Hey everyone. Happy 2018! Hard to believe I am even typing those words, but here we are, at the start of a brand new (freezing) year, with yet another hectic and happy holiday season behind us.
This was a year of tectonic shifts for my family, in a variety of ways. Everything from work to geography to the daily rhythms of our lives seemed to change in these past twelve months. One of the things I kept thinking about throughout this recent holiday season was the idea of endings and beginnings. This time of year especially, we bid farewell to one year, and we leap forward into the next one.
I published WHERE THE LIGHT FALLS with my brother Owen in July so, naturally, readers are asking: what are you working on now? When is your next book coming out? What is the next book about?
To be honest, it’s been hard for me to answer that question this time around. I am working on my next project. Very much so. But it’s something that does not come as easily for me to speak about. Every time someone asks about my work-in-progress I note how my body begins to squirm, how I cock my head to the side and think to myself: how do I want to answer this?
The reason is because my next book is not something I ever hoped or planned to write. It’s a project that has taken me on an entirely new path and promises to present totally new challenges in this year to come. But here we are. It’s a new year. It’s a time for new challenges and adventures. And I am ready for this one.
As many of you know, my husband Dave suffered a near fatal bithalamic stroke in June of 2015. He turned to me on an airplane, as we were flying to our “babymoon,” and told me he couldn’t see anything out of his right eye. A few minutes later, Dave lost consciousness. When that happened, the life we had planned for—baby on the way, Dave’s surgical fellowship upcoming, my life as an author moving full steam ahead—was suddenly turned on its head.
When Dave woke up after the stroke, age 30, seemingly strong and outwardly intact, that’s about all he was: he could not carry memories from hour to hour, much less from one day to the next. I lost the Dave I knew and loved when he lost consciousness on that plane. So too did I lose the life that I thought I knew, the future I had planned for, and the version of myself who had boarded the plane. The cruelest irony of the whole situation was that, while I was going through that devastating experience, my husband, my partner, was the one person to whom I most wanted to talk. The one person to whom I most needed to talk. But he wasn’t there. At least, not as himself.
So, I decided to write to him. I opened up my laptop and began typing, saving the word document as “DearDave.doc,” because that was how it began. I’d write it all down so that, if Dave ever came back to me, we could some day experience it together. He could know what he went through, what we went through, and we could, hopefully, heal together.
Also at that time, I was receiving a deluge of mail. People were sending prayers and letters and cards and emails and hand-written notes. Memories of Dave, messages of inspiration and hope, notes about the past and notes about the future. I collected every one of these notes and put them all in a big leather bound book that I called “Dave’s Book of Fan Mail.” Just as I took such strength from these words from loved ones, I hoped that these letters would help to trigger something in Dave as well. I hoped that these words would help to bring him out of the state of amnesia and to give him (and me) strength in the many long hours of hard work that lay before us.
Seven months later, in January, it was the depth of winter in Chicago. Dave was out of the hospital, and our daughter had been born and was home with us too. It was an incredibly difficult time for our new little family. No longer in the initial aftermath of Dave’s acute health crisis, with all of the accompanying love and support and hope and adrenaline, we were spent. I was spent. Those winter days were filled with shuttling to rehab and haggling with insurance companies and visiting doctors and paying bills. I was exhausted. When people marveled at how completely I had shed the baby weight I wanted to respond: it’s amazing what stress will do for the waistline.
A wise friend gave me some very good advice in that moment: go back and reread what you wrote right after the stroke. I was too close to the situation. Progress was now coming in hard-fought inches, as opposed to leaps, and I could no longer see it. But when I went back and reread about the days when Dave couldn’t stand up or swallow liquid or tell me the date or even tell me that we were having a baby girl, I saw just how far we had come. There had been such cause for hope from the very beginning, and I had to force myself to keep that hope alive.
I began doing a sort of “written inventory.” I once again took to the written word to process where we had come from, where we were currently, and where we still longed to go. I catalogued all of the notes to Dave and my letters and journal entries. I began journaling once more. It became my own personal therapy. It was a project that I hoped to someday share with Dave and our daughter. Somewhere along the way, it turned into something bigger.
I began to read a lot of memoir, a genre in which I had not previously had much interest. That winter, I found myself drawing strength from other people’s stories, taking inspiration from the fact that so many others had survived so many other difficult experiences. If they could do it, I could do it. We would do it.
In May 2016 I wrote a piece with Dave for The New York Times about our experience with the stroke and its rehabilitation. The response from readers was overwhelming. I received emails and letters that brought tears of many types to my eyes. That piece, combined with this writing project I’ve been working on over the past two years, has turned into a full and complete memoir of our own story.
I never intended to write about this experience in any public way. As an author, I’d always thought of writing as the place where I found my joy. Writing was where I went to play. Writing required space and time and freedom, none of which I had after the stroke.
And yet, like all of my books so far, this project took me by surprise and wasn’t really a choice. The story grew over the course of the year following Dave’s stroke, but it became a story so much larger than simply the story of Dave’s stroke. My wish is that this story will ultimately be one of hope—the very hope that I forced myself to hold on to in the depths of fear and despair. If this book can connect to even one person, can provide any inspiration, any comfort, even just a single spear of sunlight from what began as a moment of total darkness, that will give me and our family so much joy.
So, I told you that I had something to show you, and I do. Here is the beautiful new cover for our memoir, BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN PLACES. We worked so hard on it and put so much labor and love into this cover, just as we did for the pages that lay underneath.
I hope that you will come on this journey with us when BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN PLACES comes out this May. It promises to be something entirely new and different, perhaps a bit scary and, yes, even joyful. Dave and I are ready for this new chapter. And we are grateful to all of you who continue to walk beside us.
Best wishes and happy reading,