Last night I couldn't sleep. Something pretty awful happened. Something I can't even explain or talk about in a blog yet. (I am not being coy. I am just protecting myself.) Needless to say, I was feeling pretty low. As low and dark as a human being can feel. I think the words despair came out of my mouth. I think I heard the words: hopeless, lost, alone, followed by no one can help me. There isn't one person out there in the world who can help me.Read More
There was a time when she hid behind my legs. There was a time when I couldn't leave the house without the shooting pang of guilt in my stomach and the seizing feeling in my chest. Yes, it was (I was sure of it) my heart breaking. Even if she was sound asleep, she could sense me leaving and wake up. She would cry, "Mama!"Read More
Dear Greg, Last night before watching you, my husband of 11 years, drift off to sleep in front of WWII PBS documentary with an architecture book draped across your chest, I asked you: "So we're good. Right? We're agreed that we're not doing anything tomorrow? Cards? Dinner?" And while mid-yawn, you answered in your usual-man-of-few-words way: "Yep!" And then promptly fell asleep.Read More
I turned 39 last week. And I have been doing a lot of mid-life-crisis whining lately. Time is running out!I haven’t done a tenth of the things I thought I would do by this age! I thought I would be J.K. Freaking Rowling by now!Read More
When I try to imagine what hell might be like, I go no further than thinking of a swim meet: It's hot. (90 degrees hot.) It's uncomfortable. (Bleachers or stadium chairs, anyone, for the next six to eight hours while you inhale chlorine and body odor? Super.)Read More
I would be remiss if I didn't take a minute on this Veterans Day to honor some of the true heroes and angels among us--veterans--who have fought valiantly and courageously for our country, especially my own brother Val Curran (U.S. Navy), my grandfather Val Marfiak (U.S. Army), and Uncle Tom Marfiak (U.S. Navy).Read More
Dear Readers, Well, it's finally time.
The book I can't shut up about (and I am sure you're sick of hearing about), Proof of Angels, is finally seeing the light of day. On November 4, 2014--exactly three years from the release of my first novel Proof of Heaven--Proof of Angels will finally be out there in the world.Read More
Recently, I had a friend come to me with a serious crisis. She wasn't looking for advice. She was looking for rapport. She was looking for a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. She felt that when she spoke to others she was being judged.Read More
Train's popular song "Calling On Angels" begins with a universal cry for help:
"I need a sign to let me know you're here...
...I need to know things are gonna look up"
It's no wonder that the song struck a chord with so many. You don't have to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, spiritual, or religious to cry out for help in the darkness for someone to help you in your moment of need or feel the need to have someone assuage your worries, you just have to be human.
And we've all been there. (I was there this morning. And last night. And five minutes ago...). Sometimes I don't know who or what I am talking to when I cry out into the darkness, but I do it anyway. "Just help me get through the next five minutes."
"Help me get through this tough conversation."
"Help me get through this job."
"Help me get through to my daughter."
"Help me be a better mother. Friend. Writer. Wife. Daughter."
"Help me be better."
And though I often cry out into the ether, more often than not, I actually call on my arsenal of angels here on earth, too. My husband. My parents. My sisters. My best friends. My neighbors. Other parents. And I know I am not the only one. What's fascinating to me is that when I ask people who their angels are (not "if" they have them or not, which seems to go without saying), no one needs more than a second to reply:
My sister. My husband.
My best friend.
Many, however, will have difficulty choosing just one. (I know I couldn't). They could sit and talk with me for hours about just how many of these angels they've had in their lives, or how one in particular changed the entire trajectory of their life. Now mind you, many will tell me their angels are still alive and well. Others will say, "My grandmother passed away, but I know she is with me and watching over me." The term angel simply means that someone touched them profoundly, deeply, and transformed them in some way. And what I find fascinating is what they don't call the people who they seem somehow indebted to.
Oh that daughter of mine, she is my mentor.
Oh that husband of mine, he's my guide.
Oh that BFF, she's my hero.
That EMT was my Savior.
No, the word they use to sum up someone who saved their life or steered them back on course during a difficult struggle or stood by them during moments of despair or have just been a steadfast presence in their life is quite simply: An angel.
