Monday, December 12, 2016

WunderGuy vs. The Brain Tumor: The Finale

or: Elegy for Half of Me

Canoeing the St. Joseph River in 2009.
It's over.

On Saturday, December 3, shortly before 10 a.m., Robert, my husband of 28 years and my best friend for over 3 decades, passed away.

Robert had a great sense of humor, but he was never a great joke teller. Though one of our first dates including trading increasingly awful jokes, punch lines were never his forte. For years there has been only one joke that he told often and well:

I want to die peacefully, in my sleep, like my grandfather... (slight pause for effect)
Not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car.

He got his wish. No joke.

On Saturday, the house was crawling with people who came to pay their respects and to keep me company.

The Hospice nurse came shortly after I called her. Though Robert had been unable to communicate or to respond for several weeks, I'd gotten in the habit of speaking to him as if he could understand everything that was going on around him. I had to resist the urge to introduce him to the Hospice nurse and explain to him the reason she was in the house.

The nurse pronounced him dead, signed an official-looking piece of paper, and then began a seek-and-destroy mission for Robert's meds. With my husband's body lying behind me, those of us who were alive and remained dumped his medication into a plastic baggie full of kitty litter to create a goopy toxic sludge.

I spent the day calling friends and family to tell them the news.

My gorgeous 20 year-old boyfriend.
Later in the afternoon, Bryan and Kendyll, came from the funeral home. They put Robert's body on a gurney and covered it with a black plastic body bag. The bag had a multi-colored quilt design on it; oddly homey. I remarked on it. "He didn't strike me as a red velvet type of guy," Bryan said, which made me realize that every time he gets a call, he has to make a decision -- red velvet or homey quilt? -- about someone he has likely never met.

Friends came, and kept coming, offering condolences, bringing cookies, asking what they could do to help.

On Sunday, the medical supply company came and retrieved Robert's hospital bed that had dominated our little living room and the wheelchair that was parked at our dining room table. In the space of a few hours, much of the trappings of this past year, the physical markers of Robert's slow demise, were gone.

Robert and I met in the early weeks of our freshman year at Andrews University. In those days, before cell phones, night owl me stayed up with some friends and prank called the boys' dorm. One of the numbers I called was Robert's. We ended up talking for over two hours.

The next day, as I was standing in the cafeteria line with my boyfriend, I heard "Hey Ami!" When I turned, a boy waved at me. "It's Robert!" Shortly after that, we started dating.

On our second date, he asked me to marry him. Which freaked me out. Of course I said "no"! I told him to wait a year, and if we were still together to ask again. We married four years later, the week after we graduated.

Our engagement photo.
I suffer from Only Child Syndrome: I have enormous personal space and I enjoy being alone. Robert: not so much. He was the first person I was ever able to spend 24 hours with and not get totally sick of. For the past 10 years, with the exception of his hospital stays, we've spent practically all day, every day together. I never got tired of him.

The funeral home provided a form for me to fill out that helped Bryan craft Robert's "official" obituary. In a few short paragraphs, it mentions his education, his profession, his church involvement, and his hobbies. I approved it and they posted it. In a way, that's all there is to say. But the those few paragraphs don't do justice to my guy.

For instance, there is no mention of the fact that though he liked super spicy food, really hot stuff gave him the hiccups -- and that always made me laugh.

He had a true geek's love of all things Star Trek and Star Wars. C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Terry Brooks, and Eoin Colfer were all quotable friends. We had such a shared repertoire of books and TV shows and movies that we practically had our own language of references and in-jokes. (One friend called it "Hendrickson-speak" and lamented that, though she understood every word we said, she had no idea what we were talking about!) I miss that.

I miss his bright blue eyes, his beautiful smile, his easy laugh, and his calm, genuine presence.

Robert was always warm, always generous, always honest, always real. He was my WunderGuy.

I will always miss him.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Crisis Cure

Earlier this month, my dear friends Barbara, Kathy, Kim, and Lisa put on a Reader's Theatre event to benefit our family as we deal with the fallout of WunderGuy's rapidly failing battle with this last brain tumor. I presented "The Crisis Cure" as part of the event. Here's the video:

The following is an updated version of that piece...


It’s mid-June. My husband, Robert, who had his fourth and final brain surgery at the end of January, has been home from the hospital less than two weeks.

Robert’s right side doesn’t work very well. He can’t walk more than a few steps, and that only with assistance. He thinks he can do more, so he randomly gets up off of the wheelchair or bed or toilet, only to crash to the floor. I’ve learned the medical description of  this is “his brain writes checks his body can’t cash.” He literally must be watched every moment of every day. He can feed himself, brush his teeth and use the urinal. His speech is limited. He sleeps 2 or 3 hours at a time. So I sleep 2 or 3 hours at a time. We are in crisis. We’ve been in crisis all year, it seems.

