It's Christmas Eve, and as Sara waits for her husband and son to arrive home to Blue Hydrangeas, their Cape Cod bed and breakfast, a blizzard threatens to close the bridges, stranding all travelers to and from the Cape. As she prepares for the holiday, unexpected visitors arrive, all sharing the common bond of grief. Sara is determined the storm and sadness will not spoil Christmas, and ensures Santa will find his way to two fatherless children far from home. A sweet slice-of-life story about loved ones and strangers coming together to share the spirit of Christmas. This is a prequel to Blue Hydrangeas, an Alzheimer's love story.
I remember the Blizzard of '78, The Great Blizzard. I was 17. It was the most snow I had ever seen. It took days for life to return to normal. We were snowed in - no school, no groceries other than what remained in our pantry and refrigerator, no cars on the road. But we had power, and we had each other: My mom, three brothers, and I. And we had friends. We were able to go out and play in the snow, to gather in each other's homes to play board games. It was a festive, party-like time. We did not know that many people perished in that storm, and many others faced horrible hardships: No power, no food, missing loved ones. We didn't have Facebook or 24/7 news to keep us apprised of the situation. We were secluded in our own little snow-filled bubble, waiting for the plows to dig us out, hoping we wouldn't run out of food and drink. In this Bubble, we see Sara waiting for her husband and son to come home on Christmas Eve as a blizzard bombards Cape Cod. Alone in her big bed and breakfast she prepares for the holiday, determined to stick to her routine and not worry too much. But there was plenty to worry about...
This story takes place in 1978, long before the internet and cell phones, email and text messages. As the storm unleashes its fury on Cape Cod Sara is alone in her bed and breakfast, awaiting her husband Jack's return from a business trip to New York City, not knowing where he is, how he's navigating the unexpected blizzard, if or when he'll get home. Her only connections to the outside world, are her radio and her telephone, her lifelines. An unexpected call from Father Jeffries, her parish priest, leads her to open her doors to a young family left stranded in the storm when their car breaks down. Imagine their fear and anxiety, trapped in their disabled vehicle with no way to call for help, no lifeline. It's by God's grace alone that the kindly old priest rescues them and brings them to safety and hospitality at Blue Hydrangeas, where Sara still waits for Jack to come home, or at least to call.
What if the person who knew you best and loved you most forgot your face, and couldn’t remember your name? A nursing facility is everyone's solution for what to do about Sara, but her husband, Jack, can't bear to live without her. He is committed to saving his marriage, his wife, and their life together from the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease. He and Sara retired years ago to the house of their dreams, and operated it as a Cape Cod bed and breakfast named Blue Hydrangeas. Jack has made an impossible promise: He and Sara will stay together in their beautiful home no matter what the disease brings. However, after nine years of selfless caregiving, complicated by her progressing Alzheimer’s and his own failing heart, he finally admits he can no longer care for her at home. With reluctance, he arranges to admit her to an assisted living facility. But, on the day of admission, Sara is having one of her few good days, and he is unable to follow through. Instead, he takes them on an impulsive journey to confront their past and reclaim their future. In the end, he realizes that staying together at any cost is what truly matters.
My readers ask: How were you able to write from Sara’s point of view? Fortunately, as a nurse with years of experience working in both hospitals and nursing homes, I spent a lot of time with dementia patients. Many were unable to articulate ideas, words, memories, anything. Yet some could participate in simple conversation, such as the lovely woman who inspired this character. My interactions with these patients and their families formed the backbone of Blue Hydrangeas and its characters, especially Sara. Still, in order for me to actually get into Sara’s head, I had to do genuine research about what types of cognitive disabilities people have during the different stages of Alzheimer’s. This included self-help books, i.e. The 36-Hour Day; novels, i.e. Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook; and memoirs, i.e. Iris, by John Bayley, all excellent resources. I also surfed the internet, visiting the obvious websites – the Alzheimer’s Association, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, and the National Institute on Aging - and other lesser known sites - The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project and The Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry. In the end, however, it all came down to imagination. After all the reading, research, interviews, and care of those living with this disease, I could only imagine what it’s like to be in its throes.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer's is devastating. Up until their visit with Dr. Fallon, Jack and Sara were in denial, downplaying her forgetful episodes and odd behaviors. Once they consulted their physician, Jack feared they'd opened a Pandora's Box. When the test results and consultation reports were in, he reacted like anyone hearing the words, "It's Alzheimer's."
Most of those living with Alzheimer's or other dementia come to the dilemma of driving and whether or not the affected person should be behind the wheel. In this scene, we see Sara leave the house for a ten-minute drive to the market, which stretches to a two-hour ordeal as she loses her way and is rescued by a good Samaritan who leads her back to familiar territory. This is a heartbreaking event for Sara, Jack, and the reader, as loss of independence is something we all fear as we age, with or without Alzheimer's or dementia.