And let's face it, we all have them. There isn't one person on the planet who doesn't have someone whose got their back or had their back at some point. (Whether we choose to acknowledge it is up to us, not the angel(s).) None of us is alone or gets where we are in life without them. In the beginning, the angels are our parents. Our mothers, in particular, who carried us in their wombs and who brought us into the world, and the ones who fed us, and cared for us and made sure we slept, ate, and were changed. These seemingly simple acts ensured our survival, for that alone we owe a lifetime of gratitude, despite whatever transpired between that birth and death. Then there are all the people, the siblings, the grandparents, the cousins, the teachers, the playmates, the coaches, the infinite number of people who affected us in someway on our journeys to adulthood. I think of my friend P.J. in kindergarten. I still remember her approaching me in the mock mini-kitchenette of Mrs. Roach's classroom and suddenly feeling all the anxiety and fear of starting a new school and being away from my mother for the first time in my life dissipate with her friendly smile. Her twin boys are about the same age now that P.J. and I were when we first met and I have to say, whenever I see pictures of her boys and see their smiles, which are all hers, I can't help but feel gratitude for their mother's friendship. I think of my third grade teacher (also my Kindergarten teacher), Mrs. Roach, and how she read my essay aloud to the class and cracked up laughing while she did it and said, as she handed me the paper back, "Good job." It is because of that angel, I kept writing. And then there are all angels that came into and out of my life--far too soon--and left holes and giant, full-body-not-just-heart-aches, but who I never felt far away from, even when they were gone. Somehow they lived inside me anyway. Their voices guiding me long after they were gone from this earth. And I think of all the ones who came in not-so-benign forms. The ones that yelled, cajoled, and forced me into uncomfortable spots, who pushed me, and made me tougher, stronger, more resilient--not because they were mean, but because they loved me and knew what was best for me when I was too far in the dark to find my way out without them. I think of all the second chance angels, who despite my worst days, my lowest lows, opened their arms and let me back in. Gave me a second shot. Forgave me. Loved me. There are merciful angels who I never got their names, but they pulled me out of smashed cars, let me hitch rides, wrapped my wounds in ERs, sewed me up in ORs, resuscitated me in ambulances, held my hand in lonely waiting rooms. Sometimes their actions were as small as letting me and my wailing baby cut in line at the grocery store so I could get home to feed him. Sometimes their actions were as monumental as driving all night to get me in my darkest hour. Sometimes they were anonymous. The bearers of 500 singles in an unmarked envelope left at my door so that I could pay my rent and avoid eviction. The maker of a sandwich left at my doorstep when I was pregnant and hungry and had no money for food. Sometimes they were all but invisible--the missed traffic light, a moment's hesitation, that helped me avoid a wreck. Sometimes they were the wreck, the lesson learned. Slow down. Pay attention. Be better.
And maybe that's why I wrote Proof of Heaven, and then Proof of Angels. Maybe, I have always known that I would be nothing without them, and I could spend my whole life saying thank you, thank you, thank you to all of them,these angels, and it would never be enough. No book would be enough. No blog post would be enough. And in the end maybe that's the point. Or maybe it's so I take a moment every day to not only say thank you to an angel, but to be an angel to someone else as well.
And so I ask who are your angels? And what kind of angel are you?
Comment below. I will pick a winner at random next week to receive a free copy of my next novel: Proof of Angels.
I saw this image for the first time in an art book and became mesmerized with those little thinking angels who sat at the bottom of the larger Raphael painting. I loved the image so much, I ordered a print and hung it my college dorm room. (I know what you’re thinking: How many college kids have angels hanging on their walls? If it makes me sound any less lame, I hung it just above my posters of Bono and U2). I was totally captivated by these winged creatures—not just Raphael’s treatment of them, but the notion of angels themselves. Though I was raised a Catholic and we prayed to angels as children (“Angel of God, my Guardian dear…”) and I had seen angel pictures and statues in abundance in my childhood home—especially around Christmas—I really had no idea what these things were. I always thought that when people died they became “angels” who then watched over us here on earth. I later learned from a supposed expert on angels (yes, there are people who claim such expertise, I discovered, to my surprise as well) that the term angels suggests that they are not nor have they ever been earthlings—rather they are thought to be messengers from heaven. They also don’t always appear with wings. They can be radiant light, breath, and only sometimes appear with wings. They also only take on human form when necessary. (Duh! Explains Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life then!) According to this expert, the “laws of angels” makes it impossible for angels to interfere with human destiny unless instructed to do so (just like Clarence!). Makes sense (if this sort of thing makes sense to you to begin with). Angels are assigned various tasks, too, such as fighting evil, protecting humanity, safeguarding and watching over children, inspiring beauty, art, and poetry, healing and even helping humans crossover to heaven. Almost every faith has angels—Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims all do. And recent surveys have shown that over 80 percent of Americans believe in some form of angels. Angels like Raphael the Archangel are mentioned in the Jewish Torah (Deuteronomy), in the Koran, and in the many texts of the Christian Bible. According to some angel experts—each of us are assigned two—and both guide us from life to death and only interfere when it is “not our time” according to God’s plan. Good to know all that fuss “To leave space for your Guardian Angel” when I was a kid in church was not for naught.
