Welcome!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Only 100,000 to go....

I finally got some editorial feedback from Solaris. Luckily, my plan for expanding the novel and their plan meshed well. Since I'd already rewritten the first three chapters, and am working tonight on number four, it would have been rather heartbreaking if they'd said, "Well, we like it, but take out all the dragons." (There was no chance they were going to say this, realistically, but paranoia takes hold in my quieter moments.

They want a finished product of 120,000 words. I'll be close to 20,000 when I finish chapter four. Only 100,000 more to go....

Read some of Modern Magic tonight. Good stuff so far. I'm up to the Eugie Foster story. She's a fellow Phobos winner, so I have high hopes for it.

I feel really scatterbrained tonight. I've got too much on my plate. I need to:
1. Fill out the author/promotional questionaire Solaris sent me. This means, among other things, I probably need a new authors photo. My last professional photos were of me with long hair. Sigh. Laura paid for those for my birthday present. (The sigh is a wistful memory of Laura by the way... not a regret that I have to pay for my own photos this time.) I also need to start a search for a famous author who will plug Bitterwood. I'm thinking of asking Jack McDevitt, since he wrote me a kind letter about Final Flight of the Blue Bee.

2: Is it my imagination, or does my first item entail three things? Questionaire, photo, author quest. I'm skipping to four.

4: The con game. I only attended Trinoccon and Stellarcon last year. But, now that I have a novel to promote, I need to crank up the activity. Dragon*con is the big one--I need to get my application in immediately! Eugie will be there--she edits the "Daily Dragon" for the con. Maybe she and I can do a mutual "Modern Magic" reading. The sad thing about going to Dragon*con is that Laura went there with me a few years back and we had a really good time. We were indoctrinated into the church of the subgenius together. Hail Bob! I have the strangest sentimental memories....

5: and that last item was really two, if you count trying to arrange a reading.

6: Do the rewrite, idiot! Stop blogging!

7: Learn to write more coherent lists. I should go now.

--James

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Politics again

It's been a while since I wrote about politics here. Laura and writing have commanded my attention for a month. It's been hard to work up righteous indignation about the news while the news in my own life has been what it's been.

Laura was someone who appreciated that tragedy and triumph tend to come at you all at once. The whole time she was in her steepest decline, or in the immediate aftermath of her death, I couldn't open my mailbox without getting some kind of good news. In the span of a month, I (1) got the contract for Bitterwood (edits of which are going great!), (2) sold my novella Greatshadow to an anthology I didn't technically submit it to, and for a dollar amount larger than what I was expecting, (3) resold my short story "Final Flight of the Blue Bee" to the Russian SF mag ESLI, without ever having submitted to them, either. They contacted me. As my fellow Codexian Eric James Stone observed, in America, you submit to the markets. In Russia, the markets submit to you. What a country! Also during this time, I've gotten fan mail about "Final Flight," always a thrill, and I've finally gotten my contributors copy of "Modern Magic," which is just gorgeous, easily the best looking book I've been in to date. (I hope to soon report on the stories. I have reason to suspect they kick ass.)

But, little by little, politics are seeping back into my awareness. The thing that currently has me annoyed is the proposal to make English the official language of America. The other night, before dinner with Greg, I was standing in front of the restaurant and a man and a woman were standing nearby and I overheard thier conversation. The woman was talking about how it was crazy that immigrants didn't want to learn English, and were forcing banks and doctor's offices to offer thier services bilingually. The guy agreed, and from his comments I got the impression that he was fine with rounding up anyone who couldn't speak English and shooting them. Now, ordinarily, I would get angry at this sort of bigotry, but I was too amused to really get indignant. They were having this conversation while waiting to get a table at a Mexican restaurant. So, let them be racist crackers while standing on the sidewalk--within the hour they would be shelling out their hard earned greenbacks to a restaurant that didn't have a single gringo on staff. And, I suspect the people who run the restaurant--all the way down to the waitstaff--would agree that voting for multiculturism with your money is better than voting for it with your mouth.