Jack and Sara have been in denial for many months, attributing Sara's confusion and odd behavior to "senioritis." On this chilly, rainy April morning, Sara wakes long before Jack and slips out of the house. He awakens to an empty bed and instantly panics, searching the house and then beyond before finally finding her at the surf's edge. He rescues her and brings her safely home, but they can no longer pretend Sara’s problems are due to "senioritis.” Something is very wrong, something they can no longer ignore.
I love this scene. Here we have Sara in the hospital and Jack at her bedside. She's sleeping, and Jack spends a few moments studying her, remembering her as she once was, and still is in his eyes. His reflections on her hands are especially poignant because they describe more of who she is and how she spent her life and also carry a reminder of their love: the wedding band he gave to her 54 years ago. We are also given a glimpse of Jack's worries: what will happen to him? to Sara? How will either one go on without the other?
In this scene we catch up with Jack and Sara nine years after her Alzheimer's diagnosis and see Jack struggling to care for her. We also see evidence of his own health difficulties - the angina that plagues him. Many readers have said this scene resonates with them, as they have encountered the same type of frustration (on Jack's part) and unreasonable behavior (on Sara's part), including physical violence. One of Jack's biggest fears is an accident - a broken leg, or hip, or worse - that could change everything for him and Sara. He's right to worry: It's a leading reason for a person to be admitted to a nursing home. We also see Jack's utter devotion to his wife, placing her needs first, calming her with soothing words, maintaining order in spite of his own injury and discomfort. This is just one scene that demonstrates his unwavering love.
In this introduction to the novel, Jack and Sara confront her diagnosis. Already, they are coming apart, detached from each other, lost in their separate worries. The use of "the first snowfall of winter" harbingers their entering the winter of their marriage. The fire burns out and it becomes cold. "Jack helps her off the couch and takes her to bed," his very first task as her caregiver, which starts on the very first day of her Alzheimer's
A young girl and her family accompany their housepainter father on a trip to collect his wages from a slow-paying customer, and encounter surprising consequences. Winner of Tom Howard/John H. Reid Short Story Contest 2007, Honorable Mention
The Hunter family overstays their welcome at the Holmes house, starting with four-year old Sadie's need to use the bathroom. Mother Meg is in the position of having to beg unpleasant and unyielding Mrs. Holmes for her husband's paycheck and her kindness to allow Sadie - and the rest of the family - to enter the house to relieve themselves. Daisy is curious about what's inside, and compares it to their own rented duplex across town. She is both awed and envious of the home and its owners, but instinctively knows that everything in the nice house is not nice.
My father was a housepainter and worked for himself. He was mild-mannered, a "nice guy," and customers often took advantage of him. My mother, a strong woman, tolerated no monkey business. When Mrs. Y. (Holmes) refused to pay my father week after week, offering vague excuses as to why he had to wait, my mother took control of the situation. Like a she-bear protecting her cubs, Mama confronted Mrs. Y. (Holmes). I remember pulling up to the pretty house, understanding that my daddy's labor was what made it so pretty, and watching the argument unfold as my mother demanded her husband's wages, and got them. We never went into the house. My imagination conjured that part of the story.
Ino prepares a Christmas feast for her successful, CEO son, but when he's too busy to spend the holiday with his mother she shares her dinner and gifts with her home health aid. Sometimes the people who love us best are not family.
The relationship between Ino and Ruby is very close, almost like mother and daughter. In this intimate scene, Ruby helps Ino prepare for her son's visit. This is an interaction that happens every day between caregiver and client. All of this builds up to the very special moment between Ino and Ruby at the end.
Swim Season is the fast-paced, drama driven story of Olympic hopeful Aerin Keane, starting senior year in her third high school and trying NOT to win. But can she hide her natural talent and competitive streak? Especially with a 50,000-dollar scholarship on the line?
The 500 freestyle is the race at the heart of this story. The time to beat: 4:52.50, a 20-year old record held by Allison Singer, now a successful entrepreneur offering a $50,000 scholarship to the swimmer who breaks it. In this excerpt, Mel explains how the scholarship works. This reminds me of when I decided to attempt to swim 500 yards. I wanted to see if I could do it, how long it would take, and how I would feel during and afterwards. I’ve never swum competitively, although I have always loved to swim and am capable of doing the freestyle. I was taking Aquasize classes at my YMCA, so was already in the pool. My first 500 clocked in at 30 minutes. I stopped after every length to catch my breath and chat with the other ladies in the Aquasize class. I kept at it, though, and after a few weeks managed to complete the 500 in 16 minutes, phenomenal for me. Of course, the time to beat in Swim Season is 4:52.50, which, for me, was in never-never land. But as a middle-aged woman with below-average fitness I was proud of my achievement. In the end, unfortunately, it exacerbated my thoracic outlet syndrome and I had to give it up. Can you swim 500 consecutive yards?