Good to know, sure, but in the end, to be honest, I just thought the poster was pretty. Eventually, like all of my college day’s fleeting passions (boyfriends included), the poster didn’t last long. I went on with life. And soon my nineties faddish obsession with angels disappeared along with my grungy plaid shirts, Birkenstocks, and bottles of CK I. (Thank God.)
Fast forward 20 years: I am no longer a college freshman. My novel Proof of Heaven is released and I am visiting book clubs and attending signings. Everywhere I go (it’s really not many places but from St. Louis to Connecticut to D.C. and places in between) the people who were kind enough to read my book wanted me to write a sequel to Proof of Heaven. The only problem is: I don’t want to write a sequel. I have no intention of doing so. Nevertheless, readers want me to tell them what happened to Colm. But, I don’t want to tell anyone anything. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was for people to decide for themselves where Colm went (or didn’t go). I wanted people to go on a journey with him and come out the other side a little closer to what they believed—not what I believed.
Then one night while I was at a book club sipping wine and laughing with a bunch of women, a reader turns to me and says, “You should write about Sean. I want to know what happens to him. You should follow up with all the characters.” As most writers will tell you, after writing, rewriting, editing and proofing, and then talking about the same characters for years—you’re over it. You want to move on explore other stories. I said, “Thank you for the suggestion, I’ll definitely keep it in mind,” and moved on to the assorted cheese tray, forgetting about it by the time I shoved the warmed brie in my mouth.
Meanwhile, something was happening to me--to my marriage--to my life. The year leading up the publication of my novel, was to put it mildly, one of the worst years of my life. And let’s just say, I’ve had some doozies along the way. So that is saying something. And it was made all the more terrible because I didn’t tell anyone how terrible I felt, how miserable, sad, scared, lonely and depressed I was. Everyone around me was telling me: Wow! You’re getting published all of your dreams are finally coming true! You’ll be rich and you can retire on the Riviera! Some others, more passive aggressive types would chime in, Must be nice to have all that time to write and chase your dreams. I always just smiled and nodded while thinking, Yeah, by “time” do you mean the hours I spend writing when you’re sleeping? (No, I didn’t actually say that. Uncharacteristically, I bit my tongue.) I was having a really, really crappy year. I was working around the clock--at not one, but two jobs--an editor by day in a nonprofit and an underpaid, overworked adjunct professor by morning and night. I was writing, quite literally in the middle of the night, whenever I could sneak away, all the while being a wife, working every day and raising my two kids. I honestly didn’t think life could get any harder, more difficult, or more lonely.
Then the phone rang.
My daughter Brigid’s school had called to tell me that my daughter was paralyzed on her right side. What? You’ve got to be kidding me? She could not move the right side of her body. She was having difficulty inhaling. I thought this is unreal. She was due to go onstage for her first school play that night so I immediately thought: She’s just panicking. She’s fine. She’s suffering from stage fright. She’s going to be just fine. Only she wasn’t fine. After a day and night in and out of the hospital and exam rooms at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital a doctor sat my husband and I down and showed us a film with what appeared to be a ping pong sized mass growing in Brigid’s lung. I was incredulous. I sat in disbelief shaking my head. My husband and I looked at each other: We thought the same thing at the same time.
No. No. No.
