Friday, September 28, 2012

Sweet Memories of a Smile, a Song, a Favorite Story

Dad with my baby sister Erin, me in the middle, and my sister Belinda.

For ten years I have interviewed and filmed hospice patients for video legacies, sometimes at the patient’s request, but more often at the family’s.  Many times I have been contacted after the patient was already in the grip of dementia, heavily medicated, or so depressed that they couldn’t participate.  When this was the case, I came away with very little useable footage despite spending hour upon hour with the patient.

Because of this, I have become an evangelist of sorts, telling people how important it is to record their grandmother’s beautiful smile while she is still healthy and happy.  No one wants to remember a loved one during the saddest time of his or her life.  Better to film grandpa fishing with his grandsons, or grandma picking blueberries with her granddaughters, or sitting side-by-side on the sofa talking about the good old days.  We all have those cherished stories that no matter how many times we hear them, we still want to hear them again.  The ones that are recycled endlessly at family reunions and holiday get-togethers, yet still make us laugh or cry after countless retellings.

Ironically, I did not practice what I am now preaching.  In 2006 I lost Dad to pancreatic cancer.  Although I have many photographs, I would give anything to hear his voice again singing Danny Boy three sheets to the wind, or recounting my favorite stories about his early childhood in a Catholic boys home and later, when he and his brothers grew up wild and poor on a farm in upstate New York.  It seemed as if every single moment after he was diagnosed was consumed by doctor visits, tests, radiation and chemotherapy, crestfallen visits from relatives, and finally hospice.  He was overwhelmed, frightened, emotionally distraught.  It just didn’t seem right to ask him to reminisce on film, so I didn’t.

At Thanksgiving this year, take the video camera you use for your kids’ soccer games and recitals and spend a little time recording your older relatives.  I bet they’ll tell you things about your family history that you’ve never heard before, things that could be lost to posterity if you don't catch them on film.  Ask them about things mundanely precious... the moment they first saw their husband or wife, where and when they realized it was love.  Ask them vague questions; I found these bring out the most unexpected responses.  What brought them the most joy in life?  What was their greatest disappointment?  Greatest triumph?

Because of confidentiality agreements all hospice volunteers sign, I cannot tell you the specifics of my interviews, but I can say I often think about the people I was privileged to know at an intensely vulnerable time in their lives.  There was one in particular who, although elderly, was still sharp as a tack.  I spent four hours with her, laughing and crying and learning about her long, fascinating life and how proud she was of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Despite the small amount of time I spent with her, I thought of her as a friend.  

As I was packing up my gear, she told me if she got to heaven and discovered her husband had another wife, I should expect a thunderstorm the likes of which the Earth had never seen.  She had waited for him for thirty years, and he better have returned the favor.  She laughed when she said it, but there was a martial gleam in her eyes.

I was going to share filming tips and techniques, but this post is already too long.  If you’d like to know the finer points of creating video legacies, send questions to  The most important things to know are 1) use a tripod with a smooth swivel arm; DO NOT hold the camera in your hand 2) find a comfortable, uncluttered, well-lit spot and 3) threaten your children with bodily harm if they make noise while you’re taping, or better yet, send them outside to play.

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Visit Kate's website for the latest information on her books:
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The Promise is available at Amazon at the following links:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Thoughts on Instant Karma & My First Bad Review

Instant karma's a bitch. Yesterday a friend in my Facebook writer group started a discussion.  She was feeling down after a negative critique.  It had sapped her motivation to write and made her doubt herself.  I pondered the subject then imparted some rather trite and pompous (in retrospect) advice about not taking criticism too personally and learning what she could from it. It wasn't terribly helpful and truth be told I handle criticism worse than just about anyone I know, so I really should have kept my mouth shut.  Karmically speaking, it was an invitation for the Universe to smite me.  And smite me it did in short order.

I logged off, went to Goodreads, and immediately read my first really bad review since I published three months ago. I had gotten some ambivalent reviews before, but nothing truly bad. This one was bad.

The first thing I saw was two stars. My brain imploded.  Jesus! Oh no! Oh God, no! Not that. Two!  Two!!! Aargh!  I closed my eyes Tupperware tight and took a deep breath.  I opened one very slowly. It was still there. Two stars.  After I purged a week's worth of meals and cracked open a Corona, I logged back onto Facebook and shared the ironic timing. The conversation that ensued was half wise, half hilarious. Thought you might enjoy reading it. 

(The times are off because I worked on the graphics am and pm. Condensed entries.)

Before I read THE REVIEW:

After I read THE REVIEW:

I was so thankful to have these wonderful writers to talk me down and make light of this painful rite of passage. I've always known my time was coming sooner or later.  But I had gotten comfortable since readers had generally seemed to like my book up to this point.

Now I'm going to practice what I preached to Charlotte. Learn what I can from the review and move on. But damn, it hurts. It really, really does.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Nurse Annie, a Dose of Morphine, and Some Light Flirtation

One morning nurse Annie came into his room with a twinkle in her eye.
She shut the door behind her, slinked up to his bed and smiled as she
slowly unzipped her skirt.
  Max stared at her in shock as she shimmied
out of her clothes and lifted her slip to expose… a colostomy bag.

