I have had the fortune of having a truly amazing guest poster today. Though I have never had a guest post, I feel honored that my first one should be written by Erin Cello, author of the book Learning to Stay, which chronicles the journey of a woman while she learns how to cope the the TBI and PSTD her husband returns home from Iraq with.
She has been amazing to correspond with and has graciously offered up a signed copy of her book as well. (details to enter are after the post)
Writers are always told to write what they know, but I haven’t really ever heeded that advice.
I started writing my first book, Miracle Beach, where a couple grapples with the loss of their child and the eventual dissolution of their marriage, when I was only 26 years old – years before getting married or having children was a blip on my radar. And in Learning to Stay, I write about a woman’s struggle to decide if she should stay married to her husband, who has returned from the war in Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress, even though I don’t come from a military background.
So, I did not have that sort of personal experience to draw upon. That said, what I did have – aside from researching the issue through a vast network of military spouse bloggers and conducting interviews – was a brush with death that my husband had less than a year after we were first married.
In November of 2008, my husband went to the hospital with what we both thought was a terrible cold – pneumonia, even. We thought he’d return home that night. Instead, he was admitted to the intensive care unit, diagnosed with H1N1, and put into a coma for nearly a month, during which time his organs began to fail and his team of doctors offered little in the way of hope. My mind ran wild: even if he did come out the other side of this ordeal, which was unlikely, would he be able to do all that he used to? Would he need a kidney transplant or would the proximity to a dialysis center dictate our decisions and travels for the rest of our lives? Would his mental capacity be diminished because of the oxygen his body struggled each minute to take in? Would he ever be able to hold down a job after the toll the virus was taking on his body? What was the most I could hope for?
That was the million-dollar question; and also the one most impossible to answer. And so, I woke up every day of that month and hoped harder than I had ever hoped before simply that the doctors would provide me with a more certain vision of my life, my future. Our future. But if they held some sort of crystal ball, it was filled with mud. They wouldn’t say if things would be okay, or if my life would take a 90-degree turn upon my husband’s waking, or if he was even certain to wake at all. They couldn’t say, because they didn’t know.
It doesn’t take much for me to accurately remember the uncertain anguish of those days. The feelings I had are visceral and frightening to me still. And I drew on them often as I wrote Learning to Stay. Each night of my husband’s ordeal, while he was locked in a coma and I was desperate to talk to him, I wrote him a letter instead. Earlier drafts of the manuscript actually have Brad returning home much more seriously injured than in the final, published book, and in writing those scenes, where I originally placed him at Walter Reed Medical Center in a coma, I often referred back to the letters I wrote to my husband. In them were so many questions and so few answers, so much hope and so much fear. In them, I was already pining for a life that should have been – a life and a future I thought I was owed, and would never see materialize. I remember two reoccurring thoughts that kept me company during those days: We haven’t even been married a year, and It’s not fair.
Although the final version of Learning to Stay doesn’t reflect or include any actual details pulled from my husband’s harrowing medical experience, the feelings that Elise experiences as she deals with this new Brad who has returned home to her springs directly from my own life. Her grief over the new normal she is confronted with, her shaky steps forward down a barely-there path, those things ring true for me – and, I hope, for readers – because those were the same shaky steps I took. Her story, in that way, is infused with mine. And I hope that because of this, her story is all the better for it.
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