We asked the doctor what we should do. When in doubt, get it out. He told us the only way to know what it was to either, operate and remove it or conduct a bronchoscopy to extract and biopsy the “neoplasm growing in her lung.” A euphemism, we would soon discover for, The stuff we have no idea what to call that is growing in your daughter’s lung.
At some point in the days that followed I had I said to my husband, Greg, the doctor is right: When in doubt, get it out. He knew I was referring to the large black mole that was spreading on his arm. He assured me he had it removed once already and the test came back that the mole was benign. I asked him, for me, to go and get it checked. We didn’t need to take any more chances or test fate anymore.
On April first, as if some sort of cosmic April Fool’s joke, Greg received a call from his doctor who explained that the lab that she had sent his skin biopsy a year prior had made an error. It was not benign after all. After a few days, we got another call. Greg had, at the least, stage 2, possibly stage 3, malignant melanoma. Anyone who has gone through a melanoma diagnosis knows what this means. If it’s stage 2 you’re saved, if it spread beyond the lymph nodes, you may only have months to live. A couple of years if you’re lucky. We both felt like we’d been punched in the stomach. Greg needed to have a large section of the skin and tissue on his arm removed. He needed to have sentinel biopsy and lymphs removed. More than anything he need to have the uncertainty and fear of impending death removed. But, that, we could not take that off of him with a scalpel. His own mother had died when he was a child of cancer under similar circumstances. She had her breasts removed, and was told she was cancer free, but the doctors had missed the cancer growing in her lungs and she passed away soon thereafter. Needless to say, Greg was rightfully overcome by fear and anxiety. There is no way to overstate the black hole he was in.
We scheduled his surgery.
To say the next few days went by in a haze is an understatement. I still had to work. I had edits due for my book. I had kids to feed. I had a husband who very well could die if his cancer was not caught in time. A daughter who wheezed at night and cried in pain as we tried to rid what was growing in her lung with an antibiotics, antiviral and antifungal meds--for what turned out to not be a bacteria, virus or fungus afterall. I honestly didn’t think life could get any harder. (Though, thanks to ample amounts of literature and the nightly news, I knew that life could always get harder. Life has boundless opportunities within it to get even harder still. So it’s not that I was comparing it to others’ tragedies, it was, for me, as tough as it gets.)
We scheduled my daughter’s bronchoscopy and biopsy, too. Greg and Brigid were both operated on within weeks of each other. On the day of Brigid’s procedure, we woke at 3 a.m. and dressed in old bridesmaids’ gowns and tiaras and sipped tea while we watched Princess Kate and Prince William marry in Westminster. She told me she would grow up to marry Harry, and I wished for all the world that to be true.
In the days that followed waiting for results from both procedures, I can honestly say I came very near to complete physical and emotional collapse. I had never felt so alone and so terrified in my life. My fate rested completely in the hands of fortune or God or chaos. It made no sense to me whatsoever. If tests came back any other way than negative for disease, I very well was facing a world without half of my family. Honestly, I never said it out loud, but I felt it over and over: I just can’t do this. I am not strong enough to do this. Please take this cup from me. I prayed. I bargained. Give me cancer instead, God. Let me be the one to die. I felt somehow at fault. Blindsided. I had written a novel about a boy who dies and causes his mother immense heartbreak. Was life imitating art? Had I conjured this? Caused this? Was my fixation and anxiety over almost losing my son Colm several years earlier causing me to now pay by losing my daughter and husband? Did the universe act in such away? Could God be so vindictive? I admit it, I thought it. I am not saying it was right or good, but I felt totally responsible and yet totally powerless at the same time.
I couldn’t sleep at night. Nor could Greg. He paced. We didn’t speak to each other. The gulf between was growing deeper and deeper. We learned something monumental about each other that we hadn’t known until true crisis befell us. When our fear response in our amygdala’s kicked in: He was all flight and I was all fight. He wanted nothing more than to go to our room, close the door, and lay in bed for hours. I wanted nothing more than to face everything and everyone head on. I thought if I made enough phone calls, looked up enough facts on websites, made enough dinners, folded enough laundry, wrote enough words, I would somehow defeat cancer--defeat this black cloud that descended on my family. I thought if I stayed busy--made sure everyone got to where they needed to be, every blogger got their article I was writing to promote my book, everybody I worked for during the day received my assignments on time--then all would be well.