I would like to point out that no one has forced banks to provide services in Spanish. This is capitalism at work--immigrants have money. Not competing for their business would be crazy. And, while I'm on the subject of the free market, it seems to me that we shouldn't be afraid of having English and Spanish duke it out head to head in the free market of the culture. If Hollywood starts putting out movies in Spanish and we have to wait around for the English translation, I might feel a tiny bit inconvenienced. But, I don't see that day coming. The fact is, if you live in America, and only speak English, you just aren't going to having any trouble at all functioning. Your bank, your doctor, your grocery store might devote a sliver of their resources to serving Spanish speakers, but you are never going to walk into a bank in North Carolina and be unable to conduct a transaction because of a language barrier. Enshrining this in law speaks to me of a certain cultural insecurity on the part of Americans. A fear that our language isn't all that great, and can't stand up to competition.

Wow, a rant. It's been a while. Perhaps the healing has begun.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sappy Memories

So, I was driving home last night, full of memories of Laura that left me feeling both sad and happy. I then started mentally combining the two words, and realized that the fusion of sad and happy produces sappy. So, I'm going to post some sappy memories. (And, yes, for the linguisticly picky, I know that sappy isn't literally defined as a mixture of sad and happy, and that the word I really should be using is bittersweet. But, if you want to write about bittersweet memories, get your own blog. I'm sticking with sappy.)

Several things triggered the memory. I had gone out to dinner with Greg in Greensboro, and on the way home I was thinking about how I would tell Laura about the restaurant. Because for the last four years, I've had this Laura box in my head where I would put certain bits of news that would be of interest to her... and now I don't know how to empty that box. For instance, at work this week, I've encountered the normal day to day frustrations, stuff I used to come home and vent about for ten minutes when Laura would ask, "How was your day," and I'd answer, "Well, let me tell you." I miss that. But, back to the restaurant: Laura was vegetarian, so anytime I'd go out to eat without her, I'd always check out the vegetarian selections to see if it might be someplace she could eat at. I got all excited last night at La Fiesta when I saw that they had a very large vegetarian menu--this was going to be someplace she would love! My enthusiasm, naturally, was followed by a strong sense of loss, not just of missing Laura, but for a missed opportunity. I loved making Laura happy, to seek and the little pleasures in life she might partake in. I felt like I'd screwed up by not finding this place sooner. It was my job, dammit, to increase her joy. I'd been slack in my duties.

Later, Greg and I drove past a Sonic restaurant. Another memory. Sometime in March, or maybe even the beginning of April, Laura had been feeling sick, but also felt bored, trapped in the house. She didn't have the stamina to get up and walk anywhere. A trip to Target would have been too much for her--she didn't even feel like going out to eat. But I proposed that we could go for a drive in the country, take a look at the flowers blooming. It turned out to be a very lovely afternoon. The Carolina countryside was very cooperative, with fields of purple and yellow blossoms over rolling hills as we drove around Saxapahaw. We passed over a terrific, rocky river. We stopped at a fruit stand--she stayed in the car but I went in and bought her a bottle of mineral water which she enjoyed. Then, on the meandering path home, we discovered a Sonic in Mebane, and Laura lit up. She wanted some of thier cheesy tater tots. Naturally, I got her some. It was the last thing I ever saw her really ravenous for, except maybe pickles.

Ah, yes, pickles. If there was a secret to Laura and me making it as a couple, it was our mutual appreciation of really good dills. Over the years, we've sampled every brand available for sale in North Carolina. Laura had a lot of appetite problems on the various chemos. But, until the end, she would never turn down a pickle. The cruel irony is, pickles have, like, five calories. You can starve to death if you make them the foundation of your diet. I should have known she was closer to the end than I did when, the last day I saw her awake in the hospital, I asked if she wanted me to smuggle her in a pickle, and she turned it down. Now I have a jar of pickles in the fridge and every time I eat one I think about her. So, I think about her a lot.

And, as long as we're on the food theme, I wonder when I will have the courage to go back to Tsing Tao. It was our favorite Chinese restaurant. And, any time I've gone in there alone, the lady who runs the place always asks me where my wife is. I've never corrected her. It always made me happy, that the little Chinese restaurant in the strip mall was a kind of alternate dimension, a separate reality where we were married, and we'd never even heard of cancer, and the hot and sour soup really was hot and sour.