Obviously, given our situation, we are top-tier candidates to invite to a sushi party. Which is exactly what our friends Dana and Jeff Johnston do.

It doesn’t matter that they have to figure out a way to cobble together a ramp so Robert’s wheelchair can navigate the steps into their house. It takes five people, all crowded around my man, grabbing various pieces of his chair, heaving and pushing and pulling up two sets of stairs, but we find a way. 

The Johnstons go all out. The table is packed with big bowls of sticky rice, green sheets of nori, tofu, eggs, julienned carrot and squash and cucumber, pickled burdock root, marinated mushrooms, avocado slivers, and more. Little bowls of dipping sauces, ranging from salty to spicy, complete the set up. We take turns using the square bamboo mat, each assembling his or her masterpiece of flavors, then rolling it, slicing it, and passing it around for everyone to sample.

We roll and eat and laugh and talk for two hours. The whole time, I am thankful for my blessings: thanks to my friends, crisis is averted for awhile.

It is the end of July. Robert is on his second round of experimental chemotherapy. The docs aren’t suggesting that it will reduce the existing brain tumor. We just hope it will slow the growth. 

Robert can feed himself, but it takes effort. He can brush his teeth. He gets confused and mistakes the urinal for a waterbottle. So he wears briefs at night. I have learned to say “briefs” instead of “diapers.” I get up once or twice a night to change him. We are still in crisis.

Clearly, what we need is an arty party.

Which is exactly what my friend Kelly Smith (who had the audacity to move away because she found gainful employment elsewhere) brings when she visits. In addition to delicious homemade pesto and bread, she totes a stack of coloring books and a rainbow of colored markers and pencils. We sit at my dining room table and hang out and catch up; exactly as we would do if there weren’t a hospital bed taking up most of my living room floor and if my husband weren’t incapacitated. It’s not a way I’ve spent many Sunday afternoons in my life, but it’s the most normal thing I’ve done in months.

“This is wonderful,” I say, my mouth crammed full of chocolate banana bread. “Exactly what I needed.”

“I wasn’t sure,” Kelly confesses. “So I Googled ‘What To Do For a Friend in Crisis.’ It said, ‘Don’t ask what to do. Just do something. Something specific. Something you’d like if the situation were reversed.’”

Crisis cured. For now.

It’s August. Not only did the experimental chemotherapy not work, there is some indication that it contributed to two possible brain bleeds. No more chemo. No more experiments. No more... anything. The docs are out of options. They talk about hospice, but we’re not ready to go down that road yet.

Most of the time, Robert can still feed himself, but it takes forever. I brush his teeth. I bathe him. I dress him. He wears briefs all the time now. He no longer launches himself out of his chair or his bed, thinking he can walk. He no longer walks at all. The crisis continues. 

And yet...

Nick volunteers to watch Robert while I take our daughter to school so I don’t have to figure out a way to get him up and dressed and out the door first thing in the morning.

Thanks to Wendy, a surprise delivery brings eight big boxes of necessities to our door: briefs, exam gloves, mattress protectors. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Because, believe me, nothing says “I love you and I’ve got your back” like absorbent disposable underwear and diaper wipes.

Stacey, my roommate from college visits from Ohio and chucks her diet so we can spend a weekend self-medicating with chocolate.

Karen, whom we haven’t seen in years, flies in from California to spend time watching silly shows and reconnecting.

Alyson sends me two 10-pound shipments of high-end “bougie” coffee. A devout Mormon, she wouldn’t know good coffee if it scalded her. “I didn’t know what to get, but knew you drank decaf,” she said. “So I got some of every kind of decaf they had.”

Other friends help in ways too numerous to count.

Some sit with Robert so I can get out of the house.

Some are willing to make time in their busy schedules to meet for coffee or breakfast whenever I can get away for a moment.

Some send notes of encouragement. Some call to chat.

Some pray without ceasing for healing. For strength. For courage. For peace.

 Some collude together and plan a benefit for our family and talk me out of my initial prideful skepticism and into the idea.

Maybe they Googled “Crisis Friends” as well. Because each one helps part the clouds that hover overhead to let the sun shine through.

It’s the beginning of November. Robert cannot shift his own weight. He cannot feed himself. He cannot hold himself upright. He cannot hold a conversation. He responds best to “yes / no” questions – and even then, you have to double- and triple-check his answers to be sure of what he means to say. Often, the words he says make no contextual sense. He literally must be told what muscles to use to swallow his meds or to open his hand. Some nights he is so restless he gets no sleep. Sometimes he gets so frustrated he bellows with rage. Barring a major medical miracle, he will not improve, but will, instead, continue a slow but steady decline.