But I was growing resentful and mad. I didn’t understand how or why he was so ready to give up. So ready to accept that the cards had been dealt and this was his fate.
I called my mother.
I remember it like no other memory from that time--as fixed and real--because I know up until I made that call, I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
It was in the middle of the day on Saturday and Greg was having an especially horrible time. I didn’t want the kids to see him like this and if I had to be honest, I didn’t want to see him like this. There is a reason, I thought, that some wise person made couples vow their love and marriage even in sickness and health. You don’t know your partner, you don’t know love, you don’t know commitment until the person you love is so ill and so far gone that they are completely unloveable. Unable to face him, unable to face cancer, and all that it might take from us, I packed our kids into our car and headed to the movie theater. (I swear we watched every animated movie we could during the months of March, April, and May of 2011.) I didn’t make it a mile from my house before I felt the wave of anxiety, fear, exhaustion, and sadness overwhelm me. I knew at any moment I was going to cry, scream, or crack in two. I pulled over into a gas station, stepped out the car, started to fill it up with gas and dialed my my parents’ home number.
“Mom, I need you.”
I felt it completely. I wanted my mom. I was a 35 year old wife and mother of two and I wanted my mommy. I wanted someone to tell me I wasn’t alone. I wanted someone to tell me I could handle this. I wanted someone to tell me this would all work out, that in a few years it would be nothing more than a memory. I needed her to remind me of my wedding vows--sickness and health. I needed her to tell me what I knew already--that I needed to stick by my husband, that I needed to give him hope, even if he didn’t have any. Even if I, a skeptical cynic, didn’t think he had much reason to hope.
I can’t remember any specific words she said. All I remember is my hands holding the gas pump, clutching it for dear life. As if that nozzle filling up my tank as the only thing holding me to the earth. I remember crying. I can’t do this all alone. Help me. I remember hearing her voice and feeling, no matter what the words, that I wasn’t alone. I do recall, vaguely, her reassurances that I was doing the right thing by taking the kids out of the house, taking care of myself. I remember her telling me she loved me. It felt as if the arms of an angel wrapped itself around me and calmed me instantly. Just minutes before I was so desperate so alone, and then suddenly, because of her, I knew I had the strength to carry on.
There would be many more days like that. And eventually Brigid’s neoplasm disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived, and Greg’s cancer was completely removed and he only has to go in for check-ups every six-months now. (It will always be, for me, one of those mysterious miracles. If Brigid had not gotten ill, we would have never noticed Greg’s arm; we would have never pushed to have it taken it out. Brigid in the end was fine, and so was Greg.) In the meantime, my book hit the bookshelves and as happy I was to celebrate my lifelong dream come true, I have to admit, it was somewhat of a letdown. (Don’t get me wrong, I know how incredibly blessed and lucky I was and am and I know ten years earlier I would have given a limb if it meant I would be published.) But, in my, admittedly CRAZY mind, I felt like I was an epic failure. I had imagined the moment of my debut as something so much more than it was. There was no starred Kirkus review. (I had some lovely reviews, I will admit that). I had No Debut Author feature story in Oprah Magazine. No review in the New York Times. No worldwide book tour, film rights, foreign rights packages. Oprah didn’t call me personally to tell me how awesome I am. Go figure. It sold decently, but it was to me, not enough. It didn’t soar on the NYT best seller list. I know all of these are just fantasies of every budding writer. These are things every naive writer thinks is going to happen once they get that elusive pub deal. Instead the reality of publishing was surprisingly less dazzling. And I felt like a fool schlepping it on blogs and my Facebook fan pages. In a world that measures success by how many Twitter followers or Facebook Fans you have and how much money you’ve earned, I was coming up slightly smaller than a centimeter. I was nothing. A nobody. My book a pretty dust collector on my shelf. I lived my entire adult love struggling to fit writing into my 2 kid-2 job life and I was looking for a break, something, anything to make my--no, my family’s life--easier and I failed them. In fact I had made their life harder. When I should have been taking care of my husband and daughter and devoting all my time to them, I was working and writing and editing. And for what, I thought? Nothing special. Some bloggers and Amazon reviewers said nasty things, and I felt like calling them and personally chewing them out. Do they have any idea how hard I worked? Do they have any idea how much of my heart, soul, and life I put in that work? I have to admit it was crushing. Soul crushing. The entire year leading up to the publication of Proof of Heaven and the months following were rough. There is no way to pussy foot around that fact. We were overwhelmed with medical bills and debt. And then I was laid off. Perfect. Just perfect. Now I had no income. Then to add salt on the wound, another book with the same name Proof of Heaven by Dr. Alexander was soaring on the best seller charts. Granted his was a true story account of his near-death experience, but I still couldn’t help but feel slighted. By whom? What? I had no idea. I know the universe owes me nothing. I know that, but still, every time I got an email or Facebook comment from someone telling me they loved my book, only to realize they were talking about another Proof of Heaven, I very well wanted to scream.