Sappy, yes?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

W.H.Horner interview

The following interview was written for the Writers Group of the Triad Newsletter:

My short story, "Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath" saw print at the end of April in the anthology MODERN MAGIC: TALES OF FANTASY AND HORROR, published by Fantasist Enterprises, edited by W. H. Horner. The anthology is the best I've yet had a story appear in, with twenty-six terrific tales and thirty-five gorgeous illustrations by artist David Seidman. Fantasist Enterprises is a small press that is developing a reputation for high-quality books. One key to their success is their pay-rates, which are competitive with larger presses. But the real key to success lies in the hard work and dedication of publisher W. H. Horner.

I knew something special was going on when, wearing his editor hat, Horner did something very strange: He edited me. I've had stories appear in about a dozen magazine and anthologies, and usually the story has appeared in exactly the format I submitted it, with editorial feedback limited to correcting typos (if that). But Horner made several suggestions to improve the flow of the story. One exchange that impressed me was a series of emails where we discussed the sentence, "Sure, my stuff is illegal," versus, "Sure. My stuff is illegal." (Note: In case your browser is as unreliable as mine, in the first sentence "sure" is italicised, while "my" is italicised in the second.) I wanted the "sure" to be heard as sarcasm, but as I had written the sentence, it could easily have been read as an affirmation of the illegality of the speaker's product. Horner's attention to detail wasn't restricted to correcting grammar. He actively worked to help me sharpen the music of the story. It was a rewarding experience that earned my respect.

To find out more about W. H. Horner, I conducted an e-mail interview where I asked a few questions about Fantasist Enterprises:

JM: What inspired you to start Fantasist Enterprises?

WHH: I have always been in love with story. Especially stories that inspire awe and wonder. I wanted to create books that carry that spark of imagination. During my college years, I also discovered that I have a passion for helping other people say what it is they are truly attempting to say. I love helping my authors make a story the best it can be. FE is truly a labor of love.

JM: Professional short story markets are disappearing, at least in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Markets like the now defunct Amazing Stories were gateways for new talent. Do you see the small press filling that gateway role?

WHH: I love small presses because they are more likely to take chances and stir things up. I see anthologies and the fiction magazines as excellent opportunities for writers to start up their careers by putting some short story sales under their belts, and to learn a bit about the publishing world. Not that it's a requirement in order to sell a novel to one of the big houses, but having those credits will make you look a bit more professional and dedicated.

Small presses can also give authors a chance to play with new concepts and characters. One established author in MODERN MAGIC was recently requested by her agent to take characters from her story and write a novel centering on them. It's very exciting to be able to say I was there in the beginning of something.

JM: One interesting aspect of the themed anthologies you've brought to press so far (2004's CLOAKED IN SHADOW: DARK TALES OF ELVES and the just released MODERN MAGIC: TALES OF FANTASY AND HORROR) is that they are heavily illustrated by a single artist. Which comes first for you? Does a particular artist's work inspire you to think of a theme, or do you think of the theme and then search out an appropriate artist? Am I correct in assuming that you have the artist signed on before you start signing authors?

WHH: It depends on the book. With CLOAKED, Star Sutezzo sent me a sample of her art, including the piece that eventually became the cover. It inspired me to see what people could do with the theme of evil elves. MODERN MAGIC came about because so many of the submissions to CLOAKED were set in modern times, and I wanted to see what other stories people could tell in our world with fantasy and horror elements. David Seidman had sent me his portfolio months before the idea struck, and I knew he would be perfect with his ability to create very real images of fantasy. It was a similar process with BASH DOWN THE DOOR AND SLICE OPEN THE BADGUY and BLOOD AND DEVOTION, with Chris Chua and Michael Dixon, respectively. So far, I've had an artist signed on before I made a final decision on the lineup of stories. In a way, it helps with the selection process, because as I read, I look for scenes that would make great illustrations in the artist's style.

JM: What inspired you to use interior artwork in the first place? In most books, the artwork is restricted to the cover. Also, you mention BLOOD AND DEVOTION and BASH DOWN THE DOOR AND SLICE OPEN THE BAD GUY. What's your normal time from conceiving an anthology to seeing it come to fruition?

WHH: In the history of books, it's a rather new phenomenon to not have illustrations to go along with the text. In the late 19th century, with the proliferation of books aimed at children, it slowly came to be thought that books with pictures were just for kids, but again, this is not historically accurate.

In the early nineties, I read THE GIANT BOOK OF FANTASY AND THE SUPERNATURAL, edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton, which contained 39 stories and 24 illustrations. That book affected how I came to envision what I wanted to do with the books I publish. I'm also a fan of the speculative fiction magazines such as REALMS OF FANTASY and WEIRD TALES which combine art with words.

