Pivotal moments

I’m working on SPARK (The Elemental Series, Book 2) right now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about pivotal moments. I know good plotting is always about choices (good or bad), especially when each choice leads to a new conflict.

About ten years ago, I was driving somewhere for work, and I knew I needed gas. I could have made it to my destination without stopping, so I considered waiting and going after. But I had a little bit of time to kill, and I kinda needed a stick of gum before meeting new people, so I decided to stop first.

If you’re familiar with Westminster, Maryland, you’ll know that Route 140 is basically a four lane highway, divided by a grass median, with lots of shops and gas stations and restaurants all the way from Reisterstown to Union Bridge — with lots of space between. I stopped at an Amoco Station, shoved the gas pump into the car, and walked into the little shop.

When I went in, the shop was completely silent. There was a guy behind the counter, and there was another man standing a few feet back, his hands in the pocket of his sweatshirt. Since it was Westminster, which is mostly farm land when you get past the shops, both guys were pretty casual, both needed a shave, and neither was older than thirty-five.

But they were just standing there. No one was saying anything.

So I grabbed a pack of gum from in front of the register, glanced at the guy with his hands in his pockets, and said, “I don’t want to jump in front of you.”

He hesitated and said, “No. No, you go ahead.”

And while I was paying, he walked out.

I stood there with cash in my hand, but the cashier watched the guy leave. Then he finally took my cash and rang me up.

While he was handing me my change, he said, “I’m glad you walked in. That guy was about to pull a gun on me.”

A gun! I’d walked in on an almost-holdup!

Now, I have no idea whether the guy really had a gun in the pocket of his sweatshirt. I was in my early twenties, and I lived a pretty sheltered life. The cashier could have been wrong.

But it was a pivotal moment in a lot of ways. That guy could have pulled a gun. He could have shot the cashier. He could have shot me. He could have held us hostage.

Moreover, I could have kept on driving, gotten gas after my meeting, and that guy could have held up the store without interruption.

I know this is a pretty boring story, now that you know how it ended.

But I think that’s why I keep thinking about it. Because it could have been so much more exciting (and not necessarily in a good way), just by virtue of one choice.

Can you think of any pivotal moments in your life? Any time that a choice may have seemed like nothing, but turned out to be huge?

~~

Men at War: Redux

This is a repeat, sort of. I first published the latter half of this back in July, so if you’ve been with me for a while, you’ve seen some of it already.

With Christmas coming, I’ve been thinking a lot about the soldiers stationed all over the world. I have sons, and I have a brother, and I wonder what it would be like to not see them for the holidays, to know they’re out there, in combat, and they might not make it home.

I might not make it to the end of this post without crying.

If you’re related to a soldier, or if you know a soldier, tell them thank you, from me.

Here’s the repeat part:

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably seen the video of the American soldiers who did a spoof video of Lady Gaga’s hit song, “Telephone.”

In case you haven’t, here it is:

Slightly less popular (but not really), is the version of Israeli soldiers doing their own video to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.”

Now look. I’m the last person to talk about politics, foreign policy, and whether we should have soldiers in Afghanistan or anywhere else. Seriously, the last. I don’t like to debate politics, and I don’t like when people (hi, mom!) force me to listen to their position ad nauseum. That’s not what this is about. Feel free to rant about politics and the injustices of war in the comments, just don’t expect me to participate.

But I keep thinking about these two videos. A lot. Really, they both feature young men being silly. Men from completely different countries, completely different continents, hell, completely different belief systems.

Doing the exact same thing.

I know we’re not at war with the Israelis. It’s not like the Christmas Truce, which I’ll never forget reading about in middle school, when soldiers from opposing sides laid down their weapons on Christmas Day.

But it’s a very subtle reminder that we’re all human at our core. That people everywhere like to be silly, and goof off, and have fun. That young people don’t always make the best choices — like posting crazy videos on the internet. As recently as twenty years ago, it was easy to think of opposing forces in simple terms: us versus them. They’re weird on the other side of the world, we’d think. Right? We don’t understand them. They aren’t like us. It makes it easier to accept what’s happening over there.

This one is going to sit with me for a while. We can talk about Osama bin Laden and WMD’s and terrorism and airport security until we’re blue in the face. But that just removes the human element from it all. The people fighting these wars are really just boys who love playing sports and roughhousing and getting a new high score on the newest release of Call of Duty. Boys who miss their wives and their kids and their moms, boys who have cried on shoulders and thrown sticks and built forts and swam in rivers and made spoof videos of pop songs.

And I’m not just talking about our boys. Our American boys.

I’m talking about their boys too.

~

Here’s my tale of thanks…

I found out I was pregnant in the fall of 2006.