I have learned when someone calls and asks “what’s happening?” not to answer “my husband just literally pooped in my hand as I was changing him.” Despite what they may say, people don’t really want to know exactly what’s going on. Instead, I say, “Same old, same old. What’s up with you?”

Because I know we are not alone.

You see: we aren’t the only ones in crisis. Since mid-June, a dear friend has discovered he has advanced Lyme disease seriously affecting him both mentally and physically. Another friend is this close to needing a liver transplant. One person has been looking for work while simultaneously battling debilitating back pain. A client has a teenaged daughter who is terminally riddled with cancer. Everybody is going through something. No one escapes this Earth unscathed.

People are reading this who are not currently experiencing the Perfect Life. They are dealing with problematic medical tests, worrisome relationships, housing concerns, career issues, mental health challenges, loneliness, pain, and loss. Maybe one or more of those things is affecting you right now. If it isn’t, I bet someone you know is.

We’re all stewing in one big Crisis Crockpot. So what do we do?

Amazingly, Google is right. Just do something. Reach out. Connect. Be there. Do the thing you wish someone would do for you.

Don’t say “let me know if there is anything I can do.” Because when my hands are killing me from lifting a 200 pound man who has forgotten how to use his legs and I haven’t had a shower in two days and I really – really – didn’t know a single human being could possibly produce that much urine, frankly, there is nothing I can tell anyone to do to make things better.

I certainly would never say: “send me gourmet coffee,” or “text me a goofy picture of your cat,” or “bring over a bunch of tie-dyeing materials and let’s have a party.” Yet, when my friends do those things, they are exactly the things I need to keep crisis at bay for awhile.

Crisis is a part of life. It’s the price we pay for existing. But if we’re lucky, we don’t go through it alone.

Puppy Therapy: River won't leave Robert's side.
It’s today. My husband has not been out of bed in two weeks. He can no longer reliably swallow. To get him to take his meds, I have to depress his tongue and pull it forward, hoping he will swallow, but not choke or aspirate. It's all I can do to get any food into him. Boost and applesauce and pureed vegetable soups are keeping him alive... but we all know it's not for long. We prayed that he wouldn't pass away on Thanksgiving, and he didn't. But things aren't looking good for him to still be here by Christmas.

Still, thanks to our friends, we are not in crisis at the moment. Rather, we are overwhelmed with their kindness. Their caring. Take it from me: that is the crisis cure.

Friday, October 28, 2016

WunderGuy vs. The Brain Tumor (Part III)

Fred refuses to quit. Wish he'd just give up and skulk off to shrivel up and leave us alone.

Recently, Robert's brain tumor is causing his entire body to spasm into the equivalent of a giant, human fist. He juts his head forward, perching his chin on his chest, stretching his neck. He cranks his knees up to his nose. Then, as the tension in his body builds, he bellows like a bull stabbed by a matador.

Imagine the joy that permeates our house when this begins at, say 3 a.m.

We're trying the gamut of things from meds to alternative options to try to help him relax. Because we've all discovered: if Robert can't sleep, can't nobody sleep.

I've learned a few things in the last month. At the top of the list, I've learned what extraordinarily bad taste it is to begin a conversation with "Have the doctors given you a time frame?" As if I am able to mark on my calendar "Should be a widow" on a specific date. As if I would want to.

I've learned that if you want to connect with People Who Get Things Done, blogging is an effective tool. Not long after I posted the last update, in which I related my abysmal meeting with some local Hospice representatives, a higher Hospice muckety-muck called me. We chatted a bit and she put me in touch with someone who coordinates a different branch of Hospice volunteers. It all sounds very promising, but nothing has actually happened yet. Still: yay, blogging!

I've also learned to be less prideful. I've always been very good at doing things on my own. I'm an only child. I'm a Virgo. I'm a Midwestern farm girl. I am the epitome of "I've got this." But I am discovering that if others offer to help share the load, it is a great blessing to let them.

When dear friends wanted to set up a GoFundMe for Robert's medical expenses, I balked. I'm not big on the idea of asking people for help. There are lots of folks worse off than we. But then my friend Paul set me straight. "Get over yourself," he said. "People might want to help and have no idea what to do -- because, really, there is nothing they can do. This gives them an outlet." So I squelched my pride. And I have been overwhelmed -- truly steamrolled flat -- by others' generosity.

That generosity is currently in overdrive. The same friends who did the GFM campaign are hosting a live theatrical reading event on November 6, here in Southwest Michigan, to benefit our family. I can't even wrap my brain around how much work and energy and time and effort these wonderful people have put into doing this. When eventually, I'm on the other side of crisis (I believe this will happen. Someday.), I want to remember this and pass it on.