But, every single time I was about to lose it, crack, come undone, call it whatever you want, something miraculous would happen. Over and over and over again, it happened. An e-mail would appear in my inbox. I would open it and it would be from someone who happened to read my book--usually by mistake. The writer of the said email would explain how they were looking for Dr. Eban Alexander’s book and brought home my book by accident. Nevertheless, they stuck to it and discovered that they didn’t hate it. (Thanks!) In fact many wrote to me to tell me how their book affected them, changed them, and in some ways comforted them after the loss of a loved one. I was touched. Overwhelmed. But, more than that, I took these notes as some sort of sign of encouragement that I needed to keep writing. Despite however badly I thought I had failed or let myself or my family down, I needed to keep writing. It happened more times than I could count. I would be frustrated and lonely and feeling like a complete loser, and someone would stop me in my kids’ school parking lot and tell me they read my book. It was like they were angels, actual messengers who knew how to reach out and touch me at the exact moment I needed them most. Many of these angels had a singular message in common, all them wrote to tell me that they had lost someone close to them, usually a child, and in a couple of instances more than one child, and many faced unspeakably difficult challenges along the way, and all of them had a deep and profound sense that they were not alone. They felt compelled to tell me that like the characters in my book, felt that someone was with them every day and watching over them, and that there was hope that they would see their loved one again. Some admitted that they had their doubts, but more so than not, readers felt strongly that those who had gone before them were watching over them and loving them. They had all the proof of heaven and angels that they needed.
And so I started writing Proof of Angels--a very different book than the one you have now in your hands. For months I was having visions of a woman Birdie who came to me in dreams--she was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning and the last the person I saw when I fell asleep. I felt like I was having long conversations with an old friend. And I realized something, I not only understood Birdie, I just may be bit like her. I knew what it was like to have a vision of what your life would be like and then for reasons beyond your control things just didn’t work out the way you hoped. So you get a little bitter. A little hard. Not just hard on yourself but hard on others for no other reason than life was hard on you. I knew what it was like to be a single mom, a hard worker, and have this calling to create and make things beautiful--make art. I also got my character Claire who was completely unprepared and torn by her modern life--juggling a career, her children and husband--and feeling completely overwhelmed by the crushing daily responsibilities.
I thought I wrote my best work. I was so proud. So full of myself. So certain. This is it. This is the book. Three months after pushing send to my editor, I received a call from my agent. The news was grim. The book was unreadable. Not good. Nothing like they had hoped or expected. One reader stopped reading just a couple of chapters in. I tried to remain calm. I took the criticism for what it was: criticism. Meant to make me better. Meant to push me further. I had two options: Just give up the book or rewrite a new one from scratch. Instinct told me to do the former, but I knew not to give into that self-destructive urge. I knew I needed to keep at it. Fortunately, for me, my kids and Greg were at my parents’ house for the week. I could cry at night without having my kids hear me. I could process all the range of emotions I felt. I felt like a giant failure. A huge loser. I created characters that had become like family to me and others didn’t like them. It’s nothing personal, but it is totally personal. It was personal to me. But, it was also an opportunity. A second chance. My editor was giving me a second chance. Not many people get them. She owed me nothing. And yet she believed in me and I didn’t want to let her down. I didn’t want to let my family down. Myself down.