I was married, of course. Michael and I had tied the knot in May, and we knew we wanted to get pregnant right away. Actually, we’d been planning to wait until the following spring, but at dinner a few nights before the wedding, Mike said, “Let’s not wait until spring. Let’s just do it.”

So we just did it.

I’m not a hypochondriac, and I’m not one of these women who obsesses over everything she eats during her pregnancy. I just don’t have that kind of temperament. But by February, I started thinking there might be something wrong. I was having terrible headaches, and I couldn’t sleep. I went to my doctor, and he told me everything was fine, I just needed to relax.

At the end of February, Michael and I went to Orlando for a week with some friends. We saw the Daytona 500 (a miserable experience for me, since the weather was 40 degrees and windy, and I only had Capri pants and a sweatshirt) and went to Disney World. I’m a good traveler — I went around to all the rides and got express passes so the others could ride the big roller coasters. Then I would sit on warm benches and read books while they were riding the rides. We had a really nice time.

I was also working full time during that period, and because my team had changed firms, I was extremely busy, and under a tremendous amount of stress. I was pulling 60 hour weeks, and I’d come home and crash.

I still knew something was wrong with my pregnancy. I kept having headaches, and I kept going to the doctor, and he kept telling me I was fine. It was in my head. He said my mother, who is a nurse, was telling me things to make me nervous. My due date was placed at June 18, 2007.

My headaches got worse. I was so swollen, people at work were starting to comment on how bad I looked. I had a baby shower in mid-April, and no one could believe how swollen my feet and hands were. Speculations were made whether I’d need to cut my rings off.

When we left that baby shower, I asked my mom to drive us home, because my headaches were tremendous. She drove — straight to her house, where she went in to get her blood pressure cuff.

My blood pressure was 175/100, very, very high for a pregnant woman.

My mom and my husband rushed me to the ER. This was mid-April, so I was only about 32 weeks pregnant. At the ER, they diagnosed preeclampsia, and they decided they would induce labor, but they were calling my doctor to have him come in.

He did come in. He came in and yelled at me, ordered them to stop inducing labor, and sent me home. I’d been in the hospital all night, with numerous professionals telling me I had preeclampsia, and then he comes in and says it’s all in my head, and my mom was just making me nervous. He told me to come see him in the office the next day.

So I did. Mom went with me. We watched the girl take my blood pressure. The girl said, “Absolutely fine. 120 over 80.” As soon as the girl left, mom said, “She lied.”

I knew she’d lied, too. Growing up with a nurse for a mother, I also knew how to read the dial on a blood pressure cuff.

The doctor still insisted everything was fine. We smiled and nodded and went home. I started researching preeclampsia, and found an incredible support network on www.preeclampsia.org. With everyone there telling me my doctor might be nuts, I went with my gut instinct and called a high-risk OB in Annapolis and asked for an appointment. The girl said, “Well, for pregnancy, we’re scheduled out for 12 weeks.”

I said, “Well, I’m due in 7 weeks, here’s the situation, I really need a second opinion.”

She could have brushed me off. But she put me on hold, spoke to a doctor, and fit me in for an appointment the next day. I didn’t tell anyone I made this appointment.

That night, I went to dinner with my husband, and we talked about everything that was going on. My husband, who is a wonderful man, said, very gently, “Hon, do you think maybe everything is in your head?”

I said no, that I knew something was going on. I couldn’t keep anything from him, so I broke down and told him that I’d made an appointment with another doctor for the next day. I said I wasn’t going to give the doctor my history, that I was just going to have him look at hard data (blood pressure, urine, etc) and see what he thought.

When I went to the office, I found out that I’d been scheduled with one of the head OB’s in the practice, and he’d actually postponed leaving for vacation so he could fit me in. When I sat down with his nurse, she took my blood pressure. It was 180/105, and I’ll never forget her frowning and saying, “I think I need to get another cuff. This is reading really high.”

The other cuff got the same reading, of course.

They tested my urine, which immediately came up as 3+, which means there’s a lot of protein, one of the key indicators of preeclampsia. The doctor did an ultrasound, and said that the baby’s head measured as 34 weeks, right on target, but the body only measured as 30 weeks. He said that was also indicative of preeclampsia, because the body starts sending all the nutrients to form the baby’s brain, because the placenta is starting to fail.

The doctor said his opinion was to admit me immediately, run some more tests, and induce labor the next day.

It was a new hospital, a new doctor, and a new labor unit. But I agreed. What was I going to do, go back to the doctor who said it was all in my head?