When Aerin decided to finish high school in Two Rivers she wanted to be on the swim team but she was done winning. It cost too much. After all, her family fell apart while she was underwater and she hadn't noticed. A fresh start at a new school would help her heal from the trauma of her parents' divorce, father's remarriage, and mother's illness. What she didn't count on was that winning was a huge part of who she was, and the desire to be the best was not so easily extinguished. Aerin worries about what would happen if she were to return to her winning ways. What would her new friends think? Would her prowess in the pool be welcome? What about Tatiana and her chances to win the Singer scholarship? Would she alienate everyone if she took on the challenge herself? Would it be worth it? And why should she care anyway, she was only there for a year and then off to college. She might never see these girls again. She struggles with these questions and the other worries that accompany senior year: college applications, admission essays, the SAT. Afraid to make the wrong move, she squelches her competitive spirit again and again, denying who she really is, although it doesn't feel right.
Aerin desperately wants to fit in with the girls at Two Rivers, and resorts to telling two lies in her conversation with Mel, who quickly befriends her on Day One of swim season. The first lie is that she's never won any swim titles or championships. The truth is she's won many, and is considered a contender for the Olympic team. But in Two Rivers she's not swimming to win; she's swimming for peace of mind, it's her "therapy." She's no longer sure she wants to go to the Olympics or compete in college. So she lies about her accomplishments, downplaying her talent. The second lie is about her mother, the soldier, and what happened to her in Afghanistan. Aerin's not sure the kids at Two Rivers will understand.
With Division Championships just days away, Aerin, Mel, and Erica decide to cut loose and take their long-awaited trip to Manhattan to sight-see and take in a show. Aerin has a dual agenda: She wants to stop by her apartment to pick up some high tech swim gear for her upcoming races. A child of the city, Aerin is unruffled by the hectic atmosphere, the rushing crowds, the noise, the smells, and the visual and auditory commotion. Mel and Erica are not city girls at all, and react like country bumpkins in the big city, not knowing where to look first. As their guide, Aerin gives them the grand tour to some of her favorite places, including Central Park and St. Patrick's Cathedral. Her friends start to see her in a new light and learn some surprising things about her and her mother. I thought it would be unlikely that Aerin would not return to her apartment or the city throughout swim season, and this excursion is the perfect time to accomplish two goals: Show the girls having a great time together, bonding, and adding some important backstory on Aerin. Plus, I loved planning the trip and mapping it out. I've done it many times myself.
My goal all along was to make this Young Adult novel squeaky clean, although I am aware that more than half of U.S. teenagers have had sex by age 18 (CDC). My primary characters - Aerin, Mel, Erica, and Justin - are in the half who haven't. They're serious athletes focused on the future. They crush and date but keep things cool. Which is what makes Aerin and Justin's first kiss so smooth and special. From the moment Aerin meets Justin, she feels a spark, and throughout the swim season their feelings grow stronger for one another. Aerin has "flip turns" in her belly when she looks at Justin. She longs to touch his hair, hold his hand. She's dying for him to ask her to be his date for the dance. And when that night ends with their first kiss, it feels like our own first kiss.
One of the most important aspects of Aerin's story is her chance to make friends, real friends, in Two Rivers. With all the moving around she does, meaningful friendships are a void in her life and she's lonely, although she doesn't always recognize it. She and Mel become fast friends on the first day of swim trials, and in Chapter 3 Aerin meets Mel's irresistible twin Justin. They click from the start and as the story progresses so does their budding romance. Justin is swoon-worthy, good looking, kind, considerate, a star swimmer and coach, "A" student, and all-around great catch, one of the more popular boys in school. I loved giving her such an awesome boyfriend. I left behind the usual dramas that accompany teen romances because Aerin has enough drama in her life. Is Justin too good to be true? Some readers think so. But I modeled him (and all my characters) after kids I knew from my daughter's high school life and boys like Justin do exist. What do you think? Would you date Justin (or want your daughter to?)
Coach Dudash has his hands full managing a team of 28 high school girls with more drama than he'd anticipated. At the top of the list is Tatiana and her excellent prospects at breaking Allison Singer's 20-year old record in the 500 freestyle, winning a $50,000 scholarship; Aerin's breakout swimming, which makes her an unexpected contender for the Singer challenge; and Jordan's repreated violations of the Code of Conduct, including cyberbullying. All of this turmoil has split the team into two factions: Team Tati vs. Team Aerin. If he doesn't pull them back together, their undefeated season and fourth consecutive Division Championship title are at risk. But first, the Monster Set, because everyone needs to see he's serious: The team needs to get their act together. Today.
