Often on Wednesday morning, I wake up with no idea of what that day’s blog topic will be. This morning was no exception, but then I opened my e-mail and found that a comment from an eleven year-old on a blog from last year had just provided me with a world of material. Stay tuned.
I started writing this blog a long time ago—13 years or so—and I suspect that my audience has expanded since then. So for today and since it’s summer rerun season, we’re going to start with a post from 2007. It starts with my invitation to speak at the 2007 National Book Festival. Rather than rewrite the story twelve years later, I’m going to reprint the post as written. For a girl from Bisbee, Arizona, it was a big deal to be invited to an event in our nation’s capital where I would be introduced to a pre-dinner audience by then first lady, Laura Bush. You can judge the headiness for itself.
We’re Not in Bisbee, Toto!!!
Sunday, September 30, 2007
I’m a writer. It isn’t often that I’m at a loss for words, but this has been one of those times.
It’s Sunday morning. The National Book Festival ended yesterday, but we’re still in DC. I was too tired to write about this on Friday night. Yesterday I was too busy and last night I was once again much too tired. Now it’s time to take a crack at it.
This spring, when we were trying to decide about whether or not to go to Bouchercon, the National Book Festival was the other choice. Between the two, I decided to opt for Washington, DC over Anchorage.
A few weeks ago, I learned that, out of 70 participating authors, I had been selected as one of the four who would be speaking at the gala prior to the Friday night dinner which is held on the mezzanine of the Library of Congress. Author guests–spouses and significant others–are traditionally not invited to the Library of Congress dinner for space and security reasons, but that isn’t true for speakers. When I told Bill he was now invited and needed to dust off his tux, he said and I quote, “Oh crap!” But then he set about doing it with complete good cheer.
Just a week ago, I learned that at the gala, the first author is introduced by Laura Bush and then, after the completion of his or her remarks, each following author introduces the next. I was thrilled to learn I was the first speaker.
So I actually worked on what I was going to say. Usually I don’t write down speeches, but the person running the show wanted to know details, so I did something else I seldom do. I sent her an outline. She said that looked fine. Last week, just before we left home, she said she needed to see the talk itself. So I wrote it down, and since I generally don’t read at book signing events, I planned my talk around my NOT reading.
She sent back a note that, in the rush of getting ready, I took as an okay. Bill read the same note and got a different message. He asked me if I had thought of something to read, but we were in our DC hotel room by then, and I didn’t even have a copy of the book with me. I had my computer, though, so I looked through my Justice Denied files to see if I could find a short passage that would give the general flavor of the book.
I thought about reading a few paragraphs at the beginning of the book where Beau is first introduced. The problem with that is that he talks a lot about his job with the Attorney General’s Special Homicide Investigation Team. (S.H.I.T.) I wasn’t about to say that with the President of the United States sitting in the front row. My late mother would have had a fit.
Then I thought about reading the part where Beau proposes to Mel, but he asks her in the middle of a stake-out and four pages later she still hasn’t given him an answer. In a seven minute speech, a passage that long wasn’t going to work either, so I finally decided to proceed with my talk as is.
Friday was a very busy day that started with a flurry of e-mails letting me know that Laura Bush had been on Fox News early in the morning, holding up my book, and recommending it to a nationwide audience.
Knowing that manicures and dragging luggage around do not mix, I had already made an appointment for an early morning manicure. I left my computer to pick up the crush of incoming messages and rushed off to a nail salon near my hotel.
Unfortunately this manicurist wasn’t at all like Nicole from Hush in Tucson or the ladies from the Blue Giraffe in Ashland, Oregon. He slathered the polish on so thick that it was still sticky two hours later.
In the middle of the afternoon there was a live TV interview at a station in DC . We had to leave the hotel at 2:30 in the afternoon. We went to the studio dressed to the nines–Bill in his tux and me in a long black skirt and a brand new St. Johns jacket–red with a trim of black embroidery and occasional sequins. At the station, we waited for an hour in the green room, sharing a conference table with the mother of one of the hosts whose tiny dog, Tango, spent the whole time sauntering up and down the middle of the table top.
After the interview we went by limo from the Reuters studio to the Library of Congress, arriving there an hour earlier than we were supposed to–not quite enough time to go from the studio back to the hotel in rush hour traffic to change into our gala duds. We stepped out of the limo just as an army of caterers rushed up the stairs and entered the building.
We had been directed by our printed itinerary to go to the library’s “carriage entrance,” where a sign says clearly: “restricted to members of Congress and other authorized personnel.” We thought we were authorized and were surprised when we were surrounded by six shotgun carrying Capitol Police and Secret Service agents who told us N-O in no uncertain terms, but we had already called for someone from the library to come get us there, and she was supposedly on her way.