And I've learned that there is no such thing as letting go gracefully. Nor should there be. Life is worth fighting for. It's bright and messy and sharp and sweet. It's an uneasy ratio of exhilaration and boredom, punctuated by both joy and pain. Robert's brain is shutting down. I hate this. Most of the time he cannot even reliably answer "yes / no" questions. But he will respond to some things on autopilot. If you say "How are you today?" He'll say "Great."

Some days I find myself saying "I love you" just to hear him say "I love you, too." On those days, I don't care whether he knows what he's saying or not.

A week ago, my friends Wendy and Aaron watched Robert so I could get out of the house for a little while. When I returned, Wendy said Robert had woken up from a catnap and been a little weepy. This was so unusual, I asked him if he remembered that. He did. I asked if he remembered what made him cry. He smiled: "I had a dream. I dreamed I was healed."

Ah, my love. May all your dreams come true.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"My Father's Grandmother was Native American"

Recently, my uncle made a DVD of a bunch of old family movies and sent it to my father. There, for the first time, I saw my great-grandmother -- a Native American woman I had heard about my whole life, but had never seen a picture of.

Throughout the country, there is a strong push to have Columbus Day renamed "Indigenous Peoples Day." Here's why I would support such a change...


My father's grandmother was
Native American.
No one knows
What tribe she was from.
To hear Dad tell it,
His grandfather married her
Because he loved her,
Never mind how much it
The rest of the family.

I have seen her:
A thin woman
In a faded print dress.
The grainy
Sixty-year old
Super 8 film
Renders her skin
The same shade of gray
As everyone else's.
And yet--

When she died,
The family refused
To even name her
In her obituary.
To the best of my knowledge,
She has no tombstone.

My father spent years
Trying to follow
That branch
Of our family tree.
But it is long gone,
Leaving a hole in the sky

As every branch does
When it falls.
My father,
Eighty-one years young,
Remembers her.
And every time I look in the mirror,
My Great Grandmother peers back at me.


Wednesday, October 05, 2016

WunderGuy vs. The Brain Tumor: Part II

or: The Saga Continues

It seems like only yesterday that I wrote about WunderGuy's adventures with the brain tumor hereafter known as "Fred."

WunderGuy and Maddie the Manx.
Perhaps that's because when you're within the same four walls all day, every day, the days all sort of blur together. Perhaps it's because I delude myself into thinking that not much has changed and, therefore, an update isn't really necessary.

But when I stop to take stock of things, I realize that they have changed. And so, here is an update on our continuing War on Fred:

The big news is that the experimental chemotherapy did not work. In fact, there is some indication on the latest MRIs that it may have contributed to two separate minor brain bleeds within the tumor. Since that was our last great hope for a Modern Medical Miracle, the medical docs have run out of options. They have washed their hands of WG and have told us to contact Hospice.

Which I did. However (warning, minor soapbox rant coming)...

I was unaware of the realities that are Hospice. I'd always thought Hospice, if personified was a sort of kindly grandmother of the medical community. Anytime someone said "Mother is on Hospice," I envisioned a well-coordinated army of nurses who took turns caring for the terminal person, giving companionship and supporting the family through the dark days that lay ahead.

I never imagined the two nurses / Hospice sales team who came and sat in my dining room. They set me straight. Since I am WGs sole caregiver, and he requires constant supervision 24 / 7, I could really use someone to come and sit with him so I can leave the house to do things like get groceries or pick up our daughter from school. Yeah, no: Hospice doesn't do that.

The nurses were clear. They were all about the money.

HospiceNurse: Hospice will cover all of his medical expenses, including his drugs and briefs.

Me: Great! But he's a brittle epileptic. He has to be on brand name anti-seizure drugs. The generics send him to the ER.

HN: Oh... Well, he'd have to be on generics. But they would be free! Also, he won't have to pay to see the doctor.

Me: Can he still keep our family GP and his neurologist of the past 20 years -- the doctors who know his history best -- as his docs?

HN: No. But it won't matter. If he gets pneumonia or something, if he's on Hospice, we can't treat it.

Me: So you just let him die?

HN: Hospice does not provide palliative care. Now let's talk about Medicaid.

Me: He's not on Medicaid. He has a small IRA which, since I'm caring for him instead of working, is essentially my retirement fund. We don't qualify.

HN: Well, you could always spend down the IRA and divorce him so he could go on Medicaid. Then Medicaid will pay for him to go to a facility and you won't have to be stuck here taking care of him anymore.

I am not making this up.

About that time, I showed them the door.

