Update: You Can’t Unbreak Glass…but the Fragments Can Be Contained

Reposted from The Patient Path March 19, 2014

Final lessons from a pretty, but fragile, aqua bulb lamp

   Aqua Bulb Lamp_Desk 1 #3 Aqua Bulb Lamp_Desk 2 #2

The Patient Path . . . Yields Illumination

Last weekend, I got the call from Pier 1 that my “new new” lamp was finally in. I had broken the “old new” lamp 10 days before while making the purchase and had felt so bad about it I had to do something with the experience. That something was the March 6, 2014 post. I had waited patiently for the new lamp so I could properly illuminate my office with this second lamp on my second desk.

I went to pick up the lamp and was helped by a different store clerk than the one who’d helped me previously. Thankfully, this lamp, unlike the other one, was in a box and not just bubble-wrapped. Then I looked at the top of the box, which, strangely, was printed with a different model name on it. The clerk called the manager over, a different one and not the one who had helped me during the initial purchase. The manager offered to unpack the lamp so I could make sure it was the correct one. On second glance, the correct model name was printed on the sides of the box. Odd. We opened it, and “my” lamp was inside despite the identity confusion on the outside. I quietly took my new lamp home, eager to set it up on my second desk.

While putting it together, I saw that the threaded top where the finial is screwed on to secure the lamp shade had been soldered on crooked, which meant the lampshade pitched forward. Hmmm.

Bent Lamp Harp_30%

So, I called the 800 customer service number, and the representative said I could swap out the lamp for a new one. I couldn’t bear to do this again, and she offered to call the Flemington store on my behalf to see what they could do. She did, and the store had another lamp in stock (in case I should need it?). I called the store and spoke with the manager, who had already dealt with me once that day, but she was agreeable and she said I could swap out either the harp or the entire lamp. I took the bent harp and went back to the store.

While the manager was unpacking the stock lamp, the first young woman who had sold me the one I’d broken 10 days before appeared. She didn’t recognize me, but I “confessed,” and the manager said with mock anger, “Oh, she’s the one.” They were good-natured, but I was uncomfortable and wanted to turn the experience around. So I thanked them for being so nice about the situation and told them about the story on the blog. The young woman looked it up on her smart phone and seemed eager to read it, especially after I said I’d complimented her and the store for their handling of my bungling. I swapped out the harps and left the store, feeling that all had ended well.

When I got home, I finished setting up the second lamp and stood back to admire how softly pretty and glowing my office looked. Then I took the box to the garage and thought about the two different model names on it, unsure of how such a thing could happen. But I decided to take it as a final message about the entire lamp experience. Whereas the first lesson was about the paradox between sturdiness and fragility, and then how vulnerability can become strength once again in the human heart, this lesson seemed to be about patience. But more than that.

This final lesson was also about identity. Just as sturdiness can mask vulnerability, external labels can create confusion about what’s inside. In this case, the true thing—my lamp—was inside a box with two names. Currently, I am working on a story about identity for my writing group, so the occurrence of labeling ambiguity has symbolic meaning that I will be exploring more deeply as I continue to write.

In the meantime, though, I am thankful that the “wrong” name was on the top of the box. Because that name was Sophia—Greek for “wisdom.”

Radiation-Related Posts on The Patient Path:


Reading & Writing as Therapy

Magic Book_27%   The Magic Book…A True Treasure

 The Silver Pen Pin…A Lovely Gift Silver Pen Pin

As you recover from a serious illness, all things therapeutic become achingly important. One of the most vital is reconnecting with who you feel yourself to be, beyond the reaches of cells gone bad.

Reposted from The Patient Path March 14, 2014

The question of identity arises for each of us at some time, or times, in our lives. Soon, I will be writing the story of what happened to my once fascinating and lucrative career. It was a terrible loss, one that, almost more than any other life event, has affected my sense of who I am.

But before I explore my working girl story, I think I need to ground myself in my life girl story. Although these stories seem to intertwine like yin and yang symbols, one thing I’ve learned is that this is an illusion. What is real is what you love; if you’re fortunate, your yin-yang endeavors will blend beautifully.

Book & Pen Composite

You’ve probably heard many people say they’ve always aspired to be a writer. I have always aspired to be a reader. In fact, one of my main regrets in life is that I haven’t read more.

But, in truth, like so many others, I want to write. Why? Because expressing myself this way just seems a whole lot safer than being a live performance artist. Writers can express thoughts, notions, inspirations, intuitions, feelings, impressions, insights, experiences, and maybe even profundities from the other side of the stage or screen. Sometimes, releasing your ideas will be good self-therapy. Other times, your efforts may resonate with others and do some good in the wider world.

My point is that whereas I said above that the yin-yang intertwining of career and life is an illusion, the interconnection of reading and writing is not. I know many people read who do not write. I have even heard of writers who do not read. But my sense of it is that these two things that are so dear to me are two halves of a whole.

In the December 19 and December 24, 2013 posts, I mentioned “the coin of life”:

. . . every challenge is one side of the coin of life, the one imprinted with the mask of tragedy (unhappiness and pain); but, of course, the mask of comedy (happiness and good) lies on the other side. No matter what transpires in our lives, that coin is always going to flip to the other side in the continual motion of happenstance. Lucky is the one who can direct some of this motion in his or her favor; blessed is the one who can accept and work with whatever flips his or her way. Coins roll, and so should we.

Similarly, I cannot imagine writing without reading, as if they were two sides of a postcard from the universe. And for some of us, it isn’t possible to read without also writing. I myself am always flipping that card in an effort to see the beauty of both sides as often as possible.

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

Although I’d been an editor and technical/medical writer for many years, as well as an English major in college, I am ashamed to say that I never seemed to have the energy or focus to read very much. Oh, I dabbled. I would take armloads of books from the library each week, buy books from bygone bookstores (sigh), order books online. . . . But I rarely did more than browse them or, worse, let them sit around me in piles as if I could absorb their magic by some sort of psychic osmosis. They did make my rooms look inviting, lived in, and important somehow. But using books as decoration is good only if this inspires you to actually read them.

After I lost my career back in 2011, I was very fortunate to have found a reading group at a local bookstore in Flemington, NJ—Twice Told Tales–Moonstone Mystery. Our group met yesterday to discuss The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. And, yes, we did discuss it. I’ve heard others say they’d given up on book clubs because people did almost everything but talk about the books. I’m not saying we don’t talk about other topics. I’m also not saying we don’t eat and drink. And I’m certainly not saying we haven’t formed friendships. (In fact, the ladies from this group have stepped up to help me during my health crisis almost more than anyone else in my world. And one of them, Susan, gave me the pen pin pictured above.) I am saying that we talk about the books. And, lucky me, I’ve read books I wouldn’t otherwise have been inspired to read, many I’d never even heard of. And, double lucky me, we have not one but two groups—a general-interest group and a mystery group. Heaven.*

Book & Pen Composite

Another serendipitous event occurred in 2012, when I stumbled into a writing group.† I’d never intended to join a writing group, but I wandered in on someone’s invitation and decided to stay a while. After participating in some presentations, writing exercises, and administrative activities, I ended up in two small offshoot groups. It was in the smaller groups that I actually started writing. Since then I have remained in only one of the groups, and it’s been such a delight. All of it was a learning experience. But in our small biweekly group, we’ve experimented, explored, and exploded with ideas, and it is a great pleasure to see the creativity blossom in my fellow members. Although I really have barely started despite several efforts, since my health setback I have found renewed interest in the writing side of the card. Currently, I am writing a story about identity.

I began this blog in November 2013, just days after discovering my diagnosis of uterine (endometrial) cancer. Initially, my intention was to let others know what was going on and also to encourage people to be their own best advocates as they negotiated the healthcare system. The blog has gone in a few tangential directions since then, although the primary goal is still to reach out to “patient patients” as they embark on healing journeys of their own. Lots of topics remain to be explored, and as my energy increases I will be getting to them. But it has been my happy discovery to find a way to communicate and connect with others through writing—this blog, other blogs (more on those later), stories for the writing group, and professional material (in the near future, I hope).

Book & Pen Composite_Flipped

It is my love of reading and writing that is helping me (re)discover some of the most important facets of myself. No disease, job loss, or other trauma can separate me from them. What a powerful lesson this has been, and I’ve found no better therapy. At its best, reading lets the whole world—the whole universe—in. At its best, writing lets your whole world—your whole universe—out.

