Alternatingly harrowing, humorous, heartbreaking, and hopeful, this is an uplifting tribute to love, determination, and how the compassion of community holds the power to heal, serving as an inspiring testament to the resilience of the human spirit when faced with pain and adversity.
|Publisher:||Prospect Park Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)|
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THE FIRST PART
the last day of normal
The phone rings. I check the caller ID and don't recognize it; I'm not going to answer. I've got twenty-five minutes before I have to get on a conference call with Disney, and before that, I want to rewrite a couple of lines of a television pilot I'm delivering today.
But the phone continues to ring. I wait for the answering machine to get it, but for some godforsaken reason, it's not picking up. I exhale, annoyed because I know the call is either going to be for Susan (she's the only one who receives calls on the home line, and she left to take Alyce to school ten minutes ago) or it's the latest of 300 recent attempts to sell me something I have absolutely no interest in. Because of the persistent ringing and the malfunctioning answering machine, I'm going to have to answer it.
"Hello," I say, an edge in my voice.
The reply on the other end surprises me.
"Daddy, it's me." It's Alyce, my twelve-year-old daughter, her sweet yet scared voice on the other end. But why is she calling from this strange number, and worse, why is she crying and why does she sound so frightened?
"Mommy was just in a car accident."
My heart stops ... and then immediately begins pounding.
"Are you all right?"
Another deep sob.
"I don't know ... I don't think so. Come quick."
We're all familiar with the saying "There but for the grace of God go I." On this particular October morning, that grace was gone ... and it was I.
the news breaks
Word of the accident spread faster than the typical hyper-speed of Hollywood gossip. To be fair, though, this was a far cry from gossip. In addition to our friends informing one another, our temple's entire congregation had been notified through an email blast, and the collective response was one of sincere concern from a deeply caring community. Everyone recognized the randomness of the event, and because it happened so close to the temple where many of them sent their children to school, they also recognized how easily something like this could happen to them.
Again, there but for the grace of God ...
What's inherent in that statement, though, is something I have grappled with from the very beginning: What role, if any, did some omnipotent being play in all of this? Did God really have anything to do with the accident? Which leads to several other equally unanswerable questions: Are there really any "accidents," or do things happen for a reason? Is this all some sort of life lesson that we should be learning from a very bad thing happening to good people? With this kind of event, it's unrealistic to not at least contemplate the big question of "Why?" even while simultaneously knowing it's a futile exercise. Still, sitting there in the hospital, waiting and wondering and worrying while life hung in the balance, it's impossible to not be slapped in the face by it.
Regardless, it quickly became impossible to process this in solitude. The "news" was out there, through that initial email as well as on all the local television stations. Because of the huge circle of friends Susan has built in her life, I almost immediately began receiving calls asking what was going on, what her condition was, was she going to be okay?
There was so much uncertainty, though, that I didn't know what to say other than, "It's not good."
Things were far from stable, her condition as well as my emotional state. It wasn't so much what the doctors were telling me, but rather what they weren't, things they were leaving out, details and prognoses I still don't know and am probably better off never knowing. There was inside knowledge, that awful truth, and then there was me, blissfully ignorant to it all.
I don't blame the doctors for keeping their secrets. I already had enough to worry about that was real, never mind working myself into a state of panic over possibilities. It would be too easy to spin myself crazy indulging in all the "mights" of the situation (if she survives "this," she might then be faced with "that" — the "thats" being paralysis, brain damage, etc.). So not knowing the possibilities was a layer of protection necessary to deal with the immediate, to focus on the present.
This is a great lesson I learned right out of the gate from the emergency room doctors and nurses. They aren't concerned with the past or the future. Their complete focus and attention is right there in the moment, on that body in front of them. Nothing else matters. And as I sat in the ICU waiting room, I tried to remain in that same state of present.
Even in these earliest hours, I was never alone. In addition to my group of friends, there were others in the waiting room, people I didn't know who were related to other patients on the floor. We shared hellos, offering some of the mountain of food that had been delivered to us from other concerned friends. We exchanged sympathetic, unspoken looks acknowledging that we'd rather be anywhere else than where we were, and that though strangers, we were bound by unrelated illness or tragedy.
The images of the accident were not only haunting my memory, they remained right in front of me, broadcast all over the news. I'd catch glimpses on the television in the background, repeating the footage. But I didn't need to see it again.
At one point, a man caught a look at the accident on the TV and innocently remarked to me, "Wow, look at that accident on Hollywood Boulevard. Miracle if anyone survived that. You gotta take a look at this."
