Proof of Angels: The Story Behind the Story

angelspicI 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.