Don't get me wrong: I am sure that Hospice is staffed by wonderful, empathetic, competent people who genuinely care about doing the best they can for those who are nearing the end of their lives. We may still have to call them when WG gets a little closer to the end. But I was wildly unimpressed with the Sales Force. >:(

And so, we sit together here at home. I schedule my day like a general planning a military maneuver, so I can still get my work done in addition to taking care of WG.

As for Robert, he continues a slow but steady decline. He can no longer shift his weight in his wheelchair, or feed himself, or brush his teeth. Before he takes his meds, I have to remind him to think about swallowing, and talk him through what to do -- otherwise, he chews his pills. Since some of the pills are extended release, chewing them makes him practically comatose for the next 12 hours. (Fun fact: a week ago, I had to call the paramedics to come pick WG up off our driveway when he sank to the ground like a 200 pound sack of pudding as I was trying to get him in the car. In the rain. Med chewing. ::sheesh::)

But we're not giving up. We are still blessed that he is in relatively little pain. It's also not clear how aware WG is of his condition, which is something of a blessing. He sleeps a lot. He's not really able to hold a conversation. But he still has his gorgeous smile. I can run on one of those for hours.

We have the best friends in the world, who support us in countless ways. From the church members who hand-made bolsters for him to make his wheelchair more comfortable, to those who sit with him on occasion so I can get out on my own for a few hours, to those who bring a portable tie-dyeing party to our house, we are surrounded by fabulous people. One dear friend who is a nurse sent us an EIGHT BOX delivery of briefs and wipes -- all greatly appreciated. And I am forever grateful to Kathy, Kim, Barbara, and Lisa: writerly friends who started a GoFundMe for WunderGuy to help offset some of the bills insurance deigns not to pay. Like the $4000+ ramp for his wheelchair (an ongoing appeals battle continues), or any part of the handicapped accessible bathroom we had to put in, or skilled nurses to watch him if I have to go out, for instance...

Here's the thing: we're not complaining. Everyone is going through something. Right now, what we're going through is obvious and overt and we're grateful to those who are pulling for us. What you're going through might be more subtle and less readily recognized. Know this -- everything here on Earth is only temporary. We delude ourselves if we think that our relationships, our situation, our lives will continue in any particular way forever. This may be depressing to hear when things are going great. But it's a great blessing to think about at the moment.

Onward and upward!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Writing a Book Series: Q & A with Ian Quicksilver author Alyson Peterson

Last week, I reviewed The Cursed Dagger, book II in Alyson Peterson's YA series featuring geeky alien prince Ian Quicksilver.

This week, Alyson kindly agreed to an interview in which she discusses the special challenges of writing a book series.

Q. What things must a writer keep in mind when writing Book I of a series, as opposed to a stand-alone book?

A. It's good to remember that whatever you put into one book has the potential to spill over into other books. One thing I struggle with when starting a new series is planning out what is key to future books. Half the time I don't know where a certain element is going until I am nearly done writing. I keep careful notes on where I want my characters to go so I don't end up putting a scene or a character in that doesn't fit the series as a whole.

Q. What challenges must be addressed when writing additional books in a series?

. My biggest fear is that I will write a sequel that is boring. I'm always having to top the previous book, make it more exciting, more interesting etc. What I absolutely DON'T want to do is repeat the exact same story line over and over again. Keeping the story fresh while not sacrificing the personalities of my characters is my biggest hurdle.

Q. What are some tips for avoiding an info-dump in books that fall later in a series while bringing readers up to speed on what happened in earlier books?

I HATE info dump.  It makes stories sluggish. I read a lot of YA series. I take a highlighter pen to the books that don't info dump and study what the author did to keep the reader interested at the same time as they bring the reader up to speed. Bringing up past experiences in dialogue both internal and verbal help the reader know what's going on without a page an a half of super boring backstory.

Q. What advice do you have for keeping a character fresh and growing through a series of books?

Characters learn and grow much like their real life counterparts. I compile a list of characteristics and then order them by importance to the character. Minor characteristics can change, but the major ones can not. Ian's loyalty, snarkiness, bravery and deep sense of mercy is key to his story. Minor flaws can be altered, like Ian's awkwardness, immaturity and willingness to ignore difficult situations. 

Writing young adult characters are my favorite because their personalities are not fully developed at 14, 15, and 16 and giving them experience and growth keeps them fresh on the page.

Q. How can you know if that book you are writing has series potential?

My brain rarely works in stand alone novels. I wish it would, but once I get cranking on a book, plans for future books start sneaking in. I am defective that way. If writing a character keeps me up at night and all day I'm thinking about what I want to do in book two, three and four, I've got a solid series on my hands.

