Sunday, January 2, 2011

For Samantha

The idea for The Running Dream scared me at first. I knew the research would be extensive, and not only did I not have time between Sammy Keyes deadlines to learn everything I would need to know to write the story with authenticity, I knew that diving into the subject would be a very emotional undertaking. At first I kept at arm’s length. I absorbed information in an almost clinical fashion, trying to master the necessary jargon and thoroughly understand the process of amputation and rehabilitation. Being the overly teary-eyed person that I am, even that was tough. But all the reading on a subject can’t substitute for real life examples and real time input from people who have been through an experience similar to the one you’re presenting on paper. Which meant I had to find…someone. But who? My main character, Jessica, is a high school track star who loses her leg in a terrible bus accident. I didn’t know anyone like her. I didn’t know anyone with a prosthetic limb. I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone. (And, as you may recall from Why the Taxidermist is Cockeyed, I’m terrified of making cold calls.) There are a few prosthetists in the area, but not many, and at that point I was still afraid of blowing it. (And as you know from Why the Taxidermist is Cockeyed, I’m pretty good at blowing it.) After another agonizing month of avoidance, my husband produced a name. Someone who knew someone who knew someone. This began a series of dead end leads. People move. Disconnect their phones. Change jobs. You know. Then one morning I was following a tentative lead—another friend of a friend of a friend—and as fate would have it, this friend of a friend of a friend no longer worked there. “Maybe I can help you,” the receptionist said. I remember holding my hand to my face and trying hard not to sigh. Desperate, I told her, “I’m a children’s book author. I’m writing a book about a high school track runner who loses her leg in an accident. I’m hoping to find a prosthetist who’s willing to answer a few questions.” “His schedule’s pretty tight,” she said. “But I’m a below-knee amputee and a dancer. I could probably help you.” When I got over my shock, I laughed and said, “That would be great!” Then I told her my name and asked her what hers was. “Samantha,” she said. So yeah, I about dropped the phone. This angel’s name was Samantha? I told her why the name was significant. “I go by Sammy sometimes too,” she said. “But usually just Sam.” I arranged to take her out to lunch. We ate tostadas at her favorite outdoor patio restaurant and she talked frankly about losing her leg to cancer when she was a child and the things she’d been through growing up and dealt with now, as a young woman. She was sweet and upbeat and told me it was fine if I called her with more questions. Which I did. But since I really also needed to witness the casting of a residual limb (stump) and the building of a prosthetic leg, I also asked if she could arrange a tour of the facility and maybe allow me to sit in on a casting. Samantha was willing, but in the end her boss was not. And when my phone calls and e-mails stopped being returned, I took the hint and began pursuing other avenues. My author copies for The Running Dream arrived shortly after Christmas. I always give away my copies to the people who have helped me shape the book, and in this case that included Samantha. It had probably been a year and a half since I’d spoken to her – maybe two years – but I was excited to finally deliver her copy. For one thing, it’s a beautiful book, for another, as promised, she’s thanked on the Acknowledgements page. So I called the office to see when she’d be working. A voice that I didn’t recognize answered the phone. “Hi,” I said, “Is Samantha there?” “I’m sorry, no,” came the reply. “She passed away earlier this year.” I live in such a happy little world. It hasn’t always been that way, but it is now. And it’s not like I forget or ignore or am oblivious to the agony of others – I just try to wrap myself in the good that is today and hold it close knowing that things really can change in the blink of an eye. Samantha’s death didn’t come in the blink of an eye. Cancer shadowed her her whole life. So the news of her death made me feel oblivious. And neglectful. And so sad. No, life’s not fair, but I mean, come on. Through the new receptionist, I delivered a copy of The Running Dream to Samantha’s family, and I included a little letter that explained my connection to her. I also told them that the character Chloe is fashioned after her. She’s cheerful and sweet and helpful. And probably much braver than I know.

14 comments:

Sam said...

if samantha was alive, she'd be really pround of you for writing a great book. (and possibly super happy you put her ond the Acknowledgements page :])

Madelyn said...

When I was younger, I lost a friend to cancer after a long battle. Despite many attempts at contact, I hadn't spoken to him in several years, and though I was fully aware of his illness, his death was a shock. No matter how well you know someone, and the danger they're in, I'm not sure it ever feels real that they could die, until they do.

I hope that Samantha's family likes your book.

Pooja Dimba said...