My mind circled back that week to all the people I had talked to over the past three years since publication--all of the stories of angels people shared with me and all the requests to find out more about the characters that lived and breathed inside Proof of Heaven. To my editor, it seemed simple really: Tell what happened to all of them through Sean. After a couple of false starts, I pitched the idea of the book PROOF OF ANGELS to my agent and editor. I wanted a book about second chances. About failure and forgiveness. About doubt and faith, and about all the angels who touch us along the way, the ones who might just bump into us long enough to nudge us on our way and the ones who stay in our lives forever and guide us indefatigably toward the light. It took me a long time, a lot of wasted energy to see what was so clear and simple right in front of me: write a sequel. I couldn’t have done it without my editor and agent. I couldn’t have seen through the darkness without their light. And was seemed difficult was in fact simple after all.
We’re not alone. Angels are among us. They are right here, every day, all around us, guiding us, guarding us, and lighting the way. I guess you could say, this cynic, like doubting Tom and bullheaded Sean, who had to find out everything the hard way, finally believes in angels.
How Proof of Heaven Came to be...(Appeared in PROOF OF HEAVEN P.S. Section, 2011) This story began to unfold nearly 30 years ago. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and my siblings, when my father, covered in soot from a fire he had fought the night before, walked into our kitchen and threw himself onto my mother. Her body almost collapsed under his weight, but somehow she mustered the strength to hold up all 250 pounds of him. His body convulsed as he told her that my uncle, Butch Melody, and my father’s friend, Joey Halas, had been crushed when a floor of a burning warehouse collapsed on top of them. They died instantly.
I ran and hid in my parents’ closet, clutching my father’s church loafers and inhaling the faint scent of his pipe smoke and Vitalis. That morning, I prayed to God over and over: Please don’t take my dad. From that moment on I realized two things: 1) In an instant, everything I knew could be gone, and 2) I was powerless to do anything about it. My parents were devout Catholics, who raised us with the belief that if you prayed to God, he would listen and that when we died we would all go to Heaven, where we would be together as a family and where God, the Angels, and the Communion of Saints would be waiting for us. My family life was bookended by these two realities: Fire and God. On one end, we were held up by the Fire Department and the unique sort of family that came with it, and on the other, we had our Church. We were Secular Franciscans, the type of family who said Rosaries when we got in the car. We said Grace before meals, and prayers and novenas before bed. We stopped wherever we were when the sirens sounded and prayed for God’s and St. Florian’s protection for my father. We went to the Stations of the Cross together on Fridays during Lent, and to all of the High Mass services. My brothers were altar servers, and we girls sang in the choir. My mother taught our parish’s first religious education classes from our kitchen table. For years children streamed into our home, where my mom would tell detailed stories of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us. She dressed us in costumes, and we acted out the Nativity or the Crucifixion on the hearth in front of our fireplace. I believed my mother was the greatest storyteller who had ever lived, and I attribute my love for a good story to her and the Bible as much as I do to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charles Dickens, and Louisa May Alcott.
We children were extreme in our devotion, too, but we were far more disgruntled. We hated that my parents always invited wayward guests, lost souls, lonely widows or widowers, introverted bachelors, and even priests to our house for dinner on Sundays and even precious holidays. My parents’ idea of family literally included everyone they met. The kettle and the pot of coffee were always on, and my mother and father could be found holding court at any time of the day or night.
But I had a secret and it was hard to keep. I wasn’t so sure I believed it all. Throughout my childhood, I had never actually seen or experienced God in spite of all my piety. Like the character Colm in my story, I collapsed on a regular basis as a child (and never experienced the visions I had often heard people with near-death experiences had). I was what my family called “delicate” or “a fainter.” I was frequently short of breath, listless, weak, in incredible amounts of pain, and prone to unconsciousness. I missed school often, and at one point in the sixth grade, I was absent for more than a month while the rest of the family went on with work and school. As a teenager, I pushed myself by playing sports and even training for marathons because I didn’t want anything or anyone to slow me down. But since my first collapse, which occurred more than 25 years ago, I have probably hit the floor nearly a hundred times. I have gone down on busy Metro platforms with subways ripping by within inches of my head, in museums surrounded by crowds of strangers, on sidewalks, and always it seemed, at the most inopportune moments.
One night in 2003 when I was 26 my heart stopped beating while driving my daughter home from preschool, nearly killing us both. I remember the world going very quiet and still while looking at her for a brief second in the rearview mirror, and I knew there was nothing I could do before it all went black.