P.S. For those who have trouble reading print books, I highly recommend unabridged audio books, especially by single narrators. They’re marvelous. Sometimes I both read and listen to a book, alternating chapters, which lets me continue with a story while walking or driving—or even while trying to fall asleep in the dark.

*One genre of book I have always managed to read more than others is mysteries, and I will also be writing more about them in the near future. I have have written about two authors previously: Anne Perry and Tana French.
†I’ve written about the writing group previously here.

You Can’t Unbreak Glass…but the Fragments Can Be Contained

Aqua Glass Desk Lamp - 2_50%

Reposted from The Patient Path March 6, 2014

Lessons from a pretty, but fragile, aqua bulb lamp

Shattered Glass & Fragmented Spirits

Part of my personal treatment plan is to sort through all of my possessions—mounds of them, many of them paper records and memorabilia—and consolidate and clear out as much as possible. This is excruciatingly difficult. I am a collector of personal and business organization books and have poked my nose in most of them, but practical advice disintegrates in the face of emotional attachment to the things that give silent witness to your life. Coming face to face with the reality that our time here is finite has had the effect of making me yearn to locate, categorize, and memorialize “lost” mementos from a past that is quickly slipping away while simultaneously making me want to travel lighter and more open into my future. Most of my efforts thus far have been on the order of redistributing, rather than discarding, these things. But I feel the need to know what I have, and where I have it, before I can take bolder steps—I’m not quite ready for big leaps just yet.

I had just managed to clean up my home office to the point that I wanted to prettify it a bit and get it ready for whatever is next. The story of my career is difficult and painful and will wait for another time. At present, my work—my most important job—is to continue to heal and take care of myself while better managing my immediate environment, not only my physical home, but my personal world. So, despite not having an income, I decided to make a few small investments around the house to raise the level of order, calm, and attractiveness a little. Clearing out one small space or adding one fresh touch has powerful cleansing and lightening effects, and the more I do the better I feel. (That is, until I unearth yet more boxes of stuff—my things from my past and my grown son’s things from his past that he swears he doesn’t want—but I don’t quite believe him.)

A week or so ago, I wandered into Pier 1 and found the desk lamp pictured above, which has a white shade lined with the same aqua color as the pretty glass bulbs. I might not have chosen this lamp in isolation, but I knew it would look good in my existing office, which is painted in calming aquamarine colors. It looked so good in the office that I was then inspired to replace a utilitarian black pole lamp with one that matched the desk lamp. Then I looked at the “light naked” second desk in the office and thought I’d better buy a matching desk lamp while it was still available. So I ordered the second aqua desk lamp online and went to Pier 1 yesterday to pick it up, happy with my decision (a rarity).

Well, maybe because it was Ash Wednesday (although I’m not Catholic or a practicing Protestant), or maybe because I was overwhelmingly fatigued (although I’d slept OK), or maybe because I have a lifetime of careless habits (no “althoughs” here), I came home empty handed. I had expected the lamp to be boxed up, as the others were. But it was bubble-wrapped. The saleswoman gave me an explanation I didn’t quite follow, but assured me it wouldn’t have been wrapped if it weren’t in good condition. Nevertheless, she offered to unwrap it and let me inspect it (they don’t offer discounts for floor models). Everything looked good, and the sales clerk rewrapped it and handed it to me over the counter. I put it on the floor as she came around the counter carrying the shade, asking me whether I needed help getting the lamp to the car. As I was rapidly trying to figure out how to manage the lamp, the shade, and my purse, I turned toward the clerk, and the purse hanging from my left arm knocked the bubble-wrapped glass lamp to the floor, shattering those pretty aqua bulbs.

The clerk called her manager over, and they were very nice about it and ordered me a new lamp, returning this one to inventory as “damaged.” This could have gone another way, but I was grateful that these ladies were so gracious and professional about the situation. I apologized and told them I felt terrible, not because I was leaving empty-handed, but because I had “laid to waste” such a pretty lamp. It had felt so heavy and looked so sturdy with its solid metal square base; but in the end, it was quite fragile.

While thinking with sincere regret about being so impulsive and careless, I reflected on the paradox of sturdiness and fragility—this solid-based lamp had survived the handling of manufacture, transport, and store display for who knows how long and had remained upright and intact until circumstances (me) caused it to come crashing down, shattering its delicate heart. It was painful seeing those aqua shards inside the bubble wrap; but as the sales clerk said, at least the fragments were contained.

This seemed like a good analogy to human circumstances, but with a twist: as strong as life may have made us, and as sturdy as we may be on our own feet, some quirk of fate can knock us down at any time. The difference between a shattered lifeless object and a fractured living soul is what we do about it. The lamp had fallen and couldn’t get back up; it couldn’t be repaired—but I could order a new one. I, too, had fallen, but could get back up; I couldn’t order new body parts—but I could repair my spirit.

Maybe we all have a sort of spiritual bubble wrap around our own fragile parts–we may fall, we may crack; but the fragments can be contained, and our essential selves can remain intact. Our attitudes can shift. Our hearts can heal. Our spirits can revive.

Notes of Gratitude 

As I sort through my past, I feel keenly what I have lost. My physical losses are internal and invisible. My nonphysical losses are ephemeral and unseen. But I am thankful that all of these things have been a part of my life. Contentment may not be mine, but as spring approaches and I continue to mend, I realize that although I can’t restore what I once had, I can refresh my life. This is a solitary and mostly lonely process. The flood of support and attention I received at the beginning of my health crisis has become somewhat less as the situation has become the new normal and has been absorbed into my changed life—and other people’s perception of it. But as with the bereaved after a funeral, we are all left alone to cope with grief, loss, and an altered life after everyone goes home, back to their own lives and their own challenges.

Yet support still comes, now in an occasional gentle wave. Any act of kindness or caring is balm to the spirit. My hope for us all is that we can journey through life knowing we have our fellow travelers’ hearts in our hands . . . and that they can be shattered like glass lamp bulbs when knocked off of their (apparently) sturdy base.

Pictured here are two symbols of gratitude:

In an eerie portent of things to come, for my 60th birthday in 2012, my sister, Vicki Sue, gave me a “Kohl’s Cares” package of coordinated pink-ribbon birthday gifts—Kohl’s donates 100% of the net profit to support breast cancer. By doing something caring for me, she was doing a kindness for unknown others. The strange thing was that this scarf wasn’t so “pink,” but more a peachy salmon, the ribbon color for uterine (endometrial) cancer—with which I was diagnosed a year later:

Peach Ribbon 1_50%

And last week, friend Kathryn and I had a lovely lunch in a local teashop, a very special place, at which she presented me with my first and only official uterine cancer ribbon pin:

Peach Ribbon 2

Finally, a special thanks to the ladies at Pier 1 for ordering me a new aqua glass lamp. I promise to treat it with care.

A Bit More about “The New York Way”

In my February 20, 2014 post, I described “The New York Way” of delivering radiation treatment post-hysterectomy for uterine (endometrial) cancer and also discussed some side effects of vaginal brachytherapy. My short-term side effects are now subsiding, but about a day after the last post and a week after my third and final brachytherapy treatment on Valentine’s Day, I developed full-blown cystitis (constant irritation and burning on urination) and increased bowel changes (gas, frequent BMs, and some leakage). Apparently, these effects were right on schedule according to some of the online patient information I’ve come across. (I’ll update the technical information in a future post.)

Back around the winter holidays, starting a week after my hysterectomy, I had a bout of lymphorrhea, as discussed in the January 10, 2014 post. To make sure I didn’t have a fistula between the bladder and vagina, my surgeon had prescribed a “dye test” using phenazopyridine (Pyridium), pills that turn urine orange—and are also used to soothe the urinary tract for patients with an infection. (I passed the test—no orange showed at the top of the test tampons, and the lymphatic leakage stopped soon after.) I don’t know why, but he had given me several refills of the pills, so (without calling anyone) I went to the pharmacy and got more Pyridium to treat my cystitis. Note that these pills do NOT kill the microorganisms that cause UTIs, but I didn’t have an infection, just burning from the radiation. I took the pills for a week, and they did indeed help. I no longer have burning. The bowel issues have also improved.

What hasn’t improved much is the fatigue, which is worse some days than others. Often, it is related to exertion as I become a bit more active, but not necessarily. I am also waiting for the longer-term side effects to set in and believe I am just starting to notice some of those effects now. But I will discuss these in detail after my first post-radiation checkup, which has been pushed back from March 17 to March 25, when I will also have my first three-month surgical checkup. At that time I’ll know more about radiation effects and how to manage them and will also discuss more of “The New York Way” with my doctors as I continue to read and learn more about different treatment models.

