In the autumn of 1990, I had already published four novels—Dance of the Gods, Angels at Midnight, A Time for Legends and Ms. Maxwell and Son. My soon-to-be-released fourth novel, Solitaire, had been featured at the American Booksellers Association convention in Las Vegas that summer. I had three more books under contract to two major publishing houses. My family–my parents, my eleven-year-old son and I–had moved into a new home a few months earlier. Life was perfect.
I was bickering with one of those publishers–Berkley–nonstop. Even though I was writing romantic comedies for Silhouette Books, I was adamant that Berkley not market me as a romance author. I was writing thrillers–how would all of the readers who might like my books find them in the Romance Section?
Mine is a riches to rags story. What can I say? I’ve always had a tendency to do things backwards.
Twenty-seven years ago, I had everything I thought I’d ever wanted. I had a beautiful, healthy, happy little boy. I had the career I’d dreamed of since I was a kid. My agent–the best in the business, as far as I’m concerned–loved my writing so much, she’d sold three of my novels to a major publisher for a six-figure advance before the first was even in print. Life was good. I thought I had it made.
The problem was that I’d been doing it for the wrong reasons. At the start of my career, I was in it for the money.
Don’t get me wrong–I’ve always loved writing. The idea of making a living doing something I loved so much was irresistible. The problem was that I didn’t have my priorities in the proper order, and eventually, it came back to bite me in the butt. I found myself a square peg stuck in a very uncomfortable round hole. My first novel, Alexander’s Empire (later retitled Dance of the Gods by Berkley’s marketing chimps, who were aiming to turn me into a Sidney Sheldon knockoff), had a glamorous international backdrop–because it suited the story I was telling, not because I’d ever intended to make a career of writing what was known as the glitzy women’s fiction genre.
An editor who once rejected a glitzy romance from a good friend of mine gave as one of her reasons for the rejection the reality of my friend’s less than glitzy life. This editor felt authors of such novels needed to have actually lived the lifestyle. Though the editor is not one of my favorite people in the business, I have to agree with her on that one. To go out and do interviews, to publicize your novels, trying to be something you’re not, takes its toll mentally.
I was a jeans and T-shirts kind of woman who knew nothing of high fashion. I didn’t know Donna Karan from Kmart. I found doing research on the lifestyle to be painfully boring. I wasn’t even all that fond of upscale restaurants. I was content with fast food and pizza. I remember going over my editor’s notes on the manuscript for my second novel, Angels at Midnight, counting fifteen times I’d seen “What’s she wearing?” written in the margins. Frustrated, I finally responded, “A smile.”
Then, I was blindsided by an unexpected family tragedy: the death of my father.
Dad had gone into the hospital for surgery in November 1990. He’d been experiencing severe abdominal pain for weeks. Mom had taken him to the emergency room at a local hospital–where he was misdiagnosed and sent home with instructions to take Pepto-Bismol. By the time the real problem–diverticulitis–was discovered, his colon was so inflamed, his surgeon, Dr. Behrens, had to give him a temporary colostomy. He was to have a second surgery in January to reconnect the colon and remove the gall bladder.
His cardiologist, Dr. Johnson, prescribed medication for an irregular heartbeat detected during the first surgery–but Dad had side effects from the drug. Instead of talking to Dr. Johnson about switching meds, Dad just stopped taking it. That was his way. He’d just stop taking the stuff he really needed, but he’d buy antibiotics on the street like addicts buy crack and meth.
My father was a penicillin junkie.
He also foretold his own death. For weeks following the first surgery, he had dreams that were always the same: Mom, Collin and I would arrive at the hospital. We would be met at the ICU entrance by a nurse in green scrubs who would say, “I’m sorry, he didn’t make it.” Dad was convinced he would die after surgery. We tried to tell him it was just a dream. He didn’t believe that.
At first, all seemed to go well. He had the second surgery on a Tuesday morning in late January and was doing well. He was scheduled to come home the following Tuesday. His doctors tried to reassure him, but he still believed he was going to die.
“You made it through the operation, Jake,” Mom pointed out. “It was just a bad dream.”
“Then why am I still having it?” he wanted to know.
On Saturday morning, we got a call from the hospital. Dad was in intensive care. He’d had a heart attack. Mom, Collin and I rushed to the hospital. He was sitting up in bed, eating, watching TV. For a guy who’d just had a heart attack, he seemed fine.
By Sunday night, he was on a respirator.
We saw him alive for the last time on Tuesday morning, January 29th. An ice storm hit on Tuesday evening. Assuming we were in for the night, I went to take a shower. I didn’t hear the phone ring. Mom came to the door. “We have to get to the hospital. Your dad’s dying,” she told me.
Even then, I didn’t really believe it. Because of the ice storm, we took a cab to the hospital. At the ICU entrance, we were met by a nurse–in green scrubs. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He didn’t make it.”
Just like Dad’s dream.
The nurse took us to Dad’s room. He told us that Dad had died before he placed the call to Mom, but he didn’t want to tell her on the phone, especially if she’d be driving on ice.
I don’t remember much else after that. We stayed at the hospital for a while. Mom made some calls, letting people know. I was in a mental fog. I couldn’t think clearly. My father was dead, and it was my fault.
I had trouble sleeping that night. I had trouble going home, getting into my soft, warm bed and sleeping peacefully when my father was lying in a cold, dark hospital morgue. I had trouble accepting the reality that he was never coming home again, that after the funeral, I would never see him again. I wondered where he really was. I’d gone to church as a child, as a teenager, but I never got much out of it. I was angered by the petty squabbles that went on in every congregation. I wondered if people really went to church to worship God, or if churches were just a bunch of nonprofit social clubs.
I believed in God. I didn’t believe in church.
I didn’t have all the answers. I wasn’t even sure I had all the questions. My relationship with God at the time of Dad’s death was at best a casual one. I didn’t call on Him unless I was in trouble, and didn’t expect to hear from him. But now I needed to know: was my dad in Heaven?