Thursday, October 31, 2013

Slipping Into Darkness

My downfall began at a Dunkin Donuts – and this time it had nothing to do with cinnamon twists or Bavarian kreme filling.
It was Thursday evening, December 1, 2011. I had been battling the flu for well over a week by then. I’d told myself it was the flu, anyway, which was odd since I’d gotten my flu shot a few weeks before. But, no matter. I was sure it would run its course and I’d soon be feeling better. If there was anything I’d learned from seventeen years of listening to my physician ex-husband field patient telephone calls in the middle of the night, it was that a virus can’t be treated with medication – you just have to let it run its course. So that was my plan.
 Unfortunately, I began to feel so sick that night that I didn’t have the strength to watch my daughter’s school choral performance at the nearby community college. I told her I’d pick her up when it was over, then drove a few blocks to the donut shop and ordered a cup of hot tea. As usual, I had my laptop case with me. I was on deadline with a book and tried to grab whatever time I had to write. My plan was to sit down, drink the tea, and type.
Didn’t happen.
I began to feel incredibly weak and stiff. I could barely lift the Styrofoam cup to my lips. I felt a strangely intense pain shoot up the left side of my neck. All I could do is sit at that table and stare.
This damn flu would just not let up, I told myself. I must have worked out too hard in the gym, I told myself. Clearly, I must have looked like hell, because a customer at a nearby table got up and walked over to me.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
I told him I was.
Why the hell did I do that? What if I’d told him the truth – that I felt like I was going to die and probably needed to go to the hospital? Would I still have my leg? Would I still have my life?
I dragged myself out of the Dunkin Donuts and picked up my daughter. I barely made it up the steps that night, and immediately fell into bed.
Tubing on the Potomac River, July 2011

I lost a day. The next thing I remember it was Friday evening. My daughter, Kathleen, was spending the night with a friend. My son, Conor, came home for the weekend from college. Many months later he would tell me he’d planned to go out with friends that night but changed his mind for no particular reason, and caught a ride home.
 That move saved my life.
Conor was there when I started to go under. He brought me an ice pack and ibuprofen when my left knee began to hurt so much that I was in agony. I became violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea, so embarrassed that I was making such a mess that I forced myself to gather up the soiled pajamas and bedclothes and put them in a laundry basket. I even managed to drag myself into the shower, not once but at least three times. I recall standing under the hot water, shaking from head to toe. I had to hold onto the wall of the shower to stand. Conor called his father, my doctor ex-husband, and told him how sick I was. John instructed him to call an ambulance.
I vaguely remember coming downstairs, so shaky I had to grip the oak banister with both hands to keep from falling.  I remember sitting in a living room chair to wait for the ambulance, in some kind of bizarre dream state. I remember the ambulance crew putting me on a stretcher and taking me outside my front door, down the front steps, and into the dark and cold night. They began to ask me questions. 
What is your name?
What medications do you take?
What medical conditions do you have?
What are your symptoms?
I knew all the answers, obviously, but couldn't seem to answer. It was the weirdest damn thing, but my brain was no longer connected to my mouth. I couldn’t remember how to form words. And I had this strange sense that I was watching myself slip away. It was as if I had become an objective third party living in what used to be my own private body and soul. I know that sounds bizarre, but that’s what it felt like. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh look. She’s slipping away.”
That was the last coherent thought I had for many, many weeks. It would be three months before I'd see my home again. And when I did return, I would have to crawl up those same steps, backwards, on my ass. 
That book I was writing on the night of December 1, 2011? I'm still trying to finish it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

