My Brain Event: The Final Episode | So There I Was…

As a writer, I have been extremely lucky to work with a brilliant editor at W. W. Norton & Company, the publisher of my novels. When Alane takes on a project, you can be sure that she believes very strongly in it, that she has many intelligent ideas about how to make the book the best it can be, and that she’s willing to spend as much time and effort as it takes to accomplish exactly that. Another one of her authors has compared Alane’s editorial guidance to the “tenacious cajoling” of a boxing coach.

I can identify, especially with the boxing coach part.

As a patient in the neurosurgical ICU in a hospital in Milwaukee back in October 2009, I was also lucky, having suffered no apparent damage from a “small stable bleed” inside my brain. (For that story, see My Brain Event, Part I, and My Brain Event, Part II, online.) In fact, I would have been sent home to Iowa after three days, if it hadn’t been for the peculiar shape of certain arteries in my brain. Those who know me are probably not surprised to learn of peculiarities in my brain.  These oddities—though not necessarily hazardous—made my first angiogram inconclusive. Sentenced to another week of observation, I graduated from the ICU to the “neuro” floor to await a second angiogram.

So there I was, still under fairly strict rest-and-relaxation orders on the neuro floor, when a package arrived from New York. 

“Don’t open it!” my husband said.

We knew what was inside: my novel manuscript, its pages festooned with yellow Post-its stuck there by my editor, every one of which would ask me to cut, change, or clarify something. It’s business as usual for an author, this responding to your editor’s queries (as the complaints and questions on the Post-its or in the margins are politely called). You just grit your teeth and go through them, query by query, making changes that seem well-advised and rejecting suggestions that don’t. These you mark “STET,” making your case on the Post-it in your own cramped handwriting (or on a separate sheet if you need more space) as to why the editor should “Let it stand.”

Business as usual, yes, but not so good for the blood pressure. A mere phone call from my editor earlier that week had sent the numbers soaring on the monitor over my head. (How glad I was to have escaped the neurosurgical ICU, where your every thought and feeling registered on a screen somewhere. You might as well be wearing your heart on your sleeve—if hospital gowns can be said to have sleeves.) I reminded John that Alane said she needed the manuscript back in a week or less.

“Don’t open it!” he said. Good advice, I had to admit, but in that case, what to do?

Enter our daughter Liz, Editor Extraordinaire. You may remember columns Liz wrote some years back. We did one together that featured excerpts from our respective middle-school diaries, hers circa 1990 and mine from the ’60s, man.  I’ve got it archived if you missed it. 

Liz had read every page of every draft of my novel, even in its most unwieldy forms. She had saved the life of one of the characters by threatening never to read another word if I killed him off. Liz knew what I had written—and what I wished I had written—at least as well as I did. She made the eight-hour drive from Omaha that weekend, rushing to my bedside with her own supply of color-coded Post-its, soon to be stuck alongside every editorial query: pink for STET, orange for changes accepted on my behalf, and the smallest smattering of peaceful blue ones calmly recommending that I take a look at these queries, just these few, that’s all.

It was a little strange, my husband said later, to be holed up with Liz in a visitor’s lounge while I had my second angiogram, the two of them working their way, slowly and carefully, through the pages of my novel, even as the neurosurgeon was making his way, slowly and carefully, through my brain. But heck. What is a work of fiction, after all, if not a manifestation on paper of the peculiar workings of the author’s brain?
When you’ve spent ten days in the neurosurgical department of a hospital hundreds of miles from your home—half of it in the ICU—all you care to notice about your second angiogram, the one that gives you the all-clear, is the good news: “no new areas,” “no new findings,” “no evidence for aneurysm,” and the ever-insulting “brain is otherwise unremarkable.”  There was no need for stents in my arteries or holes drilled in my head—nothing but a follow-up appointment in Iowa City and a third and final angiogram three or four months down the road.

A few more adventures lay ahead.  We’d been back in Iowa City for a day or two—the manuscript mailed off in plenty of time—when I noticed little red target-like spots had begun to appear on all parts of me. We made two trips on two successive days to the ER, where everyone seemed surprised that Benadryl and more Benadryl wasn’t helping. I was allergic to something, probably the angiogram dyes. By the third day, what at first looked like extra-puffy hives on my face had blended together into a perfectly round, pink, baby face that was not recognizable as me. (Now, too late, I wish I’d let my husband take a picture.)

On the third trip to the ER they decided that what I had was erythema multiforme, or a “various red rash.” When I asked what kind of treatment was required—the Benadryl wasn’t working, I reminded the ER doc—he looked grim.

“There’s nothing we can do,” he said.

It was the worst moment of my whole brain event. In the long pause that followed, I suffered the equivalent of a long, dark night of the soul—imagining how different my life would be now that I looked like an alien from the Babyface Planet.

And then the other ER doctor said, “It will just go away by itself.”

When I had a follow-up angiogram in February 2010, the rash and puffiness returned, though mildly. I was advised to steer clear of neurosurgeons for the foreseeable future. In March, I mailed the final page proofs of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia back to the publisher. The book came out in September, a little less than a year after my brain event. I’m told I looked perfectly normal as I signed books at Prairie Lights.

Maybe you were there?       

Mary Helen Stefaniak is the author of The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, winner of the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Iowa City and teaches at Creighton University in Omaha.