But what’s on my mind now are effects that aren’t physical and healing that isn’t allopathic.*

*A system of medical practice that aims to combat disease by use of remedies (as drugs or surgery).

Part 2, Update: March 19, 2014

Radiation-Related Posts on The Patient Path:

January 10, 2014 (“Orange Pee & Radioactive Tampons”)

January 16, 2014: Preparing for Radiation (“Looking Back & Forging Ahead to Radiation”)

January 24, 2014: 1st Treatment (“My First Encounter with a Radioactive ‘Pig’”)

February 5, 2014: 2nd Treatment (on 02/04/14–“The “Demon Seed”)

February 12, 2014: A Postponement (“A Glowing Valentine’s Day–02/14/2014”)

February 15, 2014: 3rd Treatment (on 02/14/14–“21 Shades of Gray for Valentine’s Day”)

February 20, 2014 (“Radiation ‘The New York Way’”)

My Sister’s Story – Adoption & Reunion: Epilogue – The Wonders of Sisterhood & Synchronicity


This isn’t a medical story per se, but I offer it here as an example of how important family relationships and history are to health, healthcare, and general happiness and well-being. And the story does have medical implications, which I will explore at a future date.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is intended to be a heartwarming story of loss and recovery. It appears here with my family’s permission.

 Forever Hearts_30%


My Sister’s Story

Part 1: Adoption

Part 2: Recognition

Part 3: Communion

Part 4: Reunion


By that September 2009, the month in which both Vicki Sue’s (15th) and my (24th) birthdays fall, Susan Mary had found her birth family and a part of herself she thought she’d lost forever. What a 50th birthday present–and what a reward for an impulsive telephone call. . . . Or maybe it was a case of “spontaneous inspiration”?

* * *

On September 15, 1959, my sister was born, “died,” and started a new life. On August 12, 2009, she returned to her origins.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my sister’s path from adoption to reunion with her birth family. Although our story has a happy ending, I recognize that each adoption story is unique and may follow a very different course. Nevertheless, I offer this story to all those who yearn to reconnect with their beginnings in an effort to feel whole again.

* * *

Here I will present a timeline of events in an effort to illustrate the synchronicities underlying our story:

  • September 15, 1959: Susan Mary was born and was adopted a few days later
  • September 1959: Pam started second grade in Northeast Philly and met her “friend-sister” Sandee Crespy (Kline)
  • December 29, 2008: Our father died; Wayne found Susan Mary’s registration of birth in our father’s papers, planting the idea in Pam’s mind of looking for their “long-lost” sister
  • Winter 2009: Pam received an email from Sandee seeking help for some of her family members; this inspired Pam to sign up with a family-matching registry to try to find her sister
  • July 2009: Pam told her Aunt Ceil the story of her lost baby sister; somehow, her aunt had never heard the story before
  • August 12, 2009: Pam received a phone call from her father’s second wife, Emily, who had received an earlier call from someone named “Vicki” saying she had been adopted; her birth date was September 15, 1959; and her birth name was Susan Mary, a fact she had just learned seven years before when she found her adoption papers following her adoptive father’s death (she had known she was adopted, but not any details)
  • August 15, 2009: Pam and Vicki Sue met at the Stockton Inn to exchange papers and photos to confirm that they were indeed sisters–which they did! Vicki told Pam that the whole time she was growing up her favorite names were Susan and Mary, a fact that astounded her when she’d discovered her adoption papers seven years before
  • August 16, 2009: Pam announced the “rebirth” of her third child to their mother; later that week, the nervous-but-happy birth-mom called her “reborn” nervous-but-happy daughter
  • August 22, 2009: Wayne, wife Anne, daughter Lindsay, and husband Doug met Vicki Sue and family–husband Howard, older son Dan, and younger son Jason–at his and Anne’s, house
  • August-September 2009: The mother-child reunion finally happened in Mom’s apartment; Pam and husband, Farok, met Vicki Sue’s family for a luncheon at Olive Garden; Pam and Mom visited Sandee’s Mom in the hospital and told her and Sandee’s sister, Ronnie, Vicki Sue’s story, complete with photos; tears of joy and happy babbling ensued
  • September 15, 2009: Vicki Sue turned an elated 50 years old
  • October 18, 2009: We held our first family-reunion “Oktoberfest”; attending were Mom and her friend Joyce; Aunt Ceil and her other niece Nancy; Wayne and Anne; Lindsay and Doug; Pam, Farok, and Matt (my son); Vicki Sue, Howard, Dan, and Jason; Phill and Noelle (our step-brother and sister-in-law); and, of course, Sandee, who came to meet her soul-sister, Vicki Sue; sadly, they never met again
  • November 2009: Our father’s house was sold and his phone number was disconnected–had Vicki Sue waited much longer to dial that number, we may never have been reunited
  • January 2010: Sandee became ill with recurrent afternoon fevers after returning from a trip to Israel with her husband, Mitch, to visit their daughter, Malka, and her family; Pam drove to see Sandee in her home for what turned out to be the last time
  • August 14, 2010: Pam and friend Sue visited Sandee at Johns Hopkins–exactly one year after Vicki Sue and Pam met; it was our final girl-time together, and it was good
  • September 27, 2010: Sandee died of leukemia

* * *

As I’ve told you in this story, Sandee became “Susan Mary’s” replacement in my seven-year-old world, which had been shattered by a temporary parental separation and a private agreement to give the third child up for adoption. Sandee lived just long enough to meet my sister, whom we call Vicki Sue to honor her adoptive and birth names, after her remarkable re-emergence in 2009 from the shadows of our past. Other than my family, no one was more moved or jubilant that I’d found my sister than the one who’d taken her place all those years ago. Sandee and Vicki Sue met at our family’s first Oktoberfest on October 18, 2009, 50 years after we had lost Vicki Sue and 11 months before Sandee died, at age 57, of the leukemia that was starting to leach the life out of her–and that she didn’t yet know she had.

After Sandee’s funeral in September 2010, Sandee’s sister Ronnie gave me a hollow, ivory-colored ceramic heart with a separate, smaller solid heart in the center–the image that appears above. The idea was to bury the small solid heart with the beloved deceased and for the bereaved to keep the hollow heart as a remembrance of both loss and eternal connection. Although I helped carry my childhood friend to her grave, I did not place the solid heart in her coffin. Instead, I gave it to Vicki Sue. Sandee would have loved knowing that my broken heart actually has a living center. You can read a little more about Sandee in my December 6, 2013, post commemorating her birthday.

* * *

As I experienced the events I’ve related in this story, they felt very much as if they were somehow being inspired–and perhaps even influenced–by powers beyond those available to us on this side of the veil. Back in the winter of 2009, my first intuition was that, from wherever he was, my  recently deceased father made amends for his part in the family separation by somehow inspiring in me an impulse to find my sister. This impulse was further reinforced by Sandee’s “rescue” email on behalf of her family. Within months, my sister–after 50 years–had an impulse to try to find her birth family and dialed my father’s number, which would be disconnected within three months. Shortly after they finally met in 2009, my friend-sister, Sandee, met the birth-sister, Vicki Sue, whom she had replaced in my life in 1959; sadly, Sandee died less than a year later.

And Vicki Sue, not knowing her birth name until adulthood, announced that her favorite names since she was a little girl were Susan Mary.

You, of course, may draw your own conclusions. I have drawn mine.

Postscript: Vicki’s adoptive mother recently died on Sunday, November 10, from complications of emergency abdominal surgery; she had been living in a care facility. Happily, Vicki Sue now has us, her old-but-new extended family.

* * *

I will end by deferring to a great poet, who says in few words what I have tried to say in many:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time. 

From “Little Gidding,” the last of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets




Part 1: Adoption

Part 2: Recognition

Part 3: Communion

Part 4: Reunion

Epilogue: The Wonders of Sisterhood & Synchronicity

My Sister’s Story – Adoption & Reunion

This isn’t a medical story per se, but I offer it here as an example of how important family relationships and history are to health, healthcare, and general happiness and well-being. And the story does have medical implications, which I will explore at a future date.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is intended to be a heartwarming story of loss and recovery. It appears here with my family’s permission.

Part 4: Reunion

How do you tell your 79-year-old mother that she now has three children–and two more grandchildren–to buy birthday, Christmas, and Chanukah gifts for?



Click for:

Part 1: Adoption

Part 2: Recognition

Part 3: Communion

“Congratulations! It’s a girl! You have a lovely new 50-year-old daughter!”

