Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Gratitude for Life

Location: Bethesda, Maryland

Mileage: 4,010

Meal: Fresh brewed coffee

Music: “Float on” by Modest Mouse

Solo travelers that keep their masks on and walls up won’t get very far.  Especially if the intent is to have complete strangers open up to you.  In order to succeed on my journey, I had to take a complete layer off of myself, rendering me raw and openly reliant on the outside world for guidance.  For without the people I meet, my journey is meaningless.  And thus I took up the advice of my Atlanta Speakeasy friends, Michael and Susan, to speak to their cousin when I was in the DC area.  And with little more reference than that, I drove through forested neighborhoods to Bethesda for a chance Saturday morning coffee visit.

Candace opened up her door into an airy home washed in morning sunshine.  She was a reserved well-put together blond, but something in her manner suggested that she was guarding an internal chest of passion, love and hurt.  After filling our coffee mugs to the brim with the requisite caffeine, we sat down near the vibrant wall hangings and orchids in the living room to talk.

As Candace started to describe her life, I felt as if I were hearing the story of the American blessed.  She was born in a heavenly California town called Carmel-by-the-Sea to an art-dealing father who motivated her to study Chinese and later gain acceptance into Harvard University.  On her first day of school, she met the love of her life, Bob, a college senior.

“It sounds so corny but it was love at first sight,” Candace recalls smiling.

After Bob met her, he reportedly went back to his roommate and proclaimed he had ‘just met the girl he was going to marry.’  Their first date was in a bookstore and on the second date Bob displayed his dedication to the relationship arriving with a fancy (borrowed) car and symphony tickets.

“It was done.”

However, although the young two were in love they still agreed to spend some time apart to “grow up.”  Candace got a fellowship to Hong Kong and Bob pursued a law degree at Duke.  After the time apart, the two finally reunited, got married, and settled in Maryland to raise two beautiful daughters.  “We would not have made it together had we not had the space to grow up,” Candace remarked, understanding that we are only complete with another if we are first whole ourselves.  Of course since Bob and Candace married in their 20’s, they still had plenty of time to grow, and laugh and learn together.  Candace blissfully balanced a life as a wife, mother, and art dealer.

Then, as it often does, tragedy stealthily found its way into the happy-go-lucky family. When her daughters were on the eve of their teenage years, Candace was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was the first glitch,” Candace said.

She seemed reluctant to talk about it, stating that it was ‘really nothing‘ and that she was easily treated with radiation and cured. “So many more people have worse cancer stories than that.”  She brushed off the experience, lumpectomy and all, as a minor inconvenience.

I was confused as to how she could so easily wave away an experience that must infiltrate a family with fear and despair, but as she continued to talk I understood that everything in life is relative.

“I am always interested in movies that attempt to depict a moment with life changes irrevocably,” she said.  “I remember when mine did.”

Candace was at home and her husband Bob came in early, surprising her. She asked him, “What are you doing home?  Is everything okay?”

Bob looked at her and said, “I don’t know.”

Candace continued, “It was this ‘I don’t know’ that presented a seismic shift in my life.”

Before coming home Bob had stopped off at the Doctor and was diagnosed with Leukemia.  Candace’s first reaction was denial, ‘It cannot be that serious’. But after she realized he was getting bone marrow removed for testing, the grim reality set in. “Still though, we never said the ‘L’ word.”  ‘L’ for Leukemia that is, Love was abundant.  From Bob’s diagnosis in 2006, he battled the disease for a short four and a half months before passing away.  But in every dire time, there are small rays of sunshine.  Serendipitously, their daughter Sarah had been training for a marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma society before Bob was diagnosed.  Although by the race day he was too sick to travel, Bob was able to track his daughter on the computer, virtually cheering her on as she ran her first marathon in his name.

Candace mourned Bob’s death with a heartfelt loss.  But like the trees sprout up again after wildfires, Candace’s soul started to heal itself. Three years after Bob’s passing, she decided to start her life afresh.

“I didn’t want to remain the grieving widow,” she said.

Candace set things up so that she would be forced to proceed with a different life.  She rented out her Maryland house and got an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, planning to work in contemporary art dealings, her passion.  A mere three weeks into Candace’s Manhattan reinvention her world changed again as another seismic shift took place.

