Sunday, January 2, 2011
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.