When I was an aspiring author, I read every query letter success story I could get my hands on. There was a common theme to these essays, which tended to go something like this: the writer, having long since given up hope that she’d ever become published, is strolling through Target one day when her phone rings. She glances at it, realizes the phone is displaying the 212 area code, and promptly suffers a small, excited seizure.
This is it. The Call.
She answers to find the agent of her dreams on the other end, burbling effusive praise for the manuscript. They chat for an hour about their goals and aspirations for the book. After they’ve hung up, the writer shrieks with glee, and, much like a newly engaged person, calls everyone she’s ever met as she simultaneously posts a long, heartfelt ode to joy on Facebook.
My call went nothing like this, given that it happened on one of the worst days of my life. It was so bad, in fact, that I experienced the strange sensation of knowing for the first time my book would likely be published but feeling nothing: no wild joy, no exhilaration, no urge to share the news with anyone.
I was driving my children to school one day when the phone rang. I know what you’re thinking, but it was 6:50 in the morning and no one ever calls with good news at 6:50 in the morning. It was my sister, and immediately she asked me to take her off the speaker phone.
Rosanne is dying, she said.
Rosanne was my stepmother. I’d seen her only a few weeks before, when we were hiking in the mountains. A college professor, Rosanne was in perfect health: she exercised daily and had no medical problems. She’d had a virus a few days before and then she’d gotten worse. I dropped the children at school and headed straight for the interstate, where I drove for the better part of a day through the fiercely beautiful forests of the Blue Ridge mountains, up and over the magnificent ridge lines of the Smokies, and into the foothills of the Appalachians in Kentucky. Hurry, my sister told me: they don’t know how much longer she’ll make it.
I drive fast anyway, but that day I drove like the proverbial bat out of hell, hyperventilating through hairpin turns and skinny mountain passes and the minor congestion of Asheville and Knoxville as tears streamed down my face. I stopped for gas on a mountaintop in Tennessee—literally in the town of Rocky Top—and my phone pinged with an email.
It was an agent. In New York. She loved my voice, loved my manuscript, and wanted to represent me.
I remember fluttering my hands to the heavens, overcome with the knowledge that this should be one of the happiest moments of my life. This was one of my dream agents—I’d rated her an A+ on my carefully researched list—and she’d only had the manuscript for a few days. I fired back an email explaining that I had a family emergency and didn’t think I could manage a coherent conversation: could she give me some time? She responded that she could. Unbelievably, after more than a year of fruitless trying, over the course of the next few days, I’d hear from multiple agents. I spoke to none of them.
After seven desperate hours of driving, I arrived at the hospital. My sister was there, and her husband; our family’s minister; a few of Rosanne’s closest friends and colleagues, and, most wonderfully, Rosanne’s sisters: they had managed to arrive in time from as far away as New Hampshire and Florida. (My father was not there: he too had died, suddenly and shockingly, in the midst of seemingly perfect health, only a few years before.) We held hands around her bed as the doctors told us there was no hope. We stood by her and told our favorite Rosanne stories and sang songs to her and held her hands and prayed and kissed her as she took her last breaths.
I have seen many, many people die in my career as a physician. I knew what to expect: I watched the monitor as her heart, racing along at a speed way too fast, began to slow. I knew when she had a few minutes left and when she had only a few seconds. I recognized the other signs of imminent mortality too: the peculiar depleted tone of her skin, which you only ever see in dying people, and the particular pattern of her breathing, the name of which I’d learned in medical school. I’d seen these things before, but I’d never seen them in someone I loved.
I spoke to Jane, my now-agent, a few days later. By then I’d adjusted to the shock and the grief enough to function, but I still felt like a hollowed-out, dimmed version of myself. Oddly, Jane’s personality cheered me: she’s brusque and smart and competent and confident; she’s also a bit glamorous. It was like trying to be sad around a reincarnated Katherine Hepburn. It was easy to choose her.
At first, it seemed awful that these two things had happened on the same day. Along with the unadulterated misery of losing the person themselves, you also lose your relationship with them, and as it selfish as that sounds, there aren’t that many people who care profoundly about what happens to you. It’s another kind of blow. My father, my favorite person on earth, would have been so proud of me if he had lived long enough to know that I’d written a book, much less published one. Now Rosanne, who knew how hard I was trying, would never learn of any of my book’s success. If she’d lived even one more day, I could have told her.
But when I think about it now, I am sure she knows.