I politely declined. He pressed again for me to check it out. "No, seriously, this is unbelievable!"
The man's wife nudged him and whispered under her breath. I knew exactly what she was saying without having to hear it.
His face turned pale before he turned to me, apologizing.
"I didn't know. I'm sorry."
I told him not to worry about it. I knew he was just innocently trying to distract me from whatever I was going through. But what was interesting was that in that one moment, the sensational news story about some random stranger had become personal for him. In that instant, he realized that in that car, behind this crazy news story, was a very real person with a husband, children, friends, and family who were all waiting in this very room, and like him, concerned whether their loved one was going to live or die. As with any accident or disaster, that awareness, that personal connection, makes the story a lot less fascinating to simply casually watch. It humanizes it.
By this point, the waiting room had also become like central operations for a major campaign headquarters. A circle of five or so women, all Susan's closest friends, were gathered in a circle, laptops clacking away. Meal trains were being formed, friends were being updated with the latest news, carpools were being organized. It was an efficient, progesterone-charged power machine. I looked around at them and commented, "God, if we could harness what's going on in this waiting room right now, I am quite confident we could solve all of the world's problems."
It was true. The amount of focus, care, and energy was unstoppable.
I sat there, primarily in a daze, holding in my hand the hospital turkey sandwich a nurse had given me for Alyce hours earlier in the emergency room. At the time, Alyce didn't want it and neither did I. Every few minutes someone would remind me that I really should eat something (it's not like we had any shortage of food), but I had been trying to lose some weight over the past few months, doing the whole no-carb, lean-protein thing, and I hadn't consumed a piece of bread in some time. I sat there looking at this sandwich.
Should I eat it? Was this really just a sandwich, or was it a parable for a bigger test from God? Did this turkey sandwich represent my strength, and if I gave in and ate it, was that giving up? It was now much bigger than just a sandwich; it was my ability to handle this crisis. It was absurd and ridiculous, but these are the kinds of things you think about, or at least I was thinking about.
As the day wore on, I was approached by a friend who gently suggested (again) that I really needed to put out some kind of statement, like a diplomat following a horrific public event. The team was being overwhelmed with phone calls, emails, and texts, and the consensus was that I needed to reach out and provide some information. Visitors weren't allowed into the building, never mind onto our floor of the ICU, unless I put them on a list. As a result, there were so many who felt shut out, both literally and figuratively.
But I felt strongly that I didn't want to provide any specific information about Susan's injuries until I had a clear understanding of what they were myself. As far as I was concerned, no information was better than false information. I also didn't want to speculate, even from a place of optimism, that she was going to be okay, partly because I didn't know and partly because I didn't want to jinx it by making that declaration. I had experienced this exact situation earlier while I was in the ER with Alyce, heartened by Susan's initial positive prognosis, only to have the doctors reverse it just moments later. I could tell that this was the way it was going to be, good news followed by terrible followed by better ... constantly changing. It was hard enough for me to go on this ride, and, whether right or wrong, I didn't want to drag anyone else onto this hellish roller coaster.
Yet, there were too many people in our lives who were in the dark, and I know that the dark can be a scary place to be, full of uncertainty and anxiety.
And it wasn't only what to say but where to say it. I ultimately chose Susan's Facebook page, figuring that would reach the majority of her friends, and if someone wasn't a Facebook friend, then they would hear it from someone who was. I also realized that there would be many around the country with no knowledge of the accident who would read the post and wonder what the hell was going on. There was no perfect way to say it — not in words or format — but in this world of social networking, it seemed like the most efficient way to get information out as quickly, and to as many, as possible.
Early evening, albeit brief, this is what I posted on her page:
Susan SegalOctober 23, 2012, near Los Angeles, CA
Hi, everyone, it's Doug. I want to thank you all for your thoughts and prayers, and I will try to keep you updated on the situation. The hospital staff and Susan have a great challenge ahead of them, but I, and Susan, know she is surrounded by love, and we all so very much appreciate your concern. With much love and gratitude to the amazing support and friends we both have. xxoo, d
Even though I had written that Susan knew she was "surrounded by love," I wouldn't realize the full extent of that until much later on. There have been recent studies that show that this kind of energy translates to whomever it's intended, whether the "giver" is present in the room of the "receiver" or not. It is this love, support, compassion, and prayer that became Susan's lifeblood, transferred through some cosmic transfusion.
