often as she could, LeBlanc drove up from New York City to Massachusetts to care for her father. The idea for taping their long conversations came from David Isay, the prominent radio documentarian and founder of Sound Portraits Productions. “I told him my father was dying,” said LeBlanc. “David said, ‘Tape him. You don’t have to know what you will use the tapes for, or even if you will do anything with them, but these tapes will always be there. You won’t remember everything you think you will remember.’”

The audio documentary captures the banter between father and daughter. The witty, self-effacing Adrian Leon LeBlanc deflects all attempts to call his union work heroic. His daughter washes his hair. She tells him how much she loves him.

The emotionally raw radio piece is a radical departure for LeBlanc, who was granted a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in September. In her book, which covers the decade-long misfortunes of young drug dealers and their girlfriends, LeBlanc never brought herself into the text. In the documentary, she reveals herself in the most personal, vulnerable way, holding on to her dying father.

The father and daughter came together on their mutual love of language. It was Adrian Leon LeBlanc who inspired his daughter to become a journalist. “It’s becoming harder to record, but my father encourages me,” says LeBlanc in the documentary. “Our voices are the ground the we’ve lived on, so we keep talking, even about him leaving me.”

“We put the tape recorder on and forgot it was there,” said LeBlanc. “We had long talks, because that was what we always did. I was reverential in looking at my father. It was very physical, where I often had to be touching him.”

A self-educated man, LeBlanc’s father called himself a “bird watcher.” “He was really an observer of people,” said LeBlanc. “He really enjoyed his solitude, but he could be an instigator of situations, provoking people.”

After her father died in March 2003, LeBlanc put aside the tapes. Eighteen months later, Sound Portraits approached her and asked if she wanted to do something with them. LeBlanc agreed. “I thought that working with the tapes would be cathartic,” she said, “but my resistance was incredible. Sarah Kramer from Sound Portraits was cutting the tapes down. This documentary never would have happened without her. She’s a truly special person who is patient and empathetic beyond belief. She was the bridge between what I’d done and what I was trying to make of it.”

At one point during the documentary, LeBlanc breaks down. The father’s response is wry, comforting her both as daughter and journalist. “I said, ‘I’m crying Daddy,’ and he says, ‘And you’re recording it all.’ That’s my father, getting me, loving me and calling a spade a spade. He was saying , ‘Yes honey, you’re falling apart, but you are still doing your thing. You’ll be fine and I love you for doing your thing.’”

The final version of the radio show mixes the mundane with the heartbreaking. LeBlanc and her father talk about the father’s weight loss. The father is most upset by leaving his wife of 50 years alone.

At the close of the documentary, LeBlanc and her mother are huddled around the dying father. “In the last section, I was completely floored,” said LeBlanc. “I really believed that I created the last things that he’d said to me, that I was gentle. I can’t believe that I had the tape recorder on because he was actively dying. I was barely able to take a shower, eat or sleep those last few days. How did I get the tape recorder on and make sure it was near him? Maybe it was because I needed it so desperately.”

After her father’s death, LeBlanc went into a deep depression. “My father had told me he wanted my to mourn for three days, then to get on with life,” she said. “It took me three years. Surviving without him is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The documentary, she noted, has pushed her. “I feel that doing this thing makes me think that I have to fight to care again,” LeBlanc said. “I need to respect the fact that I am alive in a more feisty way.

“Secretly, I think my father wanted me to write about him, which I will,” said LeBlanc. “He definitely had an interesting life.”

(Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s radio documentary “The Ground We Lived On” is available at,

Dylan Foley is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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