I got a voice mail from my mom a few weeks ago—just 10 seconds long, saying “Call me when you get this.”
My heart plummeted. For a year, I’ve been getting messages like these, and they almost always mean that my mom is back in the hospital. Or, at the very least, that she took a trip to the ER and was sent home once she’d stabilized. It’s the kind of information you don’t really want to leave—or receive—in a voice mail.
But over these past couple of months, things really looked like they were taking a turn for the better. Mom had not needed any emergency hospital trips for weeks. She’d slowly weaned herself off of supplemental oxygen, and her once-enormous trach tube had been swapped for a smaller size. She was getting out and about town, and was even talking about starting to drive again. A year after a string of medical procedures had left her intubated and fighting for her life on a ventilator—half a year after she’d basically relearned how to walk after months in a hospital bed—she finally seemed to be making real progress.
That’s why I didn’t want to return her call.
I didn’t want to hear that she’d been rushed back to the hospital, unable to breathe—that recovery was, once again, slipping out of her grasp.
My fingers shook as I hit the buttons on my phone. Mom answered on the second ring, but then told me to hold on for a second. As I held, I heard coughs rack her lungs, and I knew that when she came back on the line, the first words out of her mouth were going to be “I’m in the hospital.”
But they weren’t.
“I’ve been up until two in the morning every night this week—” she started, and after a millisecond of elation (she’s not in the hospital!) my heart sank again. She can’t sleep. She’s been up coughing. She has bronchitis again, or pneumonia. But then she finished the sentence with “—reading your book.”
“And it was wonderful!” she went on brightly. “You know I’m a slow reader, but I just couldn’t stop reading the story to go to sleep. And the ending is so good, it just left me wanting more. So I just wanted to call and tell you how much I loved it.”
Suddenly, I was the one who could hardly breathe. This wasn’t a bad-news call at all. It was a great-news call. When I had visited my parents earlier in the month, I’d left them with an advance copy of All Four Stars, my first novel. My mom had read a draft years earlier, and given how long it had taken her to get through the manuscript that time, I’d expected that it would be months before she finished this version. But she’d blasted through it in a matter of days, and was now excited to talk about the changes I’d made and how she could help recruit friends to attend the New York launch party I’m starting to plan for its release.
That release will be just a few days before my sister’s wedding, and if I had to pinpoint a day this year when my mom’s health really seemed to take a turn for the better, it was the day that Brooke got engaged. Suddenly, instead of dwelling on the struggles of this past year and discomforts of the present, Mom had a concrete reason to look forward to the future. And it seems that now that she’s read my book, there’s an extra something to look forward to.
For writers, the year before your first book comes out is filled with exciting milestones. You do final edits, see the pages get designed and laid out, see your cover, hold advance copies in your hands. But the one thing that has surprised me most about this past year is how my book has brought me closer to various members of my family. I’ve reconnected with cousins and in-laws who have middle-grade-aged kids and grandkids. I’ve come to rely on my foodie aunt more and more as both an early reader of my drafts and a final reader (she has a great eye for typos). And now I’ve gotten my mom a little more excited about the book’s launch.
As my debut year—with all of its obligations and stresses—starts to pick up steam, I’m sure that I’ll find myself at times to be in desperate need of clarity and perspective. In those moments, I’m going to try to look back to this call with my mom. To remember what kind of impact the right story, at the right time, can have on a single reader; and to remember that, no matter what reviewers or Goodreads users have to say, my book has already done a little bit of good in this world.
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2014, everyone.
Tara Dairman is a novelist, playwright, and recovering world traveler. All Four Stars, her debut middle-grade novel about an 11-year-old who secretly becomes a New York restaurant critic, will be published on July 10, 2014 by Putnam/Penguin.