My mother is fond of what sound to me like silly aphorisms. When I’m worried or can’t sleep, I get, “Think of a lovely rose garden.” Nice thought, but die-hard neurotics and insomniacs like me usually need something more, like . . . say . . . pills, not petals.

On August 16, 2009, a lovely summer day, I called my mother and said I’d like to come see her. “What’s wrong!?” True, I usually don’t call to say I want to come over. “I have something to show you.” “What is it?” “A surprise.” “What kind of surprise?” “Let’s just say it’s something old that’s new again.” Later I found out she thought I’d bought a pre-owned car.

After meeting with Vicki Sue the previous day and exchanging papers and photos, I hastily assembled a portfolio for our mom. Searching on the Internet for an appropriate picture to put on the cover, I found the one above. It looked just old-fashioned enough, and just cute enough, to serve my purpose. My husband drove me to my mother’s place that day because I was too nervous, but he planned to go off to the pool and do errands while I went up to do the deed. During the entire trip from NJ, about an hour’s drive, I tried to think of an opening line. I had nothing.

When we arrived, Farok dropped me at the back door to my mother’s apartment complex, where I contemplated how to announce the rebirth of my mother’s third child. The building happens to have quite a lovely pink rosebush beside the door, which reminded me of my mother’s penchant for aphorisms. Then one of her favorites came to me: “You never know when you get up in the morning what’s going to happen to you that day.” Hmmm. I’d lead off with that.

Down she came to let me in. She looked around, noticing I had something in my hands, but she saw no husband and no car. “Where’s your new car?” “What new car?” “The one you came to show me–you just bought a new used car, didn’t you?” “What are you talking about?” “That thing–that thing that was old and is now new again. It’s a new used car, right? And where’s Farok?” OK, I played along for the two minutes it took us to walk upstairs. “Yes. You figured it out. Farok loves the car so much that he decided to tool around in it for a while–he’ll be back later.”

* * *

When we were finally settled on her sofa, she looked at the folder in my hand. “What’s that?” “This is what I’ve come to show you.” She started staring at me a little suspiciously. “You know what you always say to me–‘You never know . . .'” ” . . . when you wake up in the morning . . . yes, so, what happened to you today? And what’s that in your hand?” “I’ll show you in a minute. Just one more thing I have to tell you first.” She’s not a patient woman, and I knew I was about to drop a beautiful bomb on her and didn’t know how to prepare her for it.

“OK. Remember I went to see Matt last week? Well, as I was stepping onto the plane to come home, Emily called me on my cell and said she’d just gotten a weird phone call from a woman named Vicki.” “OK, and . . .” “OK. Well, so, Vicki told Emily she’d been adopted.” Stares. “And that her birth date was September 15, 1959.” Widening eyes. “And that her birth name was Susan Mary.” Eyes bigger than any deer’s in any headlights ever were. My mother put her hand to her heart, and barely forced out a hoarse whisper: “My daughter!? You found my daughter!?”

“Well, she sort of found me. And this is what she looks like.” I showed her one of the photos I’d taken the day before and printed out. “How did you get that?” “I took it with my phone.” “You met her!?” “Yep. Just yesterday.”

Hands shaking, heart pounding, eyes unable not to be as wide as they would open, Mom took the portfolio, and I walked her through it–adoption papers, birth registration, baby pictures, growing-up photos. “And you have two grandsons–and they’ve both been bar mitzvahed.” “Really!?” Pause. “Wait ’til Sandee hears that!” Of course, she already had. And was barely hanging on waiting for me to report back about how my mother took this monumental news.

* * *

Over the next two hours, we looked at the photos, and I told her as much as I knew about VS and her family. Then it was her turn to tell me the whole story of what had happened 50 years ago, which she did. Some of it she had trouble remembering, but not the heart-rending scene in the hospital on the day she left without her baby. This was a privately arranged adoption through family doctors. For some reason, PA law back then required that the birth mother hand over the infant to an agent of the adoptive mother on the steps outside the front door of the hospital. A lawyer was waiting outside; the new mother was in the car.

On the only day in her life the child would almost be in the presence of her two mothers at the same time, a nurse brought in a yellow outfit that the adoptive mother wanted to take her new daughter home in. At first the nurse asked my mother to dress the baby herself, but Mom couldn’t see through her tears to get the job done. So the nurse dressed the little girl and handed her to her mother, who was unable to look into her baby’s eyes. The nurse put a small blanket over the baby’s face momentarily as a gesture of kindness. Then the doctor came in and asked my mother about a name. My mother insisted that her baby girl would not leave the hospital without one. Giving away a nameless child would be like casting away a baby that was unwanted and uncared for. Circumstances, not lack of love, had dictated this adoption. So one of my mother’s favorite names combined with a variant of her own first name (Marie) was put on the registration of birth that we later found in our father’s possession.

My mother walked next to the nurse carrying the child to the front steps of the hospital and, according to law, took her baby, face veiled once again by the blanket, from the nurse and handed her over to her adoptive family’s lawyer. The little girl left the hospital with her birth mother’s chosen name in her adoptive mother’s chosen outfit. “Susan Mary” was on her way to her new home, wearing yellow.

And her birth mother was on her way home to tell her other two children the sad news that their baby sister had just died.

* * *

After we were all talked and cried out that August day (you can guess why my brother and husband didn’t want to be in the middle of this), my mother had a decision to make. Vicki Sue–my mother loved that name!–had said she felt only joy, no sadness or anger, and wanted to leave the decision about when–or whether–to meet to her mom.

“Please call Vicki and tell her I love her . . . that I’ve always loved her, every single day of her life. But I need time to adjust to the shock. Maybe I’ll be ready to talk to her by phone in a week or two, and if that goes all right, maybe I’ll meet her someday soon after that. I just need time.”

Yeah, right.

The next day, the “new mom” told her friend at the hospital where they both volunteered. That’s when apprehension started turning into excitement. Within days, Mom called her third child on the phone. Vicki didn’t pick up, so my mother left a strained message: “I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just come out with it: I’m your birth mother, and I’d love to talk with you.” When they finally connected, somehow between sobs and tumbled words they agreed to meet very soon.

That weekend, Wayne and his wife, Anne, invited Vicki Sue and her family–husband Howard, older son Dan, younger son Jason–to their house for dinner, where they also met Wayne and Anne’s daughter, Lindsay, and her husband, Doug. Dan couldn’t stop staring at his uncle Wayne, who responded to this by throwing a fork at his new nephew, saying: “Stop staring! It’s not my fault that we look alike!” And that they do. Laughter ensued. You can imagine that if Vicki Sue and her sons couldn’t stare at my emailed photos hard enough, they certainly had a stare-fest on meeting their new bro/uncle in person. To this day, they seem simply fascinated to find family resemblances.

I had yet to meet my sister’s family. And Mom had yet to meet her daughter.

* * *

But the following week, unable to postpone the inevitable any longer, the new arrival decided it was time to go meet her mother. And her mother agreed, with her whole heart. We all thought it best that they meet on their own, just the two of them, for the Mother-Child Reunion.

Mom went down to the back entrance to let her daughter into her apartment building, but she saw only a delivery truck parked in the lot across from that rose bush. She kept calling, “Vicki! Vicki!” Then a tousled, reddish-brown head peeped from behind the truck, gradually revealing a wide smile as Susan Mary caught her first glimpse of her birth mother, who stared back at her “baby” in awe. The mother-child reunion happened first with the eyes . . . again, those eyes.

Hugging and crying and laughing, they went upstairs. They talked for hours and hours, still crying and laughing, looking at photos, staring at each other. Vicki Sue finally went home later that night with emotions that I dare not try to describe. Maybe she will do that herself someday. But she left behind a very peaceful and happy Mom–who couldn’t stop smiling and crying as she looked at the beautiful roses her “new” daughter had brought her: yellow. Just the color of the last outfit she’d seen her in 50 years before, when she’d thought she’d never see her again.

A week after that, my mother, Farok, and Vicki Sue and family all got together for a happy, question-and-answer-style reunion luncheon at Olive Garden. This was not so much the beginning of a new family as it was the enlargement of a previously invisible family circle.

By that September 2009, the month in which both Vicki Sue’s (15th) and my (24th) birthdays fall, Susan Mary had found her birth family and a part of herself she thought she’d lost forever. What a 50th birthday present–and what a reward for an impulsive telephone call.

* * *

Or maybe it was a case of “spontaneous inspiration”? I have a few more anecdotes and thoughts about that, which I’ll share in tomorrow’s Epilogue.


