Bittersweet Beginnings

So, I wrote a book…

sunflowerAs I begin the daunting task of finding an agent and publisher, I feel the need to explain why I wrote the book in the first place.  Not why I wrote a book; but why I wrote this particular book.  Friends expected me to write something edgy and complex, more like the contemporary adult fiction I often read.  They were surprised when I told them that my book is called The Brown Baggers, that the main character is a lunch lady, that the story involves a little bit of magic, and that it is written for tweens.  And there’s not a swear word in it.

The inspiration for this book came from my neighbor and friend, Kristin, who was in the final stage of terminal cancer.  We went to lunch right before Christmas, a nod to normalcy under extremely sad times, to catch up with regular things like holiday plans, neighborhood news, and word of a gourmet grocery store opening down the street.

At the time, Kristin had three small children, Brandon, age 8, Paige, age 6, and an infant, Hope, born during the period in which Kristin had discovered she had Triple Negative Breast Cancer and began risky, prenatal treatments to prolong her life and ensure the healthy birth of her baby.

She told me about her daily routine:  the good cry she had in the shower each morning followed by a detoxifying kale smoothie and an ongoing internal dialogue to stay positive and productive while warding off feelings of anger and desperation and injustice.

She apologized for having to stop every now and then to catch her breath, her voice raspy from chemo and her chest heavy with fluid in her lungs.

Kristin and her family had just returned from vacation on St. John island, her favorite family destination, and I asked her in all seriousness why she didn’t just move the family there for the duration, to live out the end in paradise.  She admitted that she and her husband had considered it, in jest.  However, her main priority was to continue to live day to day with a sense of normalcy for the kids.


How was this normal, a vibrant, thirty-nine year old woman given eighteen to thirty-six months to live while carrying her third child?  Doesn’t this call for extreme bucket list adventures?

But she insisted that she didn’t have a bucket list.  She did not have a need for big adventures at this point.  She just wanted to….Be.  To snuggle up and read with her children in bed next to her.  To walk them to the bus stop and wait with the other moms.  To enjoy the Mother’s Day music program at school, to celebrate Paige’s first communion, and to take Brandon and his friends to a monster truck show for his birthday, to dance with her husband at the Memorial Day party at their club.  Normal things…

But also, she admitted, she wanted to experience quiet moments of awe with her children.  Things that most people take for granted when they believe they have thirty or fifty good years left to live.  Things that seem quite ordinary on the surface; but to the dying and those accompanying them on their treacherous journey, become something more powerful:  watching Paige learn to ride her bike, taking Brandon on a trip to the art museum, wading into the waves of Lake Michigan in the briskness of spring, bringing the new baby home from the hospital.

She soldiered on as everyone around her watched and waited and hoped for a miraculous recovery.  It was during this time I began to write a story in the spirit of Kristin’s desire to find something magical in the everyday experience.  She said she wanted her children to remain children throughout this ordeal.  To keep their innocence, as she put it.  To be full of lightness and joy and open to infinite possibilities.

She kept them from the details of her painful radiation treatments and fruitless all night internet searches for clinical trials.  She kept them from her feelings that seesawed between dejection and fury.  Instead she maintained a practical and positive front even as she prepared the children for her double-mastectomy.

It was a beautiful moment when Paige announced to my daughter, “Boobs are stupid and my mom doesn’t need them anyway.”  Amen to that, Sister.

On word of Kristin’s passing, our friend Trish in London swears she saw a cloud overhead, the shape of Kristin’s petite but powerful body, flying through the sky, arms outstretched, like a superhero.  A sign, Trish said.  Kristin with her fist above her head, onward into the heavens.  She described this image to me by phone as I was washing dishes.

It was possible, I thought.  And I looked out the window up at the clouds hoping for my own special sign from Kristin.  But there was nothing in sight but a Dixie cup full of dirt on the windowsill with a couple of sunflower seeds somewhere below the surface.

My daughter had planted the seeds during a Sunday School picnic three weeks prior, and as these things go in my household, no one remembered to water it.  The soil was dried up and cracked and ready for the trash.  For kicks, I watered it and whispered to it and asked for a sign.  Then I went out for a bike ride to be alone with my sadness and looked up at the clouds for superhero shapes of Kristin.

When I returned home, five shoots peeked out from the dirt; one of them an inch above the surface.  By the next morning they had grown four inches, one slightly taller than the others.  The plants continued to grow, so weak and thin at first, that I tied them with string to toothpicks for support.  Quickly they outgrew toothpicks and I switched to twisty-ties and chopsticks, garden expert that I was.  I transplanted the plants into a larger pot and one continued to thrive and crowd the others out.  It’s growth so rapid I swear I could see it stretching sunwards before my very eyes.  In no time, leaves formed like appendages, the stalk grew stubble like a woman who had no time for shaving, and the stem curved into a lovely neck on which something of a face formed surrounded by petals that looked like hair blown back by the breeze.

Watching the sunflower, The Brown Baggers began to take full form in my mind.

As I wrote the first half of the book, I sat near the flower on my front porch and saw that as it tracked the sun across the sky, as heliotropic plants do, it looked like it was watching the comings and goings of Kristin’s family in the house next door.  And then of course, came the end of the season and all things must pass.

But for that summer, I had that simple pleasure of watching a sunflower grow:  A wonder of nature, evidence of the divine, an event that transcended the natural order of things.

All names have been changed for privacy.

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