Monday, September 29, 2014

Photo Finish

This past summer, I sent query letters and sections of my book to at least 25 literary agents and publishers, most of whom intimidated me simply by the fact that they live in New York City. I never heard back from the majority of them, and I didn’t hold my breath that I would...with one exception.

The exception was a small and innovative press in Boston that I felt was the perfect fit for my book. Even better, a friend of mine knew the press's founder and publisher (“Agatha”), so I thought I had my foot in the door, or at the very least, the tiny nail on my pinky toe.

I spent countless hours working on my submission to Agatha and her colleagues. When I didn’t hear back after several weeks, I emailed my friend to check in. She touched base with Agatha and reported back with good news—Agatha hadn’t had a chance to read what I had sent her. I was pleased with the not-a-No. 

A few more weeks passed by, and when I still hadn’t heard anything, I emailed Agatha again, with a new and improved query letter and the same attachments I had sent her before (Preface, Part One, and Epilogue). I was being "softly stubborn," as I like to say; I just wanted Agatha to read my stuff. If she reads it, I thought, I have a chance. Okay, I admit, some of the time, I felt that I had more than just a chance. Every now and then, I thought this was going to be it.

On August 9th, two years and one day after my diagnosis, I was playing golf with Brian, my dad, Sean, and Teddy at my family’s annual tournament on Cape Cod. It’s the one day of the year we get to see dozens of cousins and second cousins from my dad’s side and I look forward to it all year long. 

As we bumped along in the clanging golf cart up the fairway of a long par four, I checked my email. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw a message from Agatha. Brian drove along scooping up all the drives that were shorter than his and I tried to keep my phone steady enough that I could read the long-awaited email.

Although the first paragraph had some positive feedback, it was clear from the tone that this was a big fat No. I felt awfully disappointed not only at the final answer, but at the justification, too. I didn’t want to show that I had just received crappy news on such a beautiful day so I just kept smiling and swinging and sneaking re-reads of the email. When my family started giving me crap for all of the attention I was suddenly paying to my phone, I told them about Agatha's rejection. I played it off like I didn’t care but it was abundantly clear that I did.

When we got back into the cart after putting out a team par, Brian asked me what Agatha had said. I gave him the gistmy situation was “too perfect” (aside from the cancer) and as a result, readers would not be able to relate to my story. Agatha wrote: 

In this case, the story is straightforward (which is a simplicity that is beautiful in many ways), and the conflict, from what we can tell, is just the cancer itself. It seems as though you have a perfect family – husband, parents, siblings, in-laws, a mother with deep connections and an incredible ability to be a resource (she sounds amazing), great and supportive friends. A dream scenario for handling a nightmare. All of this is extraordinary for you as a person, of course, but most people don’t have such perfection in their lives when dealing with a crisis, and I wonder if this is relatable for the average person. Further, you seem like a remarkable, principled, balanced individual who has exceptional clarity on her priorities and on things that others might struggle more with, like losing their hair (“I never cared much about my hair”) or breasts (the lack of hesitation about the unavoidable mastectomy). In addition, things that are incredible for you – living in Boston among the world’s best healthcare providers, having a mother with superpowers who is able to instantly navigate and find you the perfect doctor, pay for the extra lab tests, etc., a tendency to be able to rely on your gut for making decisions – all mean that another thing your memoir might do (instruct others trying to figure out the same things without the same luck or advantages), it doesn't seem to.

The words stung a lot on that 15th hole back in August, and through the 16th, too. But by the 17th hole, I was feeling much better. If my gut instinct and all of the good people in my life mean that Agatha doesn't want to publish my book then I am fine with that. It wasn't the right fit after all. I didn't dwell on it, and despite my typically abysmal putting skills, I drained a long putt on the last hole for birdie.

*  *  *

After walking 25 miles last week, I was sore, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would have been. My feet were swollen like a pregnant lady's, and I had a heat rash all over them which made wearing any type of shoe terribly uncomfortable. My hips and knees and butt hurt, the backs of my knees were so tight that I basically had to shuffle, and the blisters on my heels were by no means cute. By Wednesday, however, I was almost back to normal, and feeling amazed at the resiliency of the human body. It was around then that Brian told me that he had a plan for the upcoming weekend. 

"We're going to walk the rest of the walk on Sunday morning," he asserted. "Just that last mile, with the kids."  

I thought the idea was very sweet and I told him that I would love to do it. 

Saturday was a packed with activity and at one point, I suggested to Brian that we not bother driving all the way into Boston to walk that last mile. But he said we were doing it; that he had already arranged a cab to pick us up at Copley at 9am to bring us back to our car. Given his thoughtful planning, I dropped my case immediately and agreed that it would be a lot of fun. 

We set out for Boston around 7:45am Sunday morning—Brian, Teddy, Annabel, me, and Buckley (Sean and Lauren's puppy who we watched for the weekend while they were away).

As we were stopped at a traffic light off the exit of the expressway, I looked over and saw a big white SUV that I recognized. "Brian, that's Erin's car!" I exclaimed.

"No, it's not," he said matter-of-factly.

"Really, it is! See look, that's Erin!"

I was so excited to see my friend that I took out my phone to text her. As we continued straight on Melnea Cass Boulevard, Erin's SUV turned right past Boston Medical Center and I couldn't really see her. I watched her turn and then I noticed her sister, Katie's car in front of her. I was so excited about this amazing coincidence, mostly because we were on our way to do the rest of the walk and Katie and Erin's participation in the walk and everything leading up to it had meant so much to me.