In the 1960s, my father-in-law Max worked for NASA at the Cape in Florida.  He was among a group of talented young engineers who sent the first rockets into orbit with little more than slide rules and gumption.  It was the height of the Cold War, Kennedy, Castro and the Bay of Pigs crisis, the era of miniskirts, bullet bras, and sky-high beehive hairdos.

While in boot camp, Max, who hailed from rural Georgia, fell in love with Eleanor, a blue-eyed beauty from Providence, Rhode Island.  They overcame the Yankee-Cracker divide, married quickly, and started a family.  After my husband Jeff and his sister Lisa were born, Max quit his job to concentrate on getting his Masters in Engineering at the University of Florida.

He was only 29 when he began to experience severe abdominal pain and bleeding.  After a series of tests, he was told he had the worst case of ulcerative colitis the doctor had ever seen.  His prospects were not good; Max was advised to put his affairs in order.  To save his life, he would have to undergo a colostomy and there was a fair chance he would die anyway, leaving Ellie a widow in her twenties with two small children.

The doctor showed Max the black rubber bag he would have to wear for the rest of his life.  Max reacted with horror, initially refusing to even consider the surgery.  He was young and handsome, in his prime.  He spent his weekends swimming and playing in the sand with his lovely wife and children.  How could he do those things with a colostomy bag?  And how would it alter his relationship with Ellie?  Another patient in the same hospital ward as Max, a young, single woman, despaired for the same reasons.  Fearing she would never find a husband, never bear children, she refused the surgery and died.

Ellie says it was gut wrenching to see someone she loved in great physical and emotional pain.  She talked to Max’s doctor and his favorite nurse Annie, a pretty blonde who cheered him up each day with a dose of morphine and light flirtation.  Together they came up with a plan.  One morning Annie entered his room with a twinkle in her eye and shut the door behind her.  She slinked up to his bed, smiling as she slowly unzipped her skirt.  Max remembers staring at her in shock as she shimmied out of her clothes and lifted her slip to expose… a colostomy bag.  She worked in that area of the hospital because she had experienced all the same things Max was going through.  The next thing Max knew, Ellie slipped into the room as he sat, slack-jawed and perplexed as to how he should react in this unprecedented situation.  Mortified, he took a pillow and covered his head while the two women laughed until they cried.  Eventually he joined in the laughter, too.

He says that moment was a turning point for him.  If a beautiful, funny, sexy and vibrant young woman like Annie could find joy and purpose in her life after a colostomy, who was he to dwell in self-pity?  He had the surgery, finished his degree, and returned to NASA where he worked in the Saturn program and met real live astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  Max and Ellie went on to have another daughter Kim, and a set of twins, Christopher and Kristen.  They have been married for fifty years.

We went to visit them yesterday at their home in Burgess on the Chesapeake Bay where they retired nearly two decades ago to a smaller house with a dock and a sailboat.  Max and his cronies race their “nutshells”… small sailboats they make themselves.  Ellie plays mahjong with friends, volunteers at her church’s thrift store, and dotes on her grandchildren.

I had never before heard this wonderful story about Annie and I found it so touching I asked for permission share it on my blog.  Writers are observers and storytellers.  We must take note of the little nuances and easily overlooked details that others might miss.  Human tragedy, everyday triumphs and failures, dramas big and small.  By dissecting these things, turning them over in our minds and understanding them fully, we enrich our work.

Human frailty is something we all have in common.  I have struggled with my own challenges.  In my twenties I suffered debilitating bouts of anxiety and panic attacks.  Whether my body chemistry has changed, or I’ve accepted myself enough to let go of the angst, I don’t know, but things are better now.  I’d still rather stick my hand in a jar full of spiders than go to a cocktail party, but at least I can go.  Wonder of wonders, I can even have a good time.  There was a period when I’d have to either get totally sloshed or curl up in a fetal position in the ladies room until the party broke up.  Neither choice was very ladylike or dignified.  As we age, we discover everyone is screwed up in some way or other and that knowledge helps — at least it helped me.  Nobody skates through this life unscathed.  We are all a little weird.  Our “isms” and peculiarities are what make us interesting.  It takes some age and wisdom to see that, I think.

Last week my twelve-year-old son Pierce started middle school.  He was terrified.  Oy!  I still remember the fear, the stomach full of wriggling snakes, the belief that everyone in the entire school was laser focused on the mammoth stress zit I sprouted overnight.  I feared I wasn’t wearing the right clothes and nobody would sit with me at lunch.  Every night I had that going-to-school-naked-and-forgetting-my-locker-combination dream!  Lord have mercy… you couldn’t pay me enough to go through that again!

I have finally begun to appreciate the little things.  I no longer live in suspended animation between Now and Then.  I’ve stopped worrying about reaching goals, or obsessing about what comes next.  Life is such an amazing gift.  As corny as it sounds, the simplest things… a sunset, a smile, cuddling up with my husband on the sofa and savoring the moment… these are the things that make life worth living.

And helping others when we can.  I thank Max for permitting me to tell his story.  He has shared it on an amazing website called where sufferers of many diseases and disorders seek advice from people who have dealt with the same issues.  In this virtual support group they chronicle their journeys in dialogue that is stark, honest, and poignant.  It's worth a visit.

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Visit Kate's website for the latest information on her books:
You can find her on Facebook at
Like her to keep up with the latest releases and giveaways at her Fan Page
Send her a tweet @KateWorth2 or email her at

The Promise is available at Amazon at the following links: