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.