I’ll never forget calling my husband from the hallway outside the doctor’s office, telling him they were admitting me. It took the admissions nurse six tries to start an IV because I was so swollen. I weighed 236 pounds at admission, and a huge percentage of that was fluid. After they induced labor and they wanted to start an epidural (which is a needle that goes beside your spine), the anesthesiologist said, “I have to warn you, because you’re so swollen, there’s a possibility the needle could cause paralysis.”

Because I was 6 weeks early, they wanted to try for a normal delivery, to force the fluid from the baby’s lungs. I agreed to the risk, because he said it was better than injecting me with Ketamine, because that could cause more difficulties for the baby. Unfortunately, once they induced labor, the fetal heartbeat started to plummet. Fetal distress, I think they called it. So they rushed me in for a C-Section. The epidural hadn’t had time to take effect. They injected Ketamine anyway, and they pulled the baby out.

Nicholas Parker Kemmerer was born at 12:14am, May 4, 2007.

I didn’t learn until later that his APGAR score at birth was a 1. I didn’t get to hold him. He was immediately rushed to the NICU, and I was stitched up and sent to recovery. I was told I couldn’t see my son until I calmed down and my blood pressure went down. So I held back on my tears and sent my husband to the NICU just about every five minutes.

I finally got to hold Nicholas that night, almost 24 hours after he’d been born. He weighed five pounds, and he had wires everywhere, including a feeding tube that went down his nose.

I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything strenuous, what with the 20 staples across my abdomen, but the NICU was on a separate floor from Labor & Delivery, so I made numerous trips up and down the stairs. I brought books to read, and I’d sit in the rocking chair next to his incubator and read. It was right before Mothers Day, so there were dozens of commercials on television, and every single one would make me sob.

They told me Nick might be in the NICU for six weeks.

He’s a strong kid. They released him after 8 days.

Nick is three-and-a-half now, and I love him to pieces.

But I owe my thanks to all the the people on those message boards, and all the doctors and nurses at Annapolis OB/GYN and Annapolis Medical Center, most especially, Dr. Fred Guckes, the amazing doctor who saw me and made the initial decision to admit me, and Dr. Pablo Argeles, the amazing physician who ultimately delivered Nicholas. Both these doctors saved Nick’s life and mine.

I will never forget them, and I owe them more thanks than I could ever express.

Thanks, guys. You are all amazing.

Prince Charming

My husband, Michael, proposed on a Thursday evening, on the couch in our apartment. He was totally slick about it too. We’d occasionally talked about getting married, and we’d started looking at houses, but nothing really serious at that point. Thursday nights had always been our “date night.” (Even still, I try to be home on Thursdays so we can crash on the couch and watch TV together.)

So we’re sitting there, and I think I was in my sweats, and he makes some offhand comment like, “So how would you want the proposal to go? Would you want a lot of fanfare or something?”

And I remember tilting my head back to look at the ceiling and saying something like, “No, I don’t think there needs to be a lot of fanfare. I think it’s about the moment, and the people. That’s what really matters in a relationship.”

He said, “Good. Because I bought a ring…”

What was the first thing I did? I put some clothes on and ran to the nail salon. Then he took me to dinner at Famous Daves, and then to Borders to buy some wedding books and magazines. What? I like ribs and I like bookstores.

We Kemmerers are practical people.

I remember reading somewhere that your relationship with your spouse has to come before your relationship with anyone else. Even before your children. Because one day your kids are going to be grown and out the door, and you’re going to be looking at someone you haven’t talked to in 20 years. I think about that a lot.

We’ve been hit with some bad karma in the Kemmerer house lately. Both cars broke down. (Mine isn’t even very old.) Our AC went up. We discovered a leak under our kitchen sink that was caused by a broken garbage disposal. The leak had been going on for some time, and the entire cabinet base had been destroyed, not to mention needing to replace the disposal itself. Our entire basement flooded, destroying the carpet and most of Nick’s toys, and insurance wouldn’t pick up a dime. Last Thursday, Mike was driving into his office parking lot, and a construction truck backed right into his car.

So yeah. It’s been a crappy six weeks.

But you know what? I feel closer to my husband than I ever have. When we discovered the basement had flooded, it was a really low point for us. We weren’t sure how to clean up a mess of that magnitude (especially considering we have a three year old running around). We weren’t sure what we were going to do financially. But we talked each other off the proverbial ledge, then we rolled up our sleeves and dealt with it.

Together.

Now the basement looks badass awesome, by the way. (Let me give a little shout-out to Empire Today.)

People make a big deal out of the fanfare, and that’s okay. A guy in my office set up this huge, elaborate proposal for the woman who is now his wife. He wanted to make it snow in July, so he put fake snow on the ceiling fan, and set up a Christmas tree, and dressed up in a suit, then woke up early in the morning…hell, I don’t remember it all. But I think he actually had a list. He loves his wife, and it’s special that he put so much effort into it.