My decision to make art such an important part of FE books goes back to that sense of wonder I mentioned earlier. I want readers to turn the page and see a new illustration and say, "Wow." That will hopefully draw them right into the next story since they can't wait to find out what inspired the artist to create that particular work of art.

As for the time it takes to get an anthology out the door, it has taken much longer than I would like! Both CLOAKED and MODERN MAGIC took probably three years from when I came up with the idea to when it finally hit presses. As we get the infrastructure of the company running a bit more smoothly, I'm hoping to cut that time in half, which I know is asking a lot, but I have high hopes.

JM: You call your anthologies a labor of love. But have you also found a way to make money off these books?

WHH: I certainly have faith that a small, well run press can turn a profit with anthologies. I'm not expecting to get rich off this endeavor by any stretch of the imagination, but I do hope to be able to keep the company off the ground and eventually flying steadily.

JM: What kind of reading load does finding stories for an anthology entail? Are you able to read all the submissions yourself? Do you read each story all the way through, or do you know early on if a story isn't going to make the cut?

WHH: Depending on my work load, I try to personally read every story, though with some books I have brought on trusted friends and associates who I know are competent writers and editors to go through the stacks of manuscripts and pull out the top 75% for me to read. The call for submissions for MODERN MAGIC resulted in about 125 submissions, while the most recent, BLOOD & DEVOTION, resulted in about 150. The selection process for B&D was definitely the hardest I've yet to experience. There were so many good stories that I would love to publish, but there is just not enough room. And there were a number of wonderful stories that did not quite fit the theme tight enough to get in.

As to how many pages it takes to know if a story is "in" . . . well, it depends. I can usually tell in about a page and a half if the story is written well enough to warrant taking a serious look at, but I usually try to stick it out for about seven or eight pages to see if things get better. If a manuscript is written well, I usually hope to see confirmation that it will fit the theme within the first ten pages or so (this, of course, depends on length). With B&D, there were a good dozen stories that I read all the way through, since they were so good, and the theme requirements were almost there, in the hopes that something would happen to make it more of a thematic fit--and ended up being disappointed.

JM: What's the best way to support a small press? Would you prefer people purchase books directly on your website, via Amazon, or go into a bookstore and request a copy if it isn't in stock?

WHH: It's good to have a mix of all three of those options. When someone buys books direct from us, that means we and the authors make more from that sale. But most book purchases are impulse buys in stores . . . and if people don't buy a company or author's books in the stores, then stores will not stock them, obviously. Lastly, a book that does well on Amazon.com or B&N.com always gets more attention in other places as well, besides the promotion that those websites give their better-selling books.

To see illustrations from MODERN MAGIC, read story excerpts, or order your own copy, visit the links on the side of this page!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Laura in her own words, followed by a few of mine

I've been going through emails Laura and I exchanged over the years. I found some moments where she spelled out her attitude toward life very directly, and thought I'd pass them on. These are excerpts from six or seven letters--don't try to read them all as one direct narrative.

Laura in her own words:

Some people have bad credit, some people have addiction, I have this health thing. It has been my greatest curse and my greatest blessing all rolled up into one. I got to see who my people are, and are not. Cancer has made me a very positive person.
--
As far as my spiritual beliefs go, I know there is a source whether you want to call it God or something else I believe its all the same thing. I was raised Catholic and understood pretty early on that what I believed didn't seem to fit in that box well. I've considered joining a church for the community aspect, and if I ever really got around to that it would most likely be Unitarian or similar. Above all I believe in ethics. You do the right thing because its the right thing to do, not because God is looking and taking notes. I believe the source is in all living things a part of the network of what is true and right in everything. I've never blamed or pointed fingers for what happened to me. I know that it was some part of me that needed the "pruning" in order to actually live. I had to get back to what was true and right in my life. Cancer forced that into the foreground for me. One never gets a situation that they can't handle in life, and I'm flattered I was handed such a bucket full.
--
The gift that grows out of misfortune is compassion and wisdom.
--
Sometimes I get very excited when I think of what will happen between now and this time next year. Great things can happen. Life is often like the fruit on the branch, it ripens and becomes sweeter.
--
We finally had rain last night. I know what you mean when you say that rain is lovely. It is lovely in every way.
--
Much like the Buddha laughing with tears running down his face, life is beautiful and tragic all at once.
--
As far as what kind of investment I am, we just have a little more information than the average person as to what could claim me in the end. I get what anyone gets, one lifetime. I consider the time I am with you as time well spent. The best medicine for me is to be able to live my life. I want at least 20 years. My 50th birthday will be a triumph, no "over the hill" black balloons for me. I anticipate feeling like a gold medallist on that day. Any other outcome to my life is too sad to contemplate. I suspect in the meantime I could be in need of a hand to hold from time to time, things can get scary and bravery is easier in numbers. If it comes to that I'll let you in on it.
--
James here again: I considered posting only part of that last paragraph. It is sad to contemplate, and sad that she didn't make it to fifty. But when she went, we were holding her hands. We also were holding her feet--there were five of us in the room, we all had a hand on her somewhere, I think. She was right, of course, that the numbers made it easier, at least for us, and, I hope, for her.