After a flurry of whispered radio communications up their sleeves, the guards finally reluctantly let us inside where we cooled our heels in a downstairs hallway and wondered why it was taking so long for our escort to arrive. (Think about waiting outside the principal’s office!)
When our flustered escort finally showed up she was astonished to find us there. She is a Library of Congress employee with a proper badge and identification, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let her in through the carriage entrance. She told us yesterday that we were the ONLY people who had made it in through the carriage entrance.
After that we had about an hour to wait before the gala “walk through and sound check.” By then I was starting to get nervous. Because we were so early, we killed time by taking a quick glance through the upstairs glass into the magnificent reading room in the rotunda and by studying the statuary in the reception hall.
We also wandered through the Bob Hope Archive which would have been a lot more interesting to me if I hadn’t been trucking around on marble floors in high heels. Bill’s shoes were a lot more comfortable, and we had trouble dragging him out of there. By the time we got to the Coolidge Auditorium for the rehearsal, I was really nervous and my feet were killing me. When I went up on the stage for the sound check, my knees were knocking, and I almost froze up at the lectern. Fortunately I made it through.
After that we went upstairs to the reception. More hard marble floors. Then I caught sight of Mrs. James Billington, the wife of the Librarian of Congress. As soon as I saw her, I knew I was in trouble. She and I were wearing the exact same red St. Johns jacket. We came together in the middle of the room and exchanged a heartfelt “Oops.” At that point, neither of us could very well nip home to change, so we decided to make the best of it. When I first saw the jacket in Nordy’s in Bellevue back in July, I told Bill, “That’s perfect for the gala.” Which of course turned out to be much too true.
Then we stood in the reception (more marble floors) for another interminable twenty minutes before the speakers and spouses were led to another room for a photo op moment with President and Mrs. Bush.
There were eight of us in the room. Bill and I were nervous and twitchy, with Bill tugging at his bow tie and with me trying to take the weight off my aching feet. Finally the First Couple came in. The two of them were greeted by Dr. and Mrs. Billington. Then they came over to greet us. It was an amazing moment.
I had come with a mission. Last year, while our son-in-law, Jon, was in University Hospital in Seattle dying of melanoma, an envelope arrived from the White House with a greeting and best wishes for Jon from his Commander-In-Chief. It’s been framed since then and will be saved for Jon’s son, Colt Stephen, but I wanted to personally thank President Bush for his kind gesture. Prior to the photo I managed to do just that without wrecking my mascara. Barely.
Then there was a photo–each of the four couples with the President and First Lady. After that we returned to the auditorium which was now full of people. We were led to the far side of the room where speakers and their guests were seated in the front two rows. Across the aisle the next four places were reserved for the Billingtons and for the President and First Lady.
After a few more minutes of pomp and circumstance, J. A. Jance, aka Judy Busk from Bisbee, Arizona, was sitting there listening while Laura Bush lavished kind words on each of the four speakers’ works and announced as she went along that we would be reading from our various books. The more she spoke, the more I wanted to fall through the floor, because I knew I wouldn’t be reading anything. But then she introduced me, and it was time to walk up on the stage and start.
I’m hoping that we’ll be able to get a copy of the clip and post it. Or at least provide links to it. It was an incredibly exciting moment, and I greeted them with Minnie Pearl’s traditional opening, “Howdy, I’m just so proud to be here.” Because I was.
When Bill reminded me of that yesterday, he said he was astonished that I opened my speech that way. It turns out, so was I, and I had completely blanked it out. “Did I really?” I said. All he could do was nod. “Yes, you did,” he said, “but then what can you expect from someone from Bisbee?”
I went on to apologize to Mrs. Bush for making a liar out of her. I said wouldn’t be reading from Justice Denied and explained exactly why–that my mother would have killed me if I used the Special Homicide Investigation Team’s unfortunate acronym in front of the President of the United States. (City officials from Seattle take note: In the future you’re going to have a similar problem with the South Lake Union Transit– S.L.U.T.)
Then I went on to explain how two years ago, after years of accumulating literally tons of author copies in the attic of our home in Bellevue, we had put some of those to good use by working with a program at FedEx, one that shipped books off to our troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and to wounded soldiers being treated at Walter Reed Hospital.
I spoke about how some of those books fell into the hands of a wounded airman at a hospital in Iraq, a guy named Cesar Flores. He had been injured when his HUMMVEE was blown apart by an IED. Cesar has since recovered from his injuries. Still deployed, he’s now back at work in Iraq. I told the audience how Cesar and I have corresponded over the past several months.
When I mentioned to him that I’d had a bad pathology report and would be having surgery for possible uterine cancer, he generously sent me his St. Michael’s medal to give me strength and protection. (