At the crux of Aerin's story is her relationship with her father following her parent's divorce. Gordon left Devon for another woman, Dawn, who has two young daughters. The breakup was coming for a long while but Aerin never noticed anything was wrong, too busy swimming. When her father left she was devastated, and blames him for the divorce. In this excerpt we see Aerin's growth as she comes to terms with her father's new life and her role in it, although she still has a few growing pains ahead.
Aerin is determined to remain under the radar this swim season. During each practice and meet, she's underperformed, or thinks she has. But she's not fooling everyone. In this chapter we see that Mel is on to her, and Aerin is outraged to be called a "slacker." The other swimmers weigh in and give our reluctant champion something to think about. She's not comfortable with her new label, and in the following chapters in this section we learn that Mel, Erica, and Kelsey aren't the only ones who see she's slacking off.
Aerin visits her father and his new family for the weekend and learns some troubling news: She's going to be a big sister. At 18. And her father expects her to move in with his new family to "help out." He's even picked out local colleges for her to consider. Unprepared for this turn of events, Aerin lashes out and leaves. This was not something she'd foreseen; after all, they're in their forties, and Dawn already has two kids. Aerin is already angry at her dad for missing her swim meets and being out of touch with her life, and blames his responsibilites as stepfather for his lack of time and interest. Will this new baby consume even more of his attention and time, further shutting her out? Yet this scene is a turning point for Aerin, her father, and stepmother. Although this news makes her feel like more of an outsider than ever, as the baby grows and a miscarriage is threatened, she becomes closer to both Gordon and Dawn, and Emily and Avery too.
As much as she is embarrassed by the fact that her mother is in prison, Aerin is fiercely protective of and loyal to Devon. Their relationship is at the heart of the story. The outing of her mother and her crimes to the whole school is a driving force for Aerin to give up being just another girl on the team, and attempt to break Allison Singer's record in the 500-yard freestyle. Of course there would be visits to Mom in jail (there are three). I wanted to show how loving their relationship is, and how Devon is more a victim of her circumstances, and not a simple thief or drug addict. In this scene, Aerin visits Devon for the first time. We feel her anxiety as she is checked in to the prison and escorted to the visiting room. Her relief at seeing her mom is palpable, and the changes she sees in her make her optimistic for their future. As she says, "Almost back to being my mom."
I chose the site of Lake Minnewaska, a real place in Kerhonskson, New York, for the setting of an upcoming pivotal scene because of it's jaw-dropping beauty, and because it was likely that Mel and Justin, given where they live, would have been likely to visit this jewel in the New York State Park system. My family and I have visited here many times in all seasons. I especially love the summer time because of the swimming, although the water is cold. I thought it was fitting that Mel and Justin chose to honor the memory of their late uncle by visiting a park that he brought them to, and where they created so many memories. There's also a playfulness here, and the developing of bonds of friendship.
In building the story, I knew I needed to come up with a believable and compelling reason for Aerin to transfer to a new high school - her third! - for senior year. In this excerpt she explains it all to Mel, a teammate who walks her home from practice. Here we get a glimpse of the issues that torment and drive Aerin: her parents' divorce, father's remarriage, and mother's incarceration.She's developed a hard outer shell, an indifference, to protect herself from disappointments and pain from her past. Although she no longer wants to swim with the intensity required to win, it keeps her focused in the present, provides her with a purpose, and makes being the new girl in her third high school less traumatic.
Varsity swimming includes girls in grade 7 through 12. The age difference is dramatic: 11-18. A lot happens in those years. When my daughter joined her high school team as a seventh grader she was just 12. Her team was loaded with middle-schoolers. Some of the parents worried about their young daughters spending so much time with high school girls, especially seniors. They're on such different wave lengths. Our team had a Big Sister - Little Sister program. The older swimmers took charge of the newer, younger girls and showed them how to behave as varsity athletes, both on and off the pool deck. It was a win-win for everyone.
Aerin plans to swim under the radar, an average swimmer, and not make any waves. She has no idea what she's getting herself into with Two Rivers' swim team. On the first day of tryouts, she learns a benefactor has offered a 50,000-dollar scholarship to the swimmer who breaks her own 500 freestyle record. I loved the idea of a scholarship motivating these swimmers and driving my story. But how much of a scholarship? Five thousand dollars seemed like enough of an incentive, but I wanted to go big. How about 10,000 dollars? 20,000? I shot for the moon and made it 50,000 dollars, about the cost of a year at a private college, and two or more at a state school. Fifty thousand raised the stakes, and got everyone involved: the team, the coach, the school, the community, and eventually, the nation. In this scene, Aerin learns about the scholarship challenge, and that one swimmer has what it takes to win.
Aerin is determined to swim for therapy, not to win, or call any attention to herself as a champion swimmer. On the first day of swim tryouts she meets her nemesis, Jordan, who, from moment one, is determined to undermine Aerin. Here's where they meet for the first time, while Coach is going over his expectations for the team and the season.
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