But, it was pretty easy to decide to leave it in, given that she especially knew that tragedy and beauty weren't mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, intertwined in ways not immediately obvious to many people.

It's been just over a week since she left us. Tonight is my first night alone in the house. All of her relatives have returned home, Simon and Veronica have gone to live with their emergency backup parents (divorce does have an oddly positive side effect, in this case), and even her cat, Yoshi, is gone away. I'm left with just memories and lots of clutter. Dying flowers from the funeral are all over the house. By all rights, this should be the saddest night of my life.

Instead, I'm trapped in this borderline psychotic mix between regret and excitement. I keep thinking of things I could have done differently with Laura. Should I have asked her to marry me earlier, instead of waiting so long into her illness? Could I have given her better advice on her treatment? There was a time early in her occurance when she ditched a cancer drug due to the side effects, even though the drug was still showing signs of working. I respected her decision--she was the one having to suffer the side-effects--but at the time I wanted to argue her choice, and encourage her to tough it out a few more months. Would she still be around if I'd given her that advice? Or would everything have just been pushed off a few months more? And the Wednesday when I left her in the hospital--if I'd stuck around through the night, could she have found any additional strength in my holding her hand to make it through to morning? And would it have changed anything in the long run?

Mixed in with all the regret and sorrow, though, is the realization that I'm entering a new chapter in life. It's a strangely giddy feeling. I honestly have no idea what can happen to me in the next year. But I face the year a little wiser, and perhaps, yes, a little more compassionate. I've lived for a long time with the dread of what would come next. And, bluntly, the worst that could happen has happened. Things get better from here.

And, even here, in a lonely house, there's all those flowers, still colorful, still fragrant, even as they fade.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Homily

This is the homily I wrote for Laura's funeral service today. It makes reference to Ecclesiastes 11:1 "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days." To me it sounds a little strange and detached, since I'm writing about myself in third person. But I felt it was important to make the homily as broad as possible, and talk about the impact she had had on so many lives. There were well over a hundred people at her funeral today--we had been told the church seated 140, and there were people standing around the back it was so packed. I didn't want to make it seem like I alone was claiming her memory by telling a personal story about her. But, I promise I will post some of those personal stories here in the coming days. For now, this is what people in church heard from Reverend Tammy Lee:

---

Whenever Laura went out in public, she always met someone that she knew. It didn't matter if she was at a restaurant, a park, a theater, or just walking through a grocery store--she would bump into people who wanted to stand and talk with her for ten minutes. And she would always give people those ten minutes, or more. It sometimes seemed like Laura knew details of everyone's life. When she'd see people, she'd remember the names and ages of their kids. She could talk about where they'd just gone on vacation, or how their parents were doing, or what their favorite flowers were. It was as if she knew every single person in the town of Chapel Hill, and they all knew her.

Laura had plenty of excuses not to spend time standing in a grocery store chatting. She was a busy single mom who over the years dealt with health problems that sometimes made even a small excursion exhausting. But she cast her bread upon the waters by giving everyone she met her time and her kindness. She was willing to offer her friends help in anyway--giving people rides when they needed them, offering what little financial support she could cobble together to people in tougher situations than her own, and, most importantly, in always being willing to listen to people no matter what their problems. Her sage advice and terrific sense of irony carried her friends through many a tough time. In later years, she saw the bread she had cast upon the water returned to her. Her kindness and charity were given back ten fold by her vast network of friends and loved ones.