God, Love, and Jose Cuervo

Over the course of the last two years, I’ve spent many hours pondering one particular issue: Why am I still here? Why did I live? If I happen to verbalize this cosmic conundrum (while in the company of my good friend Jose Cuervo, for instance) anyone within earshot usually tells me there’s a simple answer.
“God has a plan for you, Susan.”
Hmmm. Now that’s a loaded statement, isn’t it? In order for me to go there, I have to believe in God. Plus, I have to believe that the supreme power of every-freakin'-thing took time out of his/her hectic schedule to be concerned about little ole me, one of the approximately seven billion severely flawed and struggling human beings currently alive on this planet, which is only one of an infinite number of similar planets that might exist in this infinite universe.
This is usually when I order that second margarita.
But now’s not the time to debate the existence of God. There will be plenty of time to sort that out in future blogs. Right now, I’d like to touch on the thing I know saved me from death. It’s something I am certain exists and might even be another name for “God” – and that is LOVE.
Before I share my “oh-shit-I’m-headed-for-the-tunnel-of-white-light” story, I want to define that word. Yes, I write about “love” in my books. I write stories about romantic love between one man and one woman, but those love stories never unfold in a vacuum. All my romance stories take place within a greater context. I often explore the dynamics of love between friends. Or parents and children. Siblings. Pet owners and pets. Sometimes I even sneak in something about compassion for strangers, empathy for the human condition in general, and a sense of connectedness to all living beings and the natural world.
So when I talk about “love” in this blog, which I will do a lot, I’m referring to any or all of those things. I’ll do my best to keep it all straight for you.
The point is, I’m still alive because love saved me.
In what I now know was the first couple touch-and-go weeks of my hospitalization, I experienced something strange and wonderful. In the depths of my consciousness, I saw death coming to fetch me. Death looked like a shadow of soot seeping around the edges of my inner light. I acknowledged the ominous shape. I told it I knew it was there and I knew exactly what it was. Then I told that motherfucker to hit the road.
Suddenly, a fierce rush of love and goodness pushed the cloud away. I felt it. I saw it. And I am convinced that force was not just my own determination to live. It was the power being generated by the medical personnel who worked frantically to save me, along with the hundreds of people who prayed for me, thought of me, and asked God to spare my life.
Once the dark cloud disappeared, I didn’t fear its return. I continued to feel protected, and knew death wouldn’t dare come back for me anytime soon, because it wasn’t my time to go.
Love is that powerful.

With my BFF, Arleen, Santa Fe NM 2005

           This parade of love and goodness had a drum majorette, my best friend of twenty years, Arleen. She was with me every moment of this disaster. She kept an email journal during my illness, which she sent to an army of friends and family. Arleen chronicled events with writing so heartfelt it puts most of us “pros” to shame. Because she rarely left my side, this is her story as much as it is mine. In fact, for the first three months of my illness, it was her minute-by-minute burden to carry. Along with my brother, my ex-husband, and my son, Arleen became a “health care agent” who could make medical decisions on my behalf. She also paid my bills, washed my hair, and plucked my eyebrows. She laughed with me when there was very little to laugh about.
         Here is an example from her journal:

Date: 12/23/11
          Yesterday, as we all crowded in Susan’s room, I was privileged to witness a magical moment. Susan, in a very clear and eloquent manner, told all that she had an amazing life, full of love, creativity, and joy, and that she wanted to go back to that life. She said she wanted to start her journey to wellness and knew that meant amputating her leg. Susan said, “I don’t care what I look like on the outside, and frankly, I don’t think anyone else gives a shit, either!”
She knew she was so much more than a leg. The amazing, brave, joyous, gentle, creative, and kind spirit that is Susan will remain.
We all signed the consent form. It was done.  Yet, even at that defining moment, Susan had us laughing, and put all at ease. I left Susan with joy because I knew her heart and spirit remained intact, and will only become stronger.  I told her how brave she was, and she asked me to remind her of that when she breaks down in frustration.  Susan has no delusions, and when she needs me to I will cry with her, pick her up, and push her on. It’s what we’ve done for each other a thousand times!