Part 1: Adoption

Part 2: Recognition

Part 3: Communion


My Sister’s Story – Adoption & Reunion

This isn’t a medical story per se, but I offer it here as an example of how important family relationships and history are to health, healthcare, and general happiness and well-being. And the story does have medical implications, which I will explore at a future date.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is intended to be a heartwarming story of loss and recovery. It appears here with my family’s permission.

Part 3: Communion

Click for Part 2: Recognition

Click for Part 1: Adoption

Willow Tree_Sisters by Heart_50%  “And . . . oh my God. You have a mother!” That’s when it hit me: who was going to tell “our” mother!?

“I think you should do it.” Ah, spoken like a typical “baby sister.” Of course. I was the oldest. I was supposed to be the “responsible” one.

I suggested to Vicki that we meet that coming Saturday, August 15, 2009, to exchange copies of papers and photos. She was utterly fascinated with what we all looked like–or more particularly, whether she looked like any of us. After we decided that “the middle” was the Stockton Inn, just across the bridge from PA in NJ, I emailed her some photos. She said later that she couldn’t stare at them hard enough. I think she was looking for parts of her lost self in our faces.

And speaking of middles. . . . After Vicki and I hung up, a first-step plan in place, I called “our” brother to give him the momentous news. “Great. Now I have middle-child syndrome.” After I stopped smirking on my end of the line, I said: “Well, I used to be the older child–now I’m the oldest!” He’s the comedian; I’m the grammarian.

Then I told him the story and asked him the same question: who should tell our mother?

“I think you should do it.” Ah, spoken like a typical younger “middle child” brother. Of course. I was the oldest. I was supposed to be the “responsible” one.

Discussing names–it felt odd to us that we had a “new” sister named “Vicki”–Wayne decided how to work around the “but our sister’s name was Susan” problem: “I think we should call her Vicki Sue.” And so we did–and still do.

First things first. I had to meet our sister before I could tell our mother we’d found her–or, rather, that “Vicki Sue” had found us. I felt it was vitally important to be sure there were no sad mistakes before we made the big announcement.

* * *

I did make a couple of more phone calls that night. First, I called Emily, my deceased father’s wife. She was so happy for us: “God bless you all!” Emily passed away last year, never having had the chance to meet the Vicki she’d spoken to on the phone that August day in 2009. But I’m sending her a posthumous thank you through this story for helping to bring us together.

Another call I made that evening was to . . . you guessed it, Sandee. Her life was so busy that she rarely had time to talk on the phone unless she was in the car. I caught her as she was driving home from work. “Sand! You’ll never believe what just happened! I found my long-lost baby sister!” “You wha. . . .” Her phone battery died. She couldn’t call back until the next day, rampant curiosity and nervous excitement notwithstanding. That’s just how full Sandee’s life was.

When the phone rang the following day, she just picked up where she’d “dropped” off: “You what!?” As I told her, I heard more giddy laughter than I’d ever heard come out of her before. Oh, and I heard plenty of caterwauling about her dead phone. “Serves you right,” said I. “You talk too much!” (Long-time friends can say these things to each other.) I resumed: “And guess what else? She’s Jewish!” Well, the happy squeals and “I can’t believe its” on the other end of the line competed with gleeful laughing as we both remembered that, when we were kids, Sandee used to say I was more Jewish than she was. This wasn’t true, of course, but it was our longstanding joke. Between giggles and gulps, she said: “When do I get to meet her?”

I told you this part of the story in last Friday’s post–they met at my house two months later, at our family’s first “Oktoberfest,” a truly happy event. They never met again.

* * *

Saturday, August 15, finally came. Last evening, my husband and I drove through Stockton, NJ on our way to PA to see my mother, and all the memories flooded over me, washing away the past four years. And I’m remembering them so clearly this morning as I sit watching a light snow turn our landscape into a Christmas card.

On August 15, 2009, armed with “Vicki Sue’s” birth registration and lots of photos, I headed off to the Stockton Inn. I often misjudge driving time, so I was a few minutes late. When I entered the restaurant, I told the hostess I had a reservation for two–and she started crying. Then a waitress approached the reservation desk–and she started crying. Uh-oh. . . .

“What happened!?” “The other lady got here early. She was pacing and looking so nervous and as if she was about to cry, so we asked her whether she was all right. She told us the whole story!”

They led me to the garden waiting area, where I beheld my baby sister–who would be turning 50 exactly one month later–for the first time. The Willow Tree picture in these posts–the “Sisters by Heart” statue–captures the essence of that first reuniting embrace. Vicki Sue gave me that statue at our first Christmas together, four years ago already, in 2009.

After we hugged for some indeterminate moments, we went to our table, where a tearful waitress brought us some wine for a toast. Even though it was only the two of us, we had each brought with us, in spirit, 50 years of family and life that we would soon reveal to each other, words tumbling over bites of food and sips of wine, spilling out through smiles, splashing past happy tears. The occasion felt as profoundly important as any ceremonial day I’d ever experienced.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, the information on the papers matched. Her adoption papers and “my” birth registration contained the same data. But by that point, I didn’t need facts. As Vicki Sue took off her glasses, I looked into the eyes of my much younger mother from deep within an early childhood memory, still such an integral part of my adult mind. It was a strange, eerie feeling. VS didn’t look that much like my mother, just a little. But when she removed those glasses, it was our mother’s eyes I was looking into, the long-ago mother-child bond impossible to recall at will–and equally impossible to destroy by time. Although Vicki Sue would not look into those same young-mother eyes, she would look into the windows of her biological mother’s soul. Soon. Very soon.

Yet Vicki Sue’s eyes aren’t even the same color as our mother’s. My parents, brother, and I all have hazel eyes. But my mother’s sister–Aunt Ceil–has very pale blue eyes. And these are the color of Vicki Sue’s. Interestingly, VS resembles Aunt Ceil, who has lots of nieces and nephews, but no children of her own. And I almost forgot yet another coincidence, which I was reminded of last night when I stopped in to see Ceil on the way to pick up my mother for dinner: That summer of 2009, just a couple of weeks before Vicki Sue appeared from the ether, I told Ceil about my long-lost baby sister, just after she’d finished telling me a wonderful story about her long-lost high school friend.* Believe it or not, Ceil had never known about her sister’s “lost” child. About two weeks later, my aunt and I both felt as if we’d manifested Vicki Sue just by talking about her!

By the end of that lunch at the Stockton Inn, my sister and I–no DNA test could make us any surer that we were just that–had made a plan. She would meet our brother and his family the following week. But in the meantime, I had a very important job to do.

How do you tell your 79-year-old mother that she now has three children–and two more grandchildren–to buy birthday, Christmas, and Chanukah gifts for?

* * *

Part 4: Reunion tomorrow.


Part 1: Adoption

Part 2: Recognition


*I will be posting a link to my aunt’s story soon–it’s a charmer, just like her.

My Sister’s Story – Adoption & Reunion

This isn’t a medical story per se, but I offer it here as an example of how important family relationships and history are to health, healthcare, and general happiness and well-being. And the story does have medical implications, which I will explore at a future date.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what is intended to be a heartwarming story of loss and recovery. It appears here with my family’s permission.

Part 2: Recognition

Click for Part 1: Adoption

Willow Tree_Sisters by Heart_50%  After the chills shot through my body, I had just enough time to say, “Oh my God, that’s my sister!” before we were instructed to put away all electronic devices. The plane was taking off.

I was traveling with a colleague. At the time, my son, Matt, was working with us remotely, and Rob and I had gone down to Greensboro to meet with him. But even quick trips can be exhausting, and Rob just wanted to nap on the flight home and get back to his family. So I sat on the plane staring at my switched-off cell phone with no outlet for my mounting anxiety mixed with excitement. Good thing it was a short flight; but it would take an additional hour-and-a-half or more to drive home from the airport.

Finally, in the early evening, I was back home. I called my father’s wife, Emily, to continue our truncated conversation from earlier that day. She was a bit giddy, but also cautious. Rather than give this “Vicki” person my number, she took Vicki’s number and said she would have “Bob’s daughter” get in touch with her. I lost no time making the call. It was a wrong number.

I called Emily back to check the number. I had written it down correctly. Now what? Emily said “Vicki” had sounded nervous and that she wasn’t sure she’d ever call back. I said, “Don’t you have caller ID, or can’t you do *69 or something?” “Wait a minute. Let me hang up and look at this phone.” So, I hung up and waited . . . and waited.