My father, who happened to be outside on that cold January day chopping wood, stepped out into the road because he heard a speeding car. As it came closer he saw my body slumped over the wheel, and the car accelerating as it barreled toward him. He leapt out of the way as my car crashed through a large, icy snow bank and came to a stop within a couple of feet of my parents’ living room window. He ran immediately to my daughter and pulled her out of the vehicle. She was safe, thanks in part to the snowsuit that packed her so snuggly into the car seat. I don’t have any memory of any of the accident, but in the ambulance I remember my friend Nibby, an EMT fireman who knew my father, yelling at me to come back, screaming at me to stay with them.
I was met at the hospital by a police officer who had come to take away my license. As sick and confused as I was, I was more upset about losing my license than the accident. Without the ability to drive, I couldn’t get to my job. I was a single mom at the time and had mountains of debt. I received no child support from my daughter’s father, and I was living in my parents’ basement while juggling two demanding jobs. Losing my license was equivalent to financial suicide.
Shortly after, I moved to Cincinnati to be close to my boyfriend (now husband) and where I would have access to reliable public transportation and good hospitals. It was in one of those hospitals during a routine doctor’s appointment that I flatlined again. When I woke up, there was a flurry of doctors and nurses standing over me—others rushing at me with needles and paddles and screaming at me to wake up. (I woke up spontaneously after almost 2 minutes of being asystole). Later on, through the chaos, I found the calm, smiling face of an Indian doctor, who said, “There you are, my good girl.” Within days I had a pacemaker installed and a treatment plan for the rest of my life. I was eventually diagnosed with several related disorders all linked to a form of dysautonomia, which was explained to me as a condition in which the brain was at war with the heart and other parts of my body. It summed up my life perfectly in more ways than one. My brain and heart often wanted entirely different things.
I have since been diagnosed with Malignant Neurocardiogenic Syncope Disorder, POTS, and left atrial reentrant tachycardia. However, my conditions are well managed (I can even drive now), but I’ve been told they are incurable, so I do my best to take care of myself and my children.
This novel first took root in me in 2006, when while bathing my infant son, I watched as he stopped breathing and began to die in my arms. He was sitting up one minute in the water and then suddenly he collapsed. He would have slammed his head on the tub had I not caught him in my arms. Within seconds, his face went ashy, his lips turned blue, and he stopped breathing and moving. It transformed me. I had never been on the other side of watching someone lose consciousness. In order to deal with my fear of losing my son to what I thought was my own condition, I began to write PROOF OF HEAVEN after I returned home for the hospital. (Colm’s collapse was thought to be a possible epileptic attack or severe asthma attack. It was most likely the latter, since he has since suffered from several subsequent asthma attacks.)
That night a million thoughts raced through my head, but in the end all I could think was: What would I do? What would I do if I lost my son? How does any mother go on? Later that same night when I couldn’t sleep, I sat staring at him and I had a vision (the closest thing I have ever come to a religious experience) that I knew I had to get on paper. The first chapter flowed out of me, but I left the file on my computer untouched. Meanwhile, I taught English literature, acquired and edited several books for others, and continued to write all sorts of other stories and articles. One day while cleaning my computer, I accidentally found a file named PROOF, and as I was about to press delete, for some reason, I started to read it. Cate, Dr. Basu, Sean, and Colm started to live and breathe inside my head and they literally wouldn’t let me sleep until I finished putting their story on paper. In writing this novel, I was able to see things clearly for the first time.
For me this story is a really not about proving whether there is or isn’t a heaven, or a God. I leave those questions for my readers to decide. What interests me are the questions we face in life and how we mere mortals deal with them. My wish is to understand the limitless capacity our hearts and minds have to embrace and understand love. It’s about what makes a family a family because many of us, like the characters in my book, craft our own version of a family. PROOF OF HEAVEN is also about sacrifice—we all make sacrifices every day for the people we love. And, ultimately this story is a love story between a parent and a child—the unique sort of love that knows no bounds. It travels the world. It’s bigger and shinier than the largest, most ornate cathedrals, both the ones built by man and the ones found in nature. It blossoms from the soul and expands and grows and eventually explodes—with an energy only equaled to the electricity and energy of the stars—and the human heart.