Oh my gosh that is soo sad.
Gosh.. that must have been a huge shock.. if I knew her even not that well I would cry.
Great and touching post.

bookworm said...

I feel like crying. She sounded so much like my friend Martin that passed away last December, also due to cancer. and i'm so sorry you found out like that, wendelin. it must have been horrible to hear that over the phone, because it makes it so.... final. i would've had my heart bottomed out, and i would've cried on the spot. especially because of the cheerfulness she conducted herself with, even though she lost half her limb and battled cancer. just like martin. God, he was only 13...... i need a tissue.

Live on, Samantha, through Chloe. Live on.

Kelly said...

awwww :'( that was so sad ! and like sam said, (one of the commenters!) she would definetly be proud of you! :)

Lucy said...

that's.....so..sad.. i hope samantha's happy for you and your new book. i hope she'd be proud of you,too. =]

Alexa said...

Wow, that's really sad. You're right, sometimes life isn't fair. But you know what? It's the struggles and the heartbreaks that give us the strength to go on. Sure, nobody ever expects it. Even if they know it could be right around the corner, but it's those times when life catches you by surprise that make you stronger. When life gives you a shock, it makes you stronger. When life gives you a test, it makes you smarter. When life challenges you, it makes you wiser. It all happens for a reason; whether or not we want it and are ready for it. It'll still happen and we'll still get through it. (Gosh, don't I sound like a fortune cookie? I seem to have these fortune cookie moments.... cookie....i want food....)

I seriously do want food. But I can't have much of it do to my wonderful sickness. I think it's the flu or something. But gosh am I STARVING! But I can barely eat anything! Ok, I'm not gonna complain about how miserable I feel. I'm not. I'm seriously not.

So anyways.....yeah. Since I've been sick I haven't been able to sing. (Which is really bugging me since singing/songwriting is one of my favorite daily pastimes.) Before I got sick I was going crazy with writing all these songs! I wrote....probably about 5? 6 maybe? Something like that. But I.....wait. I'm ranting on again aren't I? What is my problem these days? I have managed to knock over every glass of water I have set down. And now I'm ranting on and on about things you could probably care less about. But that's just me I guess....

Adieu for now! (That is goodbye, right?) -Lexa *cough, cough*

bookworm said...

just preordered trd. very excited.

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

I just want to say that I really appreciate this "community" of commenters -- thank you for your kind, caring thoughts.

ginngle11 said...

I'm so sorry about Samantha! She sounds like she was a wonderful person!

ginngle11 said...

Dear Wendelin,
I LOVE THE SAMMY KEYES SERIES! I was wondering, since Casey is such a HUGE character now if you'd ever thought about writing something like a side book about how Casey sees things! I think it would be a big success and if you do decide to, I think you should do it on the Wedding Crasher! It would be really cool to know how Casey had felt after he had gotten the "letter" that was supposedly from Sammy!=] I was also wondering when the New book Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls was coming out! I've heard it was coming out in October, but i'm not to sure. Yesterday I finished Wedding Crasher and i'm soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooobummed that it is the most recent book!(They are SO good!) So anyway I just wanted to tell you how amazingly GENIUS you are! Thanks for being my role model and sorry for the long message. Please write back!=]
YOUR FAN,
ginngle11

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Thank you Ginngle11--I definitely read the comments -- I don't always have time to give an adequate comment back, but know I read and appreciate them! Thank you for the nice things you said about me :) -- You'll have to wait for the last book (18) to hear from Casey directly...but you will. And that's all I'm sayin' :)

Amanda said...

After finding your blog yesterday I started to read some of your past post. It was so sad to read what had happened to Samantha. I obviously didn't know her but my heart still broke for her. I lost my grandfather to cancer less than a year ago. It was something he battled for 15 years before it finally took his life.

abagayle said...

I don't know what to say to Ginngle11, But I Think I'm going to have some competition if I'm gonna be your #1 fan!
I don't know if this is me being over emotional about books or what but when something bad happens i feel like I'm the character( i feel sad,happy,and excited).Please don't call me crazy.When people say to put themselves in the characters shoes i guess i do!
thanks a bunch for all the books that you write.when i found out the book 'runaway' was about Holly I freaked out and jumped up and down impatiently to tell my sister (the one who got me hooked on Sammy Keyes)that that's what it was about.I absolutely Looooooooooooooooooooove that series i really want to be the first one to read it!AHH!I cannot wait! i think Ginngle11 has a point about Casey.Or maybe i just don't want the Sammy Keyes series to end!