Arleen has done all of that and much, much more over the last two years.  I guess that's the problem with becoming love personified -- it's a big job.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The One-Legged Goddess of Romance

This blog is a love story.
It’s not the kind of love story I usually write, where everything makes sense and a thoroughly happy ending is guaranteed. No one’s life is like that, which is why romance novels – and their “happily ever afters” – generate more than a billion dollars in sales each year.  We all need a break from the real world, a world where really bad shit happens to basically good people for no reason at all.
This blog will be about how I’m learning to love myself again. I promise to keep the self-pity to a minimum here, as I strive to do in my day-to-day life, but I’m not making any promises when it comes to rage, sadness, hilarious absurdity, serendipity, ridiculousness, frustration, or joy. That shit is just going to come out without a filter in this blog. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing it?  If you wanted to read quality fiction, you would read one of my novels. (Which I highly recommend, by the way.) But this shit? This shit is real.
Let’s start in in the fall of 2011. I was minding my own business. I stepped off the metaphorical curb and got hit by a metaphorical bus. This bus had a fancy medical name: necrotizing fasciitis. It wasn’t a term I’d heard of until the night of December 4, 2011, when I lay on an exam table in my local emergency room, just about dead, mumbling, “What happened to me?”
One of the biggest, baddest mo-fos of the infectious disease world happened to me. At the time, I had no way of knowing I had just been slammed by a headline-grabbing disease that would mutilate my body and leave tread marks across the perfect little life I’d created for myself. I had contracted what was commonly referred to as "flesh-eating bacteria,"and it tried its best to kill me.
Corolla, NC October 2011
Corolla, NC 2012

And none of it made any sense. I was healthy, happy, and quite full of myself in the fall of 2011. I’d written two books and a novella that year. I’d traveled the world. I’d been working out with a personal trainer and was stronger than I’d ever been in my life. I was finally emerging from the dark post-divorce years and was dating a hottie twelve years my junior. I lived in a pretty little house with my wonderful teenagers and goofy dogs and believed that life was what I made it – and life was wonderful.
So what if I hadn’t been feeling so great for about a week? I was a little rundown. A little stressed. I knew I didn’t need to see my family doctor because it was probably a virus and it would go away on its own, the way it always did for me, a chick who was fit and cute and talented and successful and dating a young hottie and all.
Bam! Beneath the flesh-eating bus I went, thrown by fate, or God, or karma, or the laissez-faire randomness of the universe. Take your pick. Regardless, I should have died. Almost two years later, I am still recovering, but I will never again be that woman who stepped off the curb and into the path of this disease.
             No one has been able to figure out why I got ill, which is probably the most maddening part of it all. There wasn’t a cut or scrape to be found on my body, but strep bacteria had somehow wedged itself deep inside the flesh, bone, and muscle of my left leg, destroying everything in it’s path. On that night in December, I was helicoptered from my small town hospital to University of Maryland Shock Trauma, already in septic shock. My blood pressure tanked and my fever soared. My kidneys stopped functioning. I couldn’t breathe on my own. My heart went haywire. Doctors said they’d never seen lab results like mine in a patient who was still alive. When my brother pressed him, one surgeon said I had a fifteen percent chance of survival, but admitted that was a generous guess. He advised my family to prepare for my death and added that – if by some miracle I survived – I would likely suffer severe brain damage.
And speaking of odds, the doctors said that the chances of a healthy, strong, young(ish) woman such as myself getting this disease out of nowhere was about as likely as a person being hit by a train, struck by lightning, and contracting HIV in the same day.
            Clearly, I’m alive and back at my laptop. But the real miracle is that I’m healthy. My kidneys are normal. My brain works (well, my kids might challenge that . . .) My heart is fine, though I now sport a precautionary defibrillator/pacemaker that makes airport security more fun than ever. But I am healthy only because I chose to amputate the diseased leg instead of take all the risks associated with trying to save it. It’s a reality I’ll live with every minute of every day for the rest of my life. It was the right decision, no question, but it still seems like a bad dream sometimes. I wake up every morning surprised to find only one set of toes peeking back at me, and it takes a moment to reacquaint myself with the facts: I was hospitalized for three months, endured about twenty surgical procedures, and really shouldn’t be breathing. This blog will tell the story of my journey from near-death back to life, how a bestselling romance author more accustomed to whipping up happy endings for fictional characters has to find the courage to create one for herself in the real world, a world very different from the one she’s always known.
     Stay tuned.