Q. What suggestions do you have for writers who are pitching what they hope is the first in a series?

Make sure book one grabs your reader's attention. Not just grabs, but holds and makes them beg for more. You've got to have a solid hook so that when you pitch book two, you generate more excitement.

It's hard to sell certain publishers and agents on series, but good pubs and agents know the value of a well written series and can sell it as such. Pitch to your friends, hash out story line with an experienced writer or someone who understands and loves a good storyline and bounce ideas off them. You can tell a lot about how well your story is developed by the level of excitement you receive from honest reviews.

Q. As you worked on Books II and III, did anything about your characters or your story surprise you?

Ari went through the biggest change with her personality. She was pretty quiet in book one, but the more I got to know her she really blossomed on the page. Marvin had a lot more to say in book two that I enjoyed writing. Corbin is still Corbin and he is a stick in the mud when it comes to his personality, but I also found in him a core of genuine loyalty that I was happy to see. The story exploded in my face as I was writing book three. I thought I had firm idea on who my warriors were going to be and the type of fighters they were, but I was so very wrong. As I wrote the story and re-read passages from books one and two, book three became harsher and more absolute. That was very unintentional.

The Cursed Dagger is newly released from Cedar Fort. Be sure to watch for Book III of the adventures of Ian Quicksilver in 2017!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: Eating Wildly by Ava Chin

"My grandfather, a former Toisanese village boy turned Chinese restaurant worker, taught me how to eat. Grandpa spoke an English so informed by the cadence of his dialect that he didn't talk so much as bark, so that he often sounded like he was yelling from across a muddy field rather than just across the kitchen table. He had learned to saute, braise, and sear from the cooks at the various Manhattan restaurants in which he worked. His palate was so diversified that he could make almost anything well. Sometimes it was a whole fish from head to tail -- first steamed, then drizzled with a piping-hot medley of ginger, scallions, garlic, and sesame oil. Soy sauce chicken wings dripping in a brown sugar glaze. American fried chicken dipped in a garlic-ginger batter that had my friends sighing with delight -- even the ones with hard-core Southern roots often asked from seconds."
 --Excerpted from Eating Wildly

Part memoir, part foraging guide, occasional cookbook, Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love, and the Perfect Meal is a delight. Eating Wildly received the 2015 MFK Fischer Book Award. Library Journal chose it as one of the Best Books of 2014. If you haven't yet read Ava Chin's delightful book - newly available in paperback -- you're in for a treat.

The book chronicles Chin's relationships with food and with her family. It follows her as she forages delicious edibles in the unlikeliest of places in New York City. I live in the middle of the rural Midwest, and I was pleasantly surprised to recognize the plants Chin mentioned; I realized that if I ended up in NYC, I might encounter a few familiar (green) friends.

I'm a sucker for non-cookbooks that include recipes. I like the idea that these are "tried and true" favorites that had to be included because the narrative insisted. Chin doesn't disappoint: Of the several recipes in Eating Wildly, the Blackberry-Buckwheat Pancakes and Wild Morel Linguini are especially worthy. Omnomnom...

One thing that could make the book even better would be photos or illustrations of the plants Chin finds. (I mean -- if you're going to pick and eat a novel sprig of something growing out of the ground, you want to be pretty darn sure you're noshing on the right thing.) To that end, Chin has posted a few of The Plants & Mushrooms of Eating Wildly on her blog. Though even more pictures would be welcome, Eating Wildly is more than a mere field guide.

Much of the book's charm is in its exploration of Chin's life. Her fractured relationship with her mother, her attempts to connect with her absentee father, her lessons in cuisine and culture from her grandparents, and her forays into the wilderness of adult relationships all add flavor to the book.

I found myself repeatedly rooting for Chin, whether she was hunting an elusive morsel or searching for her soulmate. When she throws a foraging Wild Foods Brunch, only to have someone question one of her ingredients, I'm pulling for her to be right -- and not just so her guests survive the event. When she tries again and again to forge a relationship with her flighty mother, I'm there, hoping that this time, she succeeds.

Full disclosure: I met Ava Chin when she came to a booksigning at the little independent bookstore here in Southwestern Michigan. She is friends with Kim Jorgensen Gane, who co-facilitates the #Write2TheEnd writer's workshops with me. Ava dubbed us "The Thelma and Louise of writing coaching." (I'm Louise. No doubt about it.) So -- yeah, I know her. And, yeah, I'd still recommend the book even if we'd never met. Check out the book for yourself. See if you agree with me...

YA Book Review: The Cursed Dagger (Book II of the Ian Quicksilver series)

It's official! The Cursed Dagger, the second book in Alyson Peterson's snarkily brilliant YA sci-fi / fantasy series, is now available. I can finally publicly tell people about it.