As the hours ticked by, we all mostly just sat, interminably waiting for news. Good news would be met with a surge of energy and relief, while no news (which was more often the case) was met with quiet frustration. As night began to fall, the number of calls, texts, and emails continued to flood in from family and friends asking to please be notified if there was any further news. One friend became the gatekeeper of this contact list as the constant influx of people made it too much for me to keep track of.
And so at the close of the first day, I wrote the first of what became known as the "updates." At first, the updates began as a way to keep our family and friends informed about Susan's physical condition, but they quickly grew to become much more than just a clinical recounting of her recovery. Yes, they told that story, but as she wrestled for her life, everyone receiving the updates wrestled with the life questions and issues that the accident raised — like me, trying to make sense of what ultimately makes no sense.
I could count up the email addresses on the master list, but that wouldn't come close to providing an accurate number of actual recipients, as there were many on the list who forwarded them on to others — their parents, friends, family, workmates, and countless others, many of whom didn't even know me or Susan but were so moved by the randomness and the heartbreak of the accident that they wanted to be kept abreast, to remain a part of it.
I always felt that everyone who wanted to continue to receive the updates truly cared, was moved, and in many cases later shared how they were inspired by them. For many who would read our story, we were like fictional characters in an ongoing serial, but at the same time, it was impossible to ignore that we were also real people, people just like them, and that is what connected and moved them.
Ultimately, I didn't need to know who they were. The real hope was, since they were now plunged into this journey with us, that they, too, would be sending their love and support.
I didn't need to know anything more than that.
As you know, Susan and Alyce were involved in a terrible car accident this morning. Alyce is thankfully okay, but Susan has been very seriously injured.
I am still waiting for news about her condition, which as you can imagine is constantly changing given the scope of her injuries.
Please know that I deeply appreciate all your concern, prayers, and warm thoughts and will convey them as soon as I am able to see her. I will also send more definitive updates as soon as I have more information.
a little bit of backstory
Since this whole saga is a love story of sorts, it probably makes sense to get to know the main characters a little better.
Susan and I met around Thanksgiving in 1988. We both lived in New York City, actually quite near each other. As we would learn, this was just one of the many coincidences we shared.
Earlier in the day of the night we met, I had gotten a call from a college friend of mine, Geoffrey. He told me that he and a friend from his acting class were going up to a party that night and, knowing I had just gotten out of a relationship, asked if I'd like to join them. I didn't have anything going on, so I said yes. The plan was to meet at the Cooper Square subway station and head to the party from there.
They would be coming from a show at the Public Theatre.
His friend was Susan.
As we took the subway up to the party, they told me about this avant-garde play they had just seen, laughing about how very little of it made sense to them. I hadn't seen the show, but I had seen a lot of experimental theater, so I offered my analysis. Susan would later say that her first thought about me was that I was smart, hearing me analyze this crazy play. I remember thinking at the time that for my next relationship, I wanted to find someone like her. She was smart, funny, pretty, with a mane of curly hair and bright blue eyes, and an equally attractive, strong personality.
She spoke her mind unapologetically, verbalizing thoughts most of us have but aren't brave enough to express. This, I learned, was a quality most would love about her, though on occasion, some would find abrasive and be put off. In any case, I was really happy for Geoffrey. He seemed to have found himself a really great girl.
That party was fairly uneventful in terms of our future relationship, but a couple of weeks later, we found ourselves at another one. Geoffrey and Susan were presumably still a couple, which I was happy to see, but at the party, Susan and I found ourselves spending most of the time together.
It wasn't our riveting conversation that kept us rooted in the same spot; it was the loaf of Zabar's cinnamon babka (a kind of coffee cake/bread), which we devoured together. It was gooey and cinnamony and irresistibly delicious, and we continued to cut slice after slice of it. As we stuffed our faces, we managed to get a few words in here and there. I asked her where she was from, and she said, "Massachusetts."
"Me, too," I responded, surprised. "What part?"
"Framingham?" she said, wondering if I'd ever heard of it.
Of course I'd heard of it. "My uncle and aunt live in Framingham."
"Really? What are their names?"
"Joan and Bob Smith?"
I posed it as a question because the likelihood that Susan would know my uncle and aunt from what is considered the largest town in the United States was remote, never mind ones with the name Smith.
"Bob Smith the dentist?"
"Yeah!" (He was actually an oral surgeon, but I figured she was talking about the same one.)
"Oh, my God, they're dear friends of my parents —"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Struck"
Copyright © 2018 Douglas Segal.
Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
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