Blazing fear woke me. Suffocating, I sucked and clawed at the air. A cardiac intensive care nurse held my hand, murmuring it’s ok, it’s ok, you’re on a ventilator, remember?
My doctors told me I should never have gotten endocarditis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection that attacks the heart. Endocarditis is uncommon in people with healthy hearts, I read on mayoclinic.org.
I had a healthy heart. Until––
- In 1999, two months after my daughter was born, my mother was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer––a death sentence.
- Days later, postpartum depression set in.
- We moved closer to my mother.
- I quit working and quit writing.
- I got pregnant with my second child, a son.
- In December 2001, my mother died.
- Four months later, during my son’s birth, his head came out but his shoulders were stuck. Two nurses jumped on top of me and jackhammered my abdomen to force him out. I was certain we would die. My husband grabbed my hand, saying it will be okay.
- Seven days after his birth, my son was hospitalized and placed on IV antibiotics. His penis was infected from a circumcision I didn’t want him to have.
- In the hospital, I held my son for the next seven days and prayed, while a maddening rash blistered my body. The most powerful antibiotic in existence conquered his infection, and we returned home.
As a writer, I considered sharing all the pain, loss, and fear I’d experienced in less than three years. Start a blog. Grieve. But I remembered my mom telling me, “When I was diagnosed with cancer, I never asked ‘why me?’ I thought, ‘why not me?’” If she had found grace and dignity to face death, couldn’t I pull myself together to face life?
I became a human trash compactor, piling my emotional offal into a heart-shaped chamber, pushing, stomping, and crushing it into semi-submission for almost a decade. And like a handy can of Lysol, a smile and laugh were my camouflage. Odd illnesses vexed me and perplexed my doctors, and I knew buried emotions were poisoning me. Still, the fear of reliving––perhaps really living––that pain was unthinkable. But the urge to write lingered.
While I vacuumed, swept the floor, or showered, entire passages skittered through my brain, and I wanted to write about how postpartum depression had torn me from my baby girl, how my mother’s death came when I most needed her, how close I’d come to losing my infant son––and perhaps myself. Instead, I wrote a restaurant review.
In 2009, I realized I didn’t want to feel, but I did want to write. I joined the venerable Atlanta Writers Club. I was shocked when my halfhearted efforts rewarded me. The first workshop I attended was the acclaimed author Jessica Handler’s “Writing through Grief,” where I sobbed as I wrote the first words of my memoir. At another workshop, I talked with Jedwin Smith, an author and former journalist twice nominated for a Pulitzer. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a friend like Jedwin? Later, a top-notch literary agent requested a book proposal. The writing life beckoned, but I wavered.
In September 2010, I came down with a 103.5° fever, debilitating chills, and a constant river of sweat. I saw two doctors in two weeks; both misdiagnosed me. When my heart began to hurt, I saw my cardiologist.
Within an hour, I was diagnosed with endocarditis; ultrasound pics showed bacteria attached to my heart’s mitral valve. Two weeks’ unfettered access to an all-they-could-eat-heart-buffet made them huge, like kelp. Six weeks of powerful IV antibiotics killed the kelp, although big holes remained.
Two months later, I had open-heart surgery to repair the damage. My heart was stopped and sliced open; a heart-lung machine breathed for me and oxygenated my blood. I woke up on a ventilator. It was as frightening as it sounds, but in three days I was home––and my heart was healed.
In 2011, Jedwin Smith offered a writers’ workshop three miles from my home. I registered and made up my mind: I was a writer, and I was going to revel in all life’s pain and glory. Classmates soon became friends. One nominated me for a fellowship to attend a retreat taught by the renowned author and writing coach Rosemary Daniell. Others asked me to review their work. Jedwin showed me I had an aptitude for editing and helped me turn that into a career.
Buoyed with love and encouragement, I wanted to share this joy with other struggling writers. I asked the general manager of my favorite vacation spot, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a writers’ retreat here?”
In 2015, I launched The Writer’s High Retreat™, with Winston Groom as the guest of honor. Jedwin and Rosemary agreed to speak. Rosemary invited her dear friends Pat Conroy and Cassandra King. Pat had another commitment, but Cassandra, another of my literary heroes, said yes. I emailed Kimberly Brock, telling her how much I had admired her debut novel, The River Witch. Would she consider presenting at my debut retreat? Yes.
At the retreat, Kimberly’s presentation startled me. “To tell the stories of our hearts, we must face what we fear most. Those are the only stories worth telling.”
To tell the stories of our hearts, we writers must face our fear. Fear will steal your breath and suffocate you until you remember––it’s only an impediment: a ventilator for me, something else for you. Sometimes, all we need is one person who will hold our hand at a panicked moment and remind us, it will be okay. OKAY doesn’t mean we can change the past or bring back loved ones or get rid of disease––it means while we have breath, there is hope. Kimberly told us hope is the gift of all stories.
If your story is locked in your heart, there is a writing community waiting to embrace you. It may be online, it may be bricks and mortar, or it may be something you create yourself. It can change your life. It can open your heart.
No surgery required.
Your turn, WITS readers – what odd gifts has life given you that have helped you write?
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Mari Ann Stefanelli
Mari Ann Stefanelli has loved writing since she could grasp a pencil. Originally from Gainesville, Florida, she graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and had a fabulous career in that field. In 2015, a series of epiphanies spurred her to launch her writing and editing business, The Writer’s High™, LLC. She also launched The Writer’s High Retreat ™, which debuted in April 2015, to share with others the joy she’s found in writing. Mari Ann lives with her husband and children and high-maintenance rescued mutt in the Southeast where, with the sun as her muse, she’s writing a memoir about lies, love, and open-heart surgery. Mari Ann can be reached at email@example.com, http://www.twitter.com/thewritershigh