Almost half an hour later, the phone rang. “Pam?” “Yes?” “The lady at the number I called gave me your number.” “Vicki?!” “Yes.” Pause. “We thought we’d lost you. What’s your number?” It was one digit off what Emily had given me. 

“Hi.” “Hi.” Obviously, we shared a creativity gene. When in doubt, I let my “business” persona take over. “Why don’t you tell me what you know, and I’ll answer any questions you have.” So “Vicki” read me the information from her adoption papers, and I compared it with the birth registration Wayne had found. Date of birth: check. City of birth: check. Parents’ names: check. Birth name: check. And she knew the name of the hospital where she’d been born: check. “That information exactly matches what I have. I think you’re my sister.”

When we recovered our voices after the moment of emotional overwhelm, we talked for almost an hour. She told me about her adoptive family–father deceased, mother then living, older brother (biological son of adoptive mom and dad) grown and living out west. Then she described where she’d been brought up–at one point she lived practically around the corner from my first married home, and she had always lived in the vicinity of Philadelphia, as had I. (Now I’m in New Jersey, but she’s only an hour away–whereas she was once 50 years away.) Then she told me about her own family–married with two children. I had two “new” nephews!

* * *

My WASP-by-birth sister had been raised Jewish, and her sons–my nephews–Dan and Jason, had both been bar mitzvahed! Wait ’til I tell Sandee, I thought. As I said last week, Sandee, the star of Friday’s post, was beyond thrilled when she finally got this news–especially about the bar mitzvahs. Also as I’ve mentioned, Sandee’s entry into and departure from my life eerily coincided with Vicki’s story. I found Sandee just as my sister was born and was lost to us. And Vicki found us just as Sandee was becoming ill and would soon be lost to us. It felt as if they were exchanging places . . . but, of course, only in my world.

Vicki’s story contains other strange coincidences. Although I’d known of her existence since I was 18, I had never made an attempt to find her. That cold, lonely winter of early 2009 just after my father died, I was sitting in my home office feeling bereft. Sandee had emailed her family and friends an urgent plea on behalf of one of her sick cousins, who was in dire need of financial help, and she was asking people for contributions. After I sent mine, Sandee’s efforts on behalf of her family got me to thinking more about mine. I’d been watching those adoption programs on TV and suddenly had an impulse to check into some of the resources they’d mentioned. It was time to find my sister.

I registered with a family reunion site, providing all the information I had about my lost sibling. Then I waited. But I heard nothing. Not until that August day stepping onto the airplane. While Vicki and I were on the phone that first time, I asked her what had prompted her to try to find us now–only several months after I’d started my initial efforts to find her. She said she’d just read a story about adoption and had a sudden impulse to grab a Philadelphia phone book and look up the family name on her adoption papers. She’d always known she was adopted, but it was not until her father died seven years before that she’d found her papers and learned of her birth name.

Now, here was another strange thing: Growing up, again knowing she was adopted but not anything more, Vicki’s favorite name was . . . Susan. Her second favorite name was . . . Mary. As you’ll see in another installment, my mother refused to let her baby leave the hospital and go to a new mother’s arms without a name. The name she gave her that day in September 1959, the one that appeared on “Vicki’s” birth records, was Susan Mary.

And one more eerie matter of timing: Not only had Vicki and I had an impulse to try to find our lost family–and she not even knowing who she was looking for–within months of each other after a span of almost 50 years, but had Vicki waited to pick up that phone book just a few more months it would have been too late. Our father’s house was sold three months later, and the phone number was disconnected. It was almost as if my father was helping to orchestrate this reunion from wherever he was. I remember that later on Sandee concurred with that notion.

* * *

Now it was my turn. Wayne and I hadn’t had the happiest of childhoods, so I thought carefully about how much I should tell Vicki about us . . . and about how she came to be given up for adoption at birth. “Well, you have me–I’m your older sister by seven years. I’m married, for the second time, and have a grown son, Matt. And you have a brother–he’s 20 months younger than I am and about five years older than you. He’s married and has a grown daughter, Lindsay, who’s also married. And . . . oh my God. You have a mother!”

That’s when it hit me: who was going to tell “our” mother!?

* * *

Part 3: Communion tomorrow.


Part 1: Adoption

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 2

Anne Perry's Necklace
Pamela wearing “her and Anne Perry’s” beautiful blue sparkly necklace.

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 1 Is Here

Originally Posted on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.

In Part 1, we left off where my friend Pat said, “You have to go up to her [Anne Perry] and tell her she got your necklace!” And I heard myself say, “I would never do that!”

Walking toward the next session, I spotted Anne Perry casually standing over a trashcan, eating one of those bagels. Unprepossessing as the image was, being in the same circumstances as the rest of us made her seem approachable—unfortunately for her. Again, I watched myself walk toward her and heard things come out of my mouth that some unseen ventriloquist with a bad sense of humor made me say: “Hello! Did you happen to just buy a beautiful sparkly blue necklace at the jewelry stall?” “Yes, I did. Did you want it?” “Well, I was thinking of buying it yesterday, but I told myself I’d wait ‘til today, and if it was still there I’d purchase it.” “Oh, I’m so sorry—but not enough to exchange it.”

Her friendly yet frank response had actually charmed me, but I now knew what “being mortified” felt like. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean that! The vendor offered to make me another one. Now we’ll have a psychic connection.” Twit! But did I stop?

“Let’s walk,” she said. “Are you going to the next session?” “Yes, I’m looking for Meeting Room 6.” “So am I. I’m on a panel.” As if I didn’t know. And so we walked—in the wrong direction—as I chattered on about her books and characters, making mistake after goofy mistake as I mixed them all up and she gently corrected me. I could no more stop myself from spouting gibberish than I could avoid sounding like my mother in the presence of my son.

We parted so she could speak and I could listen (which is what I wish I had been doing all along). She repeated some of her comments from the previous evening, but I would have listened to the same remarks multiple times if I could self-correct the earlier conversation—at least in my mind. In take two, I would make myself sound authoritative and confident, someone Anne Perry would remember for her prescience and insight—not someone who coveted her blue sparkly necklace and made inane comments about her books.

I consoled myself with the knowledge that she’d probably had many hundreds of similar encounters and that her gaze was ever fixed on that far horizon, not on me. She would never have registered me as an individual, but that was OK. Just listening to her eloquent commentary made me want to be a better person—and a writer.

Anne Perry, even though she had endured a dark episode in her own early past (or possibly because of it), is a penetrating yet compassionate observer of human existence. She articulates with ease matters of the heart, mind, and soul, and she does it with kindness, even gentleness, despite her imposing presence—tall, forthright, unabashed. She has no children, she says with what may be a tinge of regret. Yet I sense her to be a tender, if firm, mother to her brainchildren, and I can imagine her caring deeply for the people in her life. She stated that the whole purpose of her five-part WWI series can be summed up in a single sentence: “I will not leave you.”

The day after I returned home, my husband and I went for a leisurely walk in nearby Ken Lockwood Gorge. A narrow arm of the Raritan River flows through the wooded, rocky area, and the bank running alongside is flat and easy to stroll on, as well as tree lined. It is difficult to imagine a more serene setting. I watched the water gently moving over, under, and around the rocks on this beautiful day—no tension, no struggle, no indecision. The crystalline water reminded me of the necklace—not in color, but in clarity. Clarity, I realized, is the gift your mind gives to your spirit when the stream of consciousness flows unerringly around perceived obstacles.

Decisions I had deferred for lack of clarity now demanded to be made. It was hard, because selecting one thing means letting go of another. Recognizing this natural rhythm of life, however, makes the transition between the world you live in pre-decision and the one you inhabit post-decision short lived and relatively peaceful. By the day of my birthday, I had begun the post-decision transition from anxiety to acceptance after making some hard choices, even as I knew I was on the road to another pre-decision period about more challenging matters. This steady movement based on decisive action, though, is a precious gift and was my best birthday present, one nobody else could have given me. Letting old things burn away leaves clean spaces for new ones to germinate.

One of my to-dos in honor of having made it through another year was to head back to the Frenchtown shop to see whether the kitchen accessories I had passed up a week earlier were waiting for me. There they were. Now here they are. But they are not material possessions to me, any more than the necklace would be when I got it. They are physical manifestations of aspects of myself that I wasn’t completely aware of. What lives deep inside is reflected outside yourself once you achieve clarity. So it follows that making decisions would be much easier . . . I hoped.

A few days later, Chris emailed: “Forgot to ask. I had made two versions of the necklace, 20″ and 18″—the one you and Anne Perry looked at was 18″.  Is this what you wanted?” She’d forgotten about the measuring tape, but that was OK: “Yes, 18″, beautiful blue mixed with pewter. Just like Anne Perry’s.”

I went with the 18-incher because I wanted a twin of Anne Perry’s necklace, which had almost been mine. After the email exchange, I searched for some Anne Perry factoids to supplement my musings and came upon an interview she had done for the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I stopped open-mouthed when the interviewer, as a follow-up to Anne’s statement about hope, asked her about why she thinks American audiences are more “optimistic”: “I think if they see something somebody has possession of that they want, they . . . think, ‘How can I acquire one of those? How did you get it, so what can I do?’ There’s a generosity of spirit and an optimism that I hope they never lose.”

So necklace envy proves I’m a typical go-getter American (!)—one with a generous spirit, if not an optimistic nature—even though I had seen the object of our desire first. But perhaps my wanting the same necklace Anne Perry chose was a sign of optimism, of the hope that we had something even more important in common than a blue bauble: a love of writing. Well, maybe. But this would require decisions—and decisions are so hard. In the same interview, Anne Perry explained that this is because we need to be put to the test, pushed to the limit, before we know what we really want:

I have a little exercise that I make my main characters go through. Imagine that you are standing at the edge of the world, at the end of the world; volcanic darkness is coming; there is the abyss. It’s just you and Satan, nobody else left. And he says to you, “What do you really believe? If you tell me the truth, I have no power over you. If you lie, you’re going over the edge. And you are never coming back.”  . . . Then you discover what your deepest core values are.

The lesson of the necklace for me is recognizing that clarity is the basis of all good decisions. Those watery-hard, brilliant beads were meant for me after all, and somehow I knew it. When the necklace arrived, I put it on and had a photo taken as I was thinking: To capture the essence of what it means to be human; to articulate it so that others can benefit from it; to entertain, elucidate, and educate with kindness and generosity . . . these are marvelous qualities for a writer. I’m not Anne Perry; but I can let her inspire me. And I, too, want to be a writer.

There, I’ve said it, even though some Anne Perry hope would be an asset at my age. I will imagine the picture of me wearing the “blue sparkly,” as Chris calls it, on a book jacket. And I can at least imagine Anne Perry wearing her own blue sparkly on a future book jacket of hers. I can further dream that each of us is as content as the other that our work has manifested itself in its highest form, each of us having achieved the best version of herself through making sound decisions based on clarity—mixed with a little courage.

One of Anne Perry’s favorite quotes, from Henry Ford, sums up the essence of decision-making, no matter the choice—from purchasing a necklace to changing a career:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t . . . you’re right.

Might as well think I can—in the spirit of American optimism as seen through the eyes of Anne Perry, who I’d like to believe is now wearing our necklace.

Bouchercon 2013 Author Encounter: “Anne Perry’s Necklace,” Part 1

An aspiring author meets an expert, beloved one at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. They are permanently linked through a beautiful blue necklace. . . .

Part 2 Is Here

Originally Posted October 5, 2013, on the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room.

On Friday, September 20, with time to kill at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany—my first convention for mystery/crime/thriller writers and fans, I browsed the vendors’ stalls. Typical for writers and readers, on this gorgeous day we were indoors, inside “The Egg”—the oddly shaped and named convention center. My eye caught a hypnotic blue sparkle and wouldn’t let me move past it. Bluebonnet, dark cerulean, fiery cobalt, medium sapphire, fresh blueberry, intense indigo . . . I had no idea what to call it, other than “spectacular.”

I lingered, gazing at the brilliant light coming from the faceted glass beads, blue with a hint of purple, calling to mind the colors of both water and rock, of liquid and solid. This infinite pairing created something beyond the elemental, something cosmic and unified. Although it was September, my birthday was just days away, and sapphire is, after all, my birthstone (this color was close enough), it was hard to justify the cost of beauty—even when it came with matching earrings. So simple, so easy to reach for. But so complicated, so hard to decide on.

“With a name like that, I hope you’re not in construction.” The jewelry vendor, Chris, grinned amiably at me, nodding at my nametag. I smiled dutifully, explaining the origin of my husband’s last name and the British pronunciation, “Con-TRAC-tor.” “Ah. Then I hope one of your children doesn’t marry someone named ‘Expander.’” After puzzling over this for a moment, my mind contracting and then expanding, I laughed—this was a first after years of repetitive namejokes. My former married name was also British, so Bond, Pam Bond, was used to it.

The next panel session was about to start. So I left the vendor stall, glancing backward as I moved on. I guess saying no to yourself is a decision. . . . Anyway, I wanted to hear what the “new” (to me) authors had to say. I was nibbling on tidbits from so many writers, but it was like grazing at a buffet of appetizers. I longed for an intimate supper with a writer whose work—and mind—I could feast on.

My reading group unexpectedly decided to leave for home the next day rather than on Sunday, so Saturday was a bit rushed. Albany more or less shuts down on the weekend, so the only food available inside was free bagels and coffee, as well as rapidly depleting trays of finger food—no restaurants were open on the concourse, and only one food truck stood in the plaza. The volunteer organizers hadn’t planned the feedings very well, but I was somewhat pleased that writers who were respected worldwide were mingling with their fans and muddling through the same predicaments we faced. Tepid coffee and dry bagel downed, I followed my group’s lead and made a decision: if that blue sparkly necklace was still there, I’d make it mine.

And then I saw her. Anne Perry, the international guest of honor and one of the contemporary authors I admire most, stooping over the jewelry vendor’s wares. Her historical crime series—finely wrought literature cloaked in mystery (“Like reading Thackeray edited by Elmore Leonard,” according to Booklist)—had unveiled a Victorian London that I could feel myself living in. Her plots involve all strata of society, its inhabitants meandering through sections of London and aspects of life that grab hold of your imagination and fix you so firmly in another time and place that you find yourself at dusk looking for matches to turn on the gaslight. Her massive amounts of research shine between the lines in condensed form, like laser beams illuminating the places and people she has crafted—and whom she makes you care so terribly much about.

Through her Monk and Pitt novels—two of her series—we get to explore deeply an era of shadows and mist, of a prosperous yet repressive conventionality lying atop nineteenth-century social ills and aristocratic complacency, a mask that was gradually torn away by Dickens, Darwin, Freud, Maxwell, and the Industrial Revolution. The Pitt novels take place roughly during the time of Jack the Ripper, who had lured Anne Perry to this period—a figure that her stepfather, she has said, believed was never caught because he was a politician!

And then I watched myself go up to her, momentarily forgetting the necklace. I heard myself say: “Excuse me, Miss Perry, I don’t want to interrupt you. I just wanted to tell you that you’ve given me many hours of pleasure through your work. And I really enjoyed your talk last night.” Fan babble. I hadn’t known I was capable of it, having always vowed to remain silent in the presence of celebrity so I wouldn’t succumb to mush-brained utterances. “Thank you, you’re very kind.” Although she looked at me, her focal point was somewhere on the horizon of her interior landscape. I wasn’t surprised. Reality couldn’t compare with her inner vision. I left her to her jewelry gazing.

The night before, I’d gotten close to an “intimate supper” by taking in an hour of Anne Perry talking about her work, passionately and compellingly. She related a story about her five-book World War I series, a treasure I’ve reserved for future reading, in which she named a main character after her grandfather. She has him carry a picture of Dante’s bust to the battlefield because, she says, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them,” and The Inferno exemplifies the torments from within for her—and for her character. When her mother learned of this metaphorical use of Dante’s image, she asked, “How did you know?” “How did I know what?” “That your grandfather took a picture of Dante to war with him?” Anne had never met her grandfather, who died before she was born, and had never heard this story. She and her grandfather had a psychic connection, she said; and this series was “close to her heart” because of it.

Turning back toward the jewelry stall, I saw she had left. I decided: I would purchase the necklace. I walked over to the spot where it had lain. Gone! My heart thumped and slowed, and I rued the previous day’s indecisive decision that caused me to walk away from something I now felt sure was meant for me.

This was a pattern. The day before we left for the conference, I had found in a Frenchtown shop a set of pottery kitchen accessories in colors that reminded me of the sandals with ice-cream-colored straps I’d worn and loved as a child. These fifties-style kitchen accoutrements took me back to an era of innocence and possibility, a time when I felt like me because I knew what I liked, what I wanted—a time before others started calling me a “person.” Persons lose their identities; children do not.