But that’s not really where you find the true love.

When I was in my 20’s, a doctor put me on a Holter Monitor. If you’ve never seen one of these, it’s basically a small machine that’s about the size of a paperback, with long wires that attach to your chest so it can track your heart rhythms for 24 hours. You can’t shower or take it off while you’re wearing it. I remember coming home from the doctor’s office, getting changed for bed, then going out to sit on the couch with Mike. I was feeling really low: I was worried about my heart, and I looked like this freakish cyborg. I didn’t even say anything about it, but as soon as I sat down, Mike looked at me and said, “You’re so beautiful.”

That’s a moment. That’s where you find the true love.

~

(See, honey? I don’t just write about old boyfriends. So suck it.)

Music and memories

I read somewhere that scent and memory are strongly linked, because of the way the brain works. You smell Coppertone sunblock, and suddenly you’re back on that beach in fifth grade, the time Angie Biederknapp let you put cornrows in her blond hair.

Wait, I totally made that up. Let me think of a real one.

Seagrams 7. If I smell whiskey, I think of my dad, who liked to sit on our back porch and drink a 7-and-7 after dinner in the summer. Every time. I think of one specific time, too, when I was in first grade, and we lived in Mentor, Ohio, in a green house, and there was a playground behind us. Dad was sitting on the porch, drinking his 7-and-7, and I’d already had my bath for the night.

So yeah, I get the link between scent and memory.

But I’ve always had a strong link between music and memory, as if certain memories have a soundtrack all their own.

When I was in sixth grade, I went to a school mixer. (i.e., a dance) It was a Catholic grade school, and there was only one class each of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, so you can imagine there weren’t more than 75 people at this “dance.” I was a dork, so no one asked me to dance. But finally, near the end of the night, this boy named Ryan said he felt bad for me and asked me to dance with him. The song was “Love of a Lifetime” by FireHouse. He smelled (there it is) like his father’s cologne, and I called my mom from a pay phone afterwards, so excited that a boy had asked me to dance.

My first real kiss was a boy named Ian something (clearly left an impression), listening to “With or Without You” by U2 in a grocery store parking lot, in the front seat of my 1989 Honda Accord. (Hey. I’m old.) He put his hand up my shirt, and I felt scandalous for letting him. We made out for the entire duration of the song, and into the silence that followed. Then the tape flipped sides (again, I’m old) and “Mysterious Ways” started cranking, making us both jump.

The day that I got the call from my agent, I drove home from work on cloud 9, listening to “Blow Away” by A Fine Frenzy. I cranked the volume, going 80 mph on the Harrisburg Expressway. I will always link that song to getting “the call.”

But the strongest one, for me, is the song “Only You,” by Joshua Radin. When Nick was born, it was the week before Mother’s Day. Nick spent eight days in the NICU, meaning I spent eight days in the NICU. There was a television in his room, and JC Penney was running a Mother’s Day ad non-stop, featuring that song. It’s a touching ad. Ever time I hear the song, I’m back in the AAMC NICU, listening to the beep and hush of the monitors, learning how to be a new mom.

And that’s possibly the sweetest music memory of all.

Moments

People like to debate whether a novel is all about the characters, or all about the story, or all about the writing. You’ll hear it a lot, all over the web. “I like a good character driven story!” or “I want to read something with literary style!”

I don’t think those things make a book readable. I think it’s about the moments.

If you think back on your life and your memories, the most meaningful ones don’t run through your mind like a movie. The most meaningful ones are small moments.

I’ll never forget how Michael did the special turn step during our wedding dance. I don’t remember all of the dance, but I remember how careful he was about executing that turn step, which made my dress flare and made the crowd go, “Ooooooh!”

I’ll never forget three days of struggling to learn to breast feed in the NICU, with five people standing over me yelling instructions and encouragement and grabbing my boobs, but then going down there one night, when it was dark and quiet, and this elderly nurse was just so kind and patient and NOT IN MY FACE, and Nickel and I finally got it together. I don’t remember the five lactaction specialists and support staff very well. I vividly remember that NICU nurse, and I vividly remember that moment.

When I go back and re-read a novel, I’m often going back for a specific scene. In Eclipse, there’s a scene where Bella wants to have sex with Edward, but he’s unsure what she’s after. It’s awkward and touching and one of my favorite moments in the whole series.

Moments aren’t about the big explosive scenes in a book. Moments are about the little touches that make the story real, and human. Yes, you need the action, the adventure, the tension, the conflict.

But you need the moment afterward even more.