Over another text, I told Katie a shortened version of how great I found this coincidence. She explained that they were all headed into a brunch for her dad's birthday. Given that between them, Katie and Erin have six girls under six years old, I wished them good luck at the brunch and a happy birthday to their wonderful dad. Then I put my phone away and we drove on.

I didn't expect to be giddy upon reaching the place where I collapsed a week prior, but I was.

833 Beacon Street. Just at the bottom of a hill, the Citgo sign poised over it. The whole scene looked so much more peaceful a week later, probably because I was no longer faint and mortified with embarassment. 

Brian pulled into the first spot on Beacon street, just a bit beyond 833. When he put the car in park, we both noticed the license plate of the car parked in front of us. This was it. 

No joke. Nothing planted or arranged. That car just happened to be parked right there. The coincidence felt almost magical. Seriously, what in the world are the chances?

We backtracked 50 yards or so to 833 Beacon and took a few photos. It was way more fun standing up than lying down. 

The mile walk up Beacon and Comm. Ave. was so much fun. Buckley was crazy cute (or perhaps, crazy and cute), as were the kids as they tried to walk him. We passed by the Buckminster Hotel, which seemed particularly fitting given the puppy we had in hand. 

When we took a right on Hereford Street, I yelled up to Brian who was just a bit ahead of me, "Wow, we really were close, weren't we!?" He agreed that we really had been close the week before. Something about that realization made me proud, and something else about it stung a tiny bit.

I got choked up as we walked up Hereford. I remembered back to the signs I saw all along the side of the road along the Newton hills—"Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston." I remembered how much pain I had been in at that point; how much each and every step hurt and how when I started to feel sick, I had wished someone would have rolled me to that "right on Hereford."

Now, here I was, a week later, with my husband and kids, feeling so very blessed, and not caring in the slightest about how dorky we all must have looked wearing the same t-shirts.

As we approached the Finish Line painted on Boylston Street, I couldn't help but feel even more giddy. I was surprised when Brian wasn't as excited as I was. He didn't even want to stop and take a picture, insistent that the Jimmy Fund Walk finished in Copley Square, which was just a block ahead. I forced Brian to stop and take a picture of me and Teddy at the finish line. Then he hurried on and we caught up. 

The first out-of-the-ordinary thing that caught my eye was the Jimmy Fund Walk sign at Copley. How great! There's even a sign left from last week! I thought to myself. Then I saw the purple shirts and I heard cheering.

I burst out into grateful, happy tears, shaking in shock and disbelief. It was the most incredibly pure and beautiful surprise—friends and family and even Dana-Farber / Jimmy Fund Walk staff gathered at the finish line to celebrate the last walkers (us) crossing the finish line. 

It is still impossible for me to describe how much it meant to me that Brian thought to bring everyone together in this way, that my family and friends worked together to execute the surprise, that Kirsten and Helen traveled back from New Jersey again to be there, and that friends packed up their young kids to come into the city early on a Sunday morning (it wasn't Erin and Katie's dad's birthday, Brianne isn't getting any less pregnant (yet), and Kristin had a huge medical appointment the next day). Perhaps the cliché, "It meant the world," sums it up best. Because the meaning felt (and feels) that big.  

I didn't gather a team to walk part or all of the Boston Marathon route so that I could prove that I could endure 26.2 miles. I gathered the team because I want cancer patients to receive excellent health care and have hope for their future. Thanks to the generosity of our 106 walkers and hundreds of other donors, Team Tara has now raised over $70,000 for the Jimmy Fund. Those numbers make me proud. And, to a lesser (but still significant) degree, so does the fact that I walked the marathon route last week.

I did not write this blog so that people can read about a "perfect ending" to the walk. First, I do not believe in "perfect," and second, in many ways, I do not believe in endings. Especially when there is still so much work to be done.

* * *

Maybe this blog has all the weaknesses that Agatha pointed out in my book. Maybe the monumental thoughtfulness of my family and friends makes the story of my 26.2 miles unrelatable. If so, it's not that big a deal, mostly because I think it can be valuable to read about stories to which we cannot, at first or even ever, relate.

Today after work, I ran over to Dana-Farber so I could see Kristin for her chemo infusion. I had so many different emotions while sitting in a "caregiver" chair in an infusion suite where, for a year, I had been the patient. Admittedly, I felt some guilt over the fact that as far as we know, Herceptin worked for me when it didn't work for Kristin. (Why?) I felt some anger over the fact that Dana-Farber had made a mistake earlier in the day that caused Kristin understandable distress on an already extremely stressful day. (We must make sure that never happens again.) And I felt blessed to be able to sit and enjoy the company of friends despite the unwanted company of advanced stage breast cancer. 

Maybe my story looks "perfect" to Agatha and others—my exceptional family, friends, and doctors; a completed walk; a potential cure. But inside, I know one thing for certain. I just happen to be wired such that when I see people feel pain, I always seem to feel it, too. And that means that my story can't be perfect until theirs is. 


  1. Another beautiful post. I couldn't help but notice the time stamp of 11:11. Just another sign of how much of a blessing you are to this world.

  2. Brian Shuman is my hero.

  3. One, Brian is amazing and I need to find myself a Brian, two, the license plate gave me chills, and three, know that you have already helped so many people with your writing. Also, I TOTALLY know what you mean about feeling the pain of others... This post made my day xoxo