Then it occurred to me: Maybe indecision and decision intertwine, like yin and yang symbols, one blending inevitably into the other. This means that indecision is an inextricable part of decision-making. And maybe the point is to accept this and make choices without fear, knowing that another option will appear and that another decision is waiting just around the corner. I suddenly felt that my indecision about the necklace had a purpose: it was meant for her.

I looked up at the vendor. “Chris, did Anne Perry happen to buy that beautiful blue sparkly necklace I was looking at yesterday?” She looked down at my nametag and smiled in recognition, saying animatedly, “Yes, she did! And she also bought my friend’s book!” As I absorbed this news, I realized that Anne Perry had, unknowingly, created a psychic connection with me by choosing my necklace. I was quietly thrilled. Maybe my indecision was my anonymous gift to her—and indirectly to myself because now I felt connected to someone who had manifested her passion through her work.

Then Chris said: “You know, I have a small bag of those beads left. I can make you another necklace just like Anne Perry’s.” Aha! “That would be wonderful! Thank you so much!” My indecisive decision had turned out to be a gift to both of us after all. Chris got out the measuring tape, and we decided on a 15-inch choker on the advice of my friend, Pat, who had wandered over. Pat is very outgoing and had gotten her picture taken with Anne Perry the day before! She said, “You have to go up to her and tell her she got your necklace!” Was she kidding? “I would never do that!” I heard myself say to Pat.

In Part 2, we’ll see whether I would—or would not—ever do that to Anne Perry!

The (L)On(e)ly Editor: A “Rewriter” Among Writers


It started in May 2012 with a tap on my shoulder after an author talk at the local library. At the end of the session, I raised my hand and boldly mentioned to the new author, a local fiction writer, that I was an “out of work editor.” She wasn’t particularly interested, but the man sitting behind me apparently was.

Something about the word “editor” must have resonated with the shoulder tapper, who explained that his creative writing group met every Friday afternoon at the library. Would I be interested in joining them? He didn’t exactly say why he’d invited me, but now that the world of academic editing didn’t seem to want me to rewrite (I use the term very loosely) anymore, an invitation to actually write caught my attention. At first, I was only mildly interested in being the token editor in a group of adult nonprofessional (unpublished) creative writers and wasn’t sure  I was ready to join their ranks as a writer. But I decided to try it and find out.

What had begun a year or so earlier as a fiction and memoir-writing group, the project of a creative writing student who had since moved on after graduation, had become a spinoff in which a few people were writing, but many were not. We continued to meet and tried various ways to inspire ourselves to write through DVD courses, in-person exercises, rotating facilitator-led sessions, and the like. I occasionally presented some editor-type input. But except for a few people who submitted writings now and then (at least since the time I joined), this was more a gathering than a group.

Some months later, at a time when most members apparently felt the need for change, we elected a steering committee (of which I found myself chair for a while) and split into subgroups according to writing form: long fiction, short fiction, and memoir/anything goes. Suddenly, these smaller groups—four or five members in each—were actually and enthusiastically writing. And now I faced a double challenge. Wanting to seamlessly transform myself from academic editor to creative writer, I was eager to start writing fiction. But finally finding myself one among other writers, here I was with my purple editing pen ready, but my own writer’s fingers suspended over the keyboard—I was fearful of making the transition. Being the only editor in a group of writers was confusing, creating a dilemma born of the ability to see the value and potential in the work of others combined with the humility—and fear—of finding out what others might see in the work I would do when I finally found the courage to start.

Despite my identity crisis, I began to write and turned in a couple of chapters from my new historical mystery novel and a few sections of a historical mystery novella, seeds planted in unfertilized soil. But unable to remove my tight-fitting editor’s hat, I stumbled over my  efforts, getting in my own way as I wavered between fact-finding and free-flowing thought. Roughly mashing together hasty research and stories with no clear direction because I couldn’t decide on the genre or what I wanted to happen in the worlds I was creating, I realized my yarns were actually twisted balls of threads—but, judging from reactions, evidently yarns with merit, and maybe even a little magic. So much to write, but so much to learn. . . .

As if teetering on the razor’s edge between editor and writer hasn’t been difficult enough, I am still learning the subtle differences between editing in a professional environment and critiquing in a nonprofessional peer setting. Beyond that, I need to understand how critiquing induces good writing. But as an editor-cum-critiquer, how could I possibly stop being authoritarian? Even though I know creative writing has somewhat fluid rules, I can’t not see things that editors are taught to home in on. Yet I know this isn’t exactly what beginning authors are looking for from peer reviewers—they want to create good stories and interesting characters. They seek critiques more than tweaks, impressions more than prescriptions.

At one meeting, I asked my writing colleagues how they thought critiquing creative writing differed from editing it. Someone said these were right- (critiquing) vs. left- (editing) brain activities. This begins to get at the differences, but distinctions remain somewhat difficult to articulate. The repertoire of editorial skills I’d acquired as an academic editor had left me ill equipped to answer my own question—or even to ask it in the first place.

After further reflection, however, here’s what I think I know: Critiquing is not synonymous with editing, by which I mean the hands-on reworking of text, one eye on the details, the other on the whole picture. Critiquing is reacting—not redacting—by asking questions and suggesting other approaches. Yet the two functions have significant overlap, not the least being their primary purpose—to help authors improve their writing. And the fastest way to learn what critiquing is? Submit your own work for peer review.

As a newcomer in a creative writing group, you need to leave your biases at the door and recognize that—unless you are a published author—the others in the room actually are your peers. You can’t stand apart as an editor, as a teacher, or as a competitor. You’re laying bare part of your soul and inviting virtual strangers and incipient friends to comment on it. Remembering what peer reviews were like in my technical writing classes in graduate school, I feel lucky to be among gifted amateurs who haven’t learned or been exposed to the vitriol of aggressive, cold judgments. Sitting in an intimate group of fellow writers talking story, character, and craft, while sometimes tedious and stressful, has been overwhelmingly some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

An editor in a professional situation stands apart from authors and their brainchildren, coolly observing how well the work has been rendered. Being removed makes this kind of work possible, even if one is passionate about the editorial process. (I am not exploring here the various editorial roles one finds in publishing houses, but generalizing based on common notions of what hands-on editing is.) Critiquing in a nonprofessional peer-to-peer setting is more personal, more interdependent. It is also, to some extent, more subjective than editing—critiquers are often blatantly contradictory. Critiquing is also more emotional, dare I say it, and somewhat less cerebral—but no less thoughtful—than editing. Those who critique, unlike those who edit, have more responsibilities to authors’ dreams and fewer rules about how authors express them.

What do writers want from peer reviews? Accolades, of course, oohs and aahs, hearing that the reviewers couldn’t put the writing down—that it made them cry, or laugh, or relate, or change their lives—or, best of all—write better themselves. Short story, novel chapter, memoir . . . it doesn’t matter. Authors want to wow those who read them. Then real life happens. An author might submit something for group review only to be greeted with silent stares—how deflating!—or serenaded with earnest comments about what could have been better—damn, they’re right!

In a supportive environment, authors may feel a bit chagrined when their reviewers seem bemused rather than bedazzled, but they will go home and write better as a result of insightful reactions to their work. Good editing may achieve a similar result, but it feels very different to be instructed rather than inspired, revised rather than reinvigorated, edited rather than enlightened. Hands-on editing puts the final burnish on good writing. Heart-to-heart critiquing fuels the fire that creates it.

My group members and I are not all that different as writers, so we can nurture one another’s talent, expressed or latent, without class distinction. As students of writing, we are self-taught. Amateurs we may be, but in some cases gifted ones. Who knows? We may even incubate something publishable, although what that means in today’s changing world of publishing-house mergers and self-publishing technologies requires a lot of educated guessing and adventurous exploration to figure out.

Having reviewed my group members’ work and experienced their critiques of mine, I am convinced not only of their evolving talent, but of their good intentions. Undoubtedly, whatever I continue to produce as I learn to translate the inner world of my imagination into shared experience through writing will be flawed in some way or another. But in my group, the review process is handled with kindness, humor, and a sense of mutuality. Gradually, this editor is becoming a writer who critiques and a reviewer who is critiqued.

At this stage of life, moving toward the creative side of the writing world is beginning to feel liberating. And doing it in an environment where people care as much about others’ work as they do their own (well, almost) is truly enjoyable. If any of my stories ever make their way from my head into others’ hands, that will be the ultimate critique—and proof that writing isn’t necessarily a lonely enterprise.