by Jerry Waxler
In her memoir, “Again in a Heartbeat,” author Susan Weidener tells with breathtaking clarity the entire lifespan of her relationship with John, from their first date, to falling love, getting married, having children, and then sinking into despair during her husband’s slow untimely death. I love the memoir because of its simplicity and power, and the ruthless honesty of her emotions, which were far from politically correct. After he is gone, the story continues, as Susan turns toward grieving and reclaiming her hold on life. The memoir does a wonderful job portraying this huge emotional journey. In addition to being a writer, Susan Weidener encourages and nurtures others to tell their story. In this part of the interview, I ask her about the experience of writing the memoir.
Jerry Waxler: One of the unique things about your memoir is its span of time, covering the period from when you first met your future husband, and ending as you attempt to recover your life and find a new beginning. So many aspiring memoir writers struggle to decide on the appropriate span for their stories. What can you share about the way this particular scope of time appeared right for you?
Susan Weidener: When I started the project, my thought was to write about being widowed and dating again as a middle-aged woman with two young sons. As the memoir progressed and I began to write about my husband, the women who critiqued my book said, “We want more about John.” I realized they were right. The real story was meeting John, falling in love and our ordeal with cancer. I wanted to write about myself as a young woman living the life she had always dreamed. Then the illness enters, shatters our lives. What happens when Prince Charming makes a dramatic and tragic exit? Does true love only come once and, if so, is that enough? I included the three years after my husband’s death to describe the loss, the fear of being alone. There are no fairy tale endings, but you find the strength within yourself to be on your own.
Jerry Waxler: At the beginning of the memoir, I loved your portrayal of falling in love — These are compelling, detailed scenes that let us accompany you on your emotional journey. As a reader, I found them pleasurable and romantic. What was that like for you as a writer, to remember to a time before the loss, all the way back to the beginning of your relationship?
Susan Weidener: Thank you. Writing memoir is living twice, which is painful and elating. There were moments as I wrote about our first trip together as husband and wife to West Point when I felt John in the room with me again. Writing about the day he and I stood under Kissing Rock, the place along the Hudson River where cadets would take their dates, and John told me about some of the girls he had brought there . . . it brought back memories of John’s inimitable sense of humor. When I wrote the scene where John and I dance at our wedding to “As Time Goes By,” and John says to me, “Here’s looking at you kid,” I cried for all we once had and all we lost. Memoir, as you know, is not for the faint of heart.
Jerry Waxler: You did not portray yourself as an easy person to fall in love with, nor were you infinitely graceful and patient about your husband’s failing health. I think this aspect of your memoir represents one of the best things about where culture is heading in the 21st century. We’re dropping the pretense that we are perfect and trying to make peace with our own and each other’s unique quirks, and flaws. And by showing our flaws, we also show our strength in continuing to grow and to carry on despite setbacks. I felt inspired and consoled by your edgy imperfect behavior. But how did it feel to write about yourself in this exposed way? Wasn’t it strange to let people see those aspects of yourself? What prompted you to be so open about your own humanity?
Susan Weidener: I agree with you. Writing honestly is healthy, a way of moving forward and coming to terms. And what good is a memoir if it is not honest? Then it is fiction. Of course, we want to appear heroic, but that isn’t always the case. Our fragility, our imperfections are what make us human. It resonates with readers. It makes a story engaging. By accepting my flaws, I found a place of healing. Why wasn’t I kinder to him at the end of his life? That question haunted me for years. As I wrote my memoir, I began to see how almost anyone would have reacted much like I did when confronting the loss of their dreams, the person they loved more than any other. Chronic illness affects an entire family, not just the person going through it. Our society has a very difficult time dealing with death. One of my hopes with Again in a Heartbeat is that showing my imperfections and what I went through as John’s illness progressed and he pulled away from me, helps others in similar situations be kinder and more forgiving to themselves.
Jerry Waxler: How has it worked out to be so open? Have you found that people think less of you for having been flawed?
Susan Weidener: Quite the opposite. People approach me and often say: “You were so honest!” They tell me they admire my candor and my courage. One woman said my book “touched her heart and her life.” It doesn’t get much better than that. When people read my story, they want to share their own experience with marriage, cancer, being single. The conversations are amazing!
Click here for Part 2, in which I ask questions about writing the memoir
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