Peterson's Ian Quicksilver fans will be glad to know that The Cursed Dagger picks up right where The Warrior's Return left off: Geeky foster kid Ian, heir to the throne of Banhir, but exiled to live on Earth, has a quest. He must convince beautiful, popular, but slightly spacey Ari -- a Garfelian princess carrying a curse of her own -- to permanently join him in order to thwart the plans of evil magician Silivus and save the galaxy.

Ari wants to, but she has... issues. Many of which even she doesn't understand.

And time is running out.

Those who have not yet read The Warrior's Return get to know Ian and Ari in a hurry as The Cursed Dagger opens with an early morning swordfight, a sick princess, and an epically craptastic first date.

Then things really heat up. Silivus, the magician responsible for Ian's and Ari's woes -- not to mention the woes of both of their home planets -- arrives in all his oily smarm. He makes Ian an offer: trade the Quest for a Challenge. Winner take all. No holds barred.

Ian knows Silivus can't be trusted, so he initially refuses to rise to the bait. But as his chances of completing the Quest grow bleaker and bleaker, Silivus ups the ante and tragedy strikes. Against the advice of his friends and mentors, and against his own better judgment, Ian agrees to the Challenge.

... Enter the dragon. And the cursed dagger, which links the dragon's life and Ari's fate to Ian far more closely than any of them realizes.

My 13 year old, dragon-obsessed daughter, adored this book. She devoured it in a weekend. (For comp reference, her other favorite series include Wings of Fire, Redwall, The Unwanteds, Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, Erin Hunter's Warriors, and, of course, Harry Potter.)

While the first Ian Quicksilver book was all about the hero's discovery of who he is, in The Cursed Dagger, Ian must determine who he wants to be. What things are worth living -- and dying -- for?

A short excerpt from Chapter 2:

“I guess I’ll pick you up at six then?”
“At my house? With my parents?” She began panic breathing in short gasps. Her eyes were wide and miniature bolts of lightning shot between her fingers. Any second and she was going to pass out. I shielded the arcs of magic from the view of a group of girls down the hall staring at us.
“Breathe,” I coaxed, tapping her shoulder a few times to release the excess energy. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
“Right,” she panted. “Not at all.”
“I can totally handle introducing myself to your parents . . .” I should have stopped at telling her it wasn’t a big deal. Ari bent double and grabbed her knees.
She sucked in air in great wheezing gulps. Whenever she freaked out like this, my ego took a beating. Regardless, I patted her on the back. Every time my hand made contact, bolts of electricity shot up my arm and numbed my fingers.
Farther down the hall, I could hear Corbin grumble in irritation. I looked up, found him through the sea of heads in the hall and shrugged. How was I supposed to know that the mention of a date would throw her into cardiac arrest?
It took a while, but her panic attack eased. When she stood upright, she was almost back to normal. Only a few red blotches on her neck remained.
“Sorry,” she said. “That was totally unexpected. I don’t know what hit me.”
“I hear chest pain and shortness of breath are totally normal in dating situations.”
“I’m probably just nervous. I have a feeling it’s not going to go so great when you meet my parents. How am I supposed to introduce you? ‘Hey, mom and dad, this is Ian. He’s an alien from another planet.’”
“You could say that I am a warrior for the galaxy. It kind of has a cool ring to it.”
“Yeah, that’ll go over great.”
Equal parts action, adventure, fantasy, and sass, with enough sarcasm to power a small-town high school, The Cursed Dagger is a ton of fun. Read it, and let me know what you think of my recommendation in the comments below.

[Full disclosure: I was a beta reader for IQ books 1 & 2. While it's true that Alyson & I are friends, and that the Cursed Dagger includes this gem in its Acknowledgements ~blush~...'s also true that the book rocks. Intrigue! Magic! Icky evil Bad Guy! Awkward first dates! Sentient horses! Plus -- and this is key -- a dragon! I might be a little biased, but I won't steer ya wrong.]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

WunderGuy vs. the Brain Tumor

I know. I know:

I haven't posted in forever.

I know. I know:

According to conventional wisdom - as well as a few friends in the publishing industry - prospective agents and editors worth their salt will Google my name and see that I fell off the interweb's radar at the end of 2015. (Except for Twitter. My sweet obsession. Ah: Twitter. I wish I could quit you...) My radio silence could cause them to question my commitment to building my platform. And this would be bad! Maintain platform! Must brand! Blahty-blahty blah.

I've been meaning to write. For months. Really. But, well-- things this year have been... complicated.

It didn't seem right to post writing-related stuff because 1.) I spent the first half of the year working on a Top Sekret project for one of my VIP clients, which I can't talk about, and 2.) I've been dealing with the day-to-day of life-and-death and that makes practically everything else pale in comparison.

As for the whole life-and-death thing -- I just didn't have the energy to post about that. Back in January, too many things were up in the air, with too many unanswered questions. Writing about it seemed opportunistic, somehow. And too damned depressing.


I started blogging in 2005 as a way to keep friends and family in the loop about a Major Medical Adventure that necessitated, among other things, a drive from Michigan to California and back again.

Now, 7 months into 2016's Major Medical Adventure Redux, though many questions still remain, perhaps the time has come to revisit my blogging roots. So many people have asked about WunderGuy and his continuing battle with the Brain Tumor of Doom (I call it "Fred"), so, without further ado, heeeeere's the update:

The Backstory:

Last year, WunderGuy had not one, but 2 brain surgeries. The first was to remove an atypical, fast-growing meningioma on the surface of his brain. (Likely caused by radiation in 2011 and 2012 to keep his original oligodendroglioma in check. Oh that man! Dealing with not one, but TWO brain tumors. It's like winning the lottery, only much much much suckier.) The second was six weeks later to relieve pressure and drain fluid in the surgery site.

Stereotactic radiation followed, last May, which would have been enough to make most brain tumors shrivel and die. Not Fred. Nope. Instead of sending Fred into cranial raisin-hood, the radiation made him go super-nova like a monster in a bad sci-fi movie.

Last December, right before Christmas, WunderGuy suddenly lost the use of his right side. Overnight, he went from being a little fatigued and needing a nap during the day to being unable to sit up on his own.

The tumor was back in a big way, growing so quickly that it was causing the brain to swell. Massive doses of steroids followed to get the swelling down enough for surgery.

January 26. 3 days before surgery. How I remember him.
On January 29, WunderGuy had his 4th -- and likely final -- brain surgery.

This one didn't go like all the others. In the past, he's been up and walking on his own within a day. In 2015, he was baking bread within a week of being discharged from the hospital. This year: he hasn't walked on his own since.

See, meningiomas are supposed to stay on the top of the brain, which generally makes them fairly dull, as far as brain tumors go. But Fred never got that message. Fred grows so fast and so aggressively that he followed the scar tissue from the original surgery back in 1996, infiltrating deep into WunderGuy's brain, causing all sorts of carnage.

WG's right side was unresponsive. Though he regained some use of his right hand, his right leg is still not functioning. He spent all of February in U of MI hospital, convalescing and learning to walk again. Most of March was spent in a sub-acute facility closer to home. (It's a 3 hour trip one way from our house to U of MI -- more in winter. I have named every crack in that stretch of I-94.)

He came home at the end of March able to do some minimal walking with assistance, requiring 24 / 7 round the clock care. He was making slow, but steady progress, until the end of April --

That's when we discovered that Fred was back. With a vengeance.

And Now, For Something Completely Different

WG spent May spent back in the hospital at U of MI. But this time was different. He's no longer a candidate for surgery. Or for radiation. The only thing that keeps Fred in check is massive doses of steroids. Which you can't do for very long.

So, now, we are into the wonderful world of experimental chemotherapy. Which no one -- not even the most optimistic of docs -- is suggesting will get rid of Fred, or even cause Fred to shrink. At this point, they're simply hoping to slow Fred's growth spurt down.

After spending over 100 days in the hospital this year, WG is home now. He's done all the Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Medicare thinks is worthwhile. He requires constant, vigilant round-the-clock care. I am his caregiver. He literally has to be told how to hold his toothbrush, or his spoon, and how to use it.  He can still feed himself, sort of. He drinks from a straw. He cannot sit up on his own, let alone stand, or walk, or use the bathroom, or take a shower. And he remains fuzzily unaware of his limitations -- so he'll roll himself out of bed, or launch himself out of his wheelchair in an unguarded instant.

Happy Anniversary.
On June 12, we celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. We had a big party, complete with food and family and friends. And while it was our anniversary, the real underlying reason for the shindig was for people who know and love Robert to see him and talk to him while they still can.

He is in no pain, which is a blessing. And he's pleasant and agreeable to everyone except our 13 year old daughter, who he relates to as a 5 year old boy would relate to an older sister, constantly trying -- for some reason -- to one-up her and get her in trouble.

We've all made huge adjustments. What was the office / den, is now a downstairs bathroom. I sleep on the couch in the living room, a few feet from WG's hospital bed. A 24-foot ramp now affords wheelchair access to our home. Our daughter keeps the upstairs clean, helps with the cooking and the house maintenance. She mourns the loss of her father and I miss my husband terribly, though we both see him every day.

And that is why this is my first blog update of the year. Hug the ones you love. Tell them what they mean to you while you still can. Life is fleeting and fragile. And it's way more important than maintaining a platform or building your brand.