Laura lived life with a sense of adventure and passion. Laura once wrote in a letter to James, her companion, "Sometimes I get very excited when I think of what will happen between now and this time next year. Great things can happen. Life is often like the fruit on the branch, it ripens and becomes sweeter." Her optimism inspired the people around her. Yet there was nothing unrealistic in her acceptance of her circumstances in life. Laura lived knowing that she might not live as long as the average person. She never allowed that to make her bitter. She accepted her problems as part of her life, and learned to draw wisdom from them. She believed that the battles she fought in life, even the losing ones, made her stronger. She said, "I get what anyone gets, one lifetime." She made the most of that life. Laura remained focused on what she could do, not on what she had lost or might lose. She found something beautiful in almost every day.

Laura loved her children. She was proud of Bevin's maturity and independence. She adored Simon's humor and insight. She cherished Veronica's creativity and energy. She loved her family, her parents: Bob and Anne, her brothers Mike and Matt and Andy, her sisters Sara and Alicia. She welcomed any and all additions to her already large family, forming a special bond with her sister in law Jessica and her sister in law in waiting Naoko. Her joys in life were many and simple--she possessed an almost inexhaustible knowledge of flowers. She loved Mediterranean food and wasabi and pickles. She wore out many a pencil filling in su-do-ku and crossword puzzles. There was almost no occasion in life where she couldn't find an appropriate quote from the Simpsons. She could find something to laugh about in even the darkest moments.

We all lose something in her passing. But we've all gained something from her life. We can take the seeds of her kindness and love and wisdom and carry them out in to the world and plant them in our own lives and the lives of others. The good she did in this world doesn't end simply because her life has ended. As long as we carry her in our memories, Laura will be with us.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Laura Kathleen Herrmann

She was dying when I met her. We met through online personal ads, and she wrote me saying that she liked the philosophy I had sprinkled through my post. I don't even recall what it said, really--something about finding humor and hope even in down times, I think. And she told me she'd been through some down times. She'd fought breast cancer, her husband had left her when she was diagnosed with the disease. This might send other people into a spiral of despair and self-pity that they could never pull out of. But, she hadn't surrendered to her worries and woes. She bested them, and went on to live a terrific life. She had gotten a butterfly tattoo--it was her symbol of transformation. The time of her cancer and her divorce were when she had been drawn into her cocoon. But she'd emerged with wings.

At the time I met her, she was cancer free--or, more accurately, her cancer treatment had pushed the disease back to a level below the threshold of detection. She was up front about this--she told me that she was living with the knowledge that her disease might return any day. After I'd been dating her about three months, she put a timeline on it. According to the doctor, she said, all but a handful of people who had been through breast cancer and had it spread to other parts of the body would survive more than five years, even if they were "cured."

We were in the stage of our relationship where we were hungry for each other, very fully in that early, giddy, passionate love that is so intoxicating. And she wanted me to have all the facts. She wanted me to understand, before I fell too much in love, that we would probably never have the kind of relationship where we would grow old and gray together. There wasn't much chance of us sitting on the rocking chair on the porch and watching our grandkids play. Her exact words to me were, "I'm not a very good investment."

I admit, at the time, it staggered me. She said she didn't really know if she would live to see her 40th birthday. It wasn't something I could really wrap my head around. At the time she told me this, she was very healthy--maybe the healthiest person I knew. She ate right, loved being outdoors, and possessed this thirst for life that just made it impossible to think that she might be in any danger from disease. Plus, every day in the papers, there was some new development in the fight against cancer. The genetics were being unraveled. New drugs were better, more targeted. Worrying about death from cancer five years out just wasn't a worry I was prepared to embrace. I really believed at the time that a real cure was only a year or two away. And so I told her I was in this for the long haul. Things would work out.

So, of course, the cancer returned a few months later. Lungs, liver, spine--tiny tumors only millimeters long, but described in the cat scan as "innumerable." The tumors were like shrapnel from the world's slowest hand grenade. Up until that point, we had been able to talk a bit about a future together. But, we hadn't been rushing things. She'd been through a divorce, I'd been through two--we weren't the sort of people who were going to run out and get married in Vegas. We both felt a long, slow courtship was best. If marriage was going to be talked about, it would be talked about after a few years, not a few months. But once the cancer returned, discussions of the future were shut down. We dealt mainly with the day to day, and with the immediately problems caused by her illness and treatment.

Last year, I asked her if she would like to get married. She'd gotten too sick to work full time. It seemed like there was a lot I would be able to help her with as a spouse that I was legally not able to as a boyfriend. She turned me down. She said she didn't want to take me down with her.

Even then, I didn't give up hope. The growth of her disease had been very gradual. The tiny little flea sided tumors would grow to rice sized tumors, then fade a bit, then return as fly sized tumors. A few years ago a few of the tumors in her lung went wild and grew much larger--her lungs began to fill with fluid, and she landed in the hospital with blood oxygen levels at in a range that might have killed another person. That was about 18 months ago--and she beat it back. She had a drain installed in her chest--and every night for weeks we would drain of the fluid. And slowly she got her breath back. She went from near death on New Years Eve to walking over a mile in downtown High Point with me in March as we looked for a Mexican restaurant "just down the street" that turned out to have shut down months before. The chemo she had gotten immediately after her surgury did a good job of holding back the disease. I started to think that anyone who could survive that dark time could beat anything.

She died Saturday morning, May 6, about 3:40. She was 39. I held her hand as she went.

In the days to come, I plan to write a lot about Laura. I didn't write much about her here over the last few years because I worried about her kids reading my blog and discovering my fears and anxieties. For that matter, I didn't want her to read about my fears and anxieties. I had a clearly defined job in Laura's life. She saw a lot of doctors over the years. I was her spin doctor. There was no bit of news she could get that was so bad that I couldn't find some positive or funny way of looking at it. When chemo made her skin peel and crack, I told her to imagine that same reaction going on inside, chewing up tumor. When she was in the hospital week before last with her liver swelling, she was next to a woman who was flat out yellow, like florescent highlighter had been rubbed over every part of her body. That woman was obviously dying, and in a lot of pain. This is a horrible thing to say, but I helped Laura find a grim comfort in it, because, in the presence of someone whose liver had failed, the fact that Laura's liver had swollen didn't seem so bad. Things were going wrong inside her, but obviously her liver was still working, and if she had to spend the rest of her life in maternity pants, well, there are worse fates.

So, for close to four years, I've spent pretty much every day thinking of reasons why Laura was going to beat the cancer, and giving her pep talks. And then I'd come downstairs (I rented her basement apartment) and stand in the shower and groan, on the verge of tears, because I knew, deep down, that I didn't believe it. Little by little, the cancer was winning. Every time a chemo drug exhausted itself, it left her just a little sicker and the tumors just a little tougher and more drug resistant. I knew it was only a matter of time. She knew, too. But the unspoken rule was that we were never going to talk about the possibility of her losing. She wanted to fight until the last possible second, and I had her back.

As she died over the last few days, I've second guessed a lot of my decisions. Because, if someone had given me a calendar, and said, "Yep, May 6. That's the day," then maybe I would have handled things differently. I praised her almost daily about what a fighter she was, and how awed I was of her strength. I told her I admired her courage. But, I wish there was a point where I had also said it's okay to give up. No one was going to judge her or think her weak for letting go. And maybe she could have used the last few days to say good-bye to people. But I don't know. I don't know if she could have made peace with the idea of dying, or if her desire to live was just too strong for her to ever willingly let go, no matter how bad things got. I wasn't there with her when they put her under Thursday morning to hook up the ventilator. I'm told her last words were, "Is there hope?"

The fact that I wasn't there to say yes is going to haunt me for a long time.

I talked to her a lot while she was under the morphine, probably beyond hearing me. I'll never know. A lot of what I said to her is going to remain between me and her. But there was one thing I told her. She was the best investment of time and energy and love I ever made. I don't believe in a soul, or an afterlife, but, I promise you, I believe in memory, and her memory has forever changed me, and changed dozens of others. Everyone who knew her is going to carry part of her for the rest of their lives. She will live on from this day in a slowly expanding wave of kindness and courage and hope that spreads from the people who knew her to the people they know.

She was dying when I met her. She knew it. And it made her truly, deeply aware that she loved her life. She lived with a passion and a grace that I've never before encountered.

Oh, sweet Jesus, I'm going to miss her.