“I was in a dressing room across the street from the MOMA. I was in my underwear when I got a call asking me if I had a daughter named Sarah…and to call the Atlanta Medical Center immediately.”

Candace feared the worst and her trembling hands couldn’t make the call.  Her friend called the medical center to see if Sarah was still alive.

The response was, “She’s alive….but it’s bad.”

Sarah had been hit by a car while running, suffered severe brain damage and was comatose in the hospital.   The only way they were able to track her identity was through the serial number on her ipod.

Candace went up to Columbia to grab her other daughter and was on the first plane south to Atlanta.  As she waited in agony to arrive, Candace’s head was whirling.  “What did ‘bad’ mean? I didn’t know what she would look like or what to expect.”

She arrived at the hospital to see her daughter hooked up ‘to every possible machine’ with parts of her brain already removed.  Sarah spent one month in intensive care and another three in intensive in-patient rehab, without being able to move, her right side paralyzed.

“As horrific as things were with my husband, nothing is worse that having your child injured to that degree.  We are hardwired as mothers-out job is to protect our children.  When we cannot, it is the worst thing in the world.”

When Candace wasn’t at her daughter’s side, she spent time with Michael and Susan who generously took her into their Atlanta home, and nursed her with food, wine, and hope for a better day.  “The worst was the uncertainty,” Candace said.  She tried to take each day as it came never knowing if Sarah would have a good day or a bad day.  Candace told me a quote a friend gave her. “It’s hard to stay in the moment when the moment sucks.”   However, for her own sake and Sarah’s, she did.

Candace told me that with her husband’s death and daughter’s accident, she had taken a tour through Dante’s inferno. (Her own battle with breast cancer didn’t even register as a blip on the inferno radar).

“There are different levels of hell, “ she said. “The bottom is when your child is hurt.”

When Sarah first woke up from her coma, unable to speak, she was different than the vivacious girl Candace knew. “The brain is the captain of who you are and she was not herself.  When Bob was really sick at least his soul was still intact.”

After six brain operations, Sarah finally started to show signs of improvement.  Candace coached her daughter through walking, speaking, reading, and remembering who she was.  “She never lost the ability to read, but how she processed the information was different…”

The brain is a mystery and it ability to re-route is an enigma to even the best neurologists.  Sarah could read Hebrew, but couldn’t remember how to navigate her hometown streets.

As if Sarah knew we were talking about her she woke up and came downstairs, pajama clad, to join our conversation.  Despite a short hairdo that was still growing back from being shaved, Sarah looked like any other 24-year-old girl; glowing skin, wide eyes, and expression that exuded lust for life.

Sarah spoke openly about her accident as well as her plans for the future. “Before I was determined for very specific things in my life.  Now I am just grateful to be alive!  I’m a glass half full girl now,” and she smiled at her mother.  Sarah had such a beautiful jubilance about her; I just wanted to hug her in gratitude that her beaming face existed.

I asked Sarah what had changed since the accident. She told me that before she had been battling with an eating disorder and her brain was focused on calorie counting.

“All that is gone now!” she remarked. “It’s so refreshing.”

Sarah was, in fact, very much looking forward to pancakes for breakfast that morning.

She is still learning and remembering. “I need to relearn social filters-I’m too open!” But she has made very solid progress, her brain re-mapping brilliantly.  Some of her wonder story is due to her mother’s love and devotion to recovery, but another part is solely due to her own determination for success.  Sarah is planning on returning to her Master’s Program at UVA that she had to leave due to her accident. As prep work, she is currently enrolling in a class at a local college near her hometown to “see how it goes.”  Sarah also has plans to run another marathon, and has started taking short runs in the neighborhood, provided that she has a running buddy of course.

Looking at the loving two women that had overcome so much in their lives, I realized how lucky I am for my family, friends, and even the warmth of the cup of coffee in my hands.  I asked both Candace and Sarah for advice on living, for those of us that hadn’t gone through such devastation.

Candace said, “I know it’s on magnets and postcards, but really it’s Carpe Diem-Seize the Day. And don’t let the little stuff affect you; keep perspective.”

Sarah added her own personal touch, “And don’t give up!”

Sarah’s ability to come alive again was a reminder to the rest of us to keep living.  If she could overcome brain injuries and six operations, I could certainly keep driving to New York and continue my dream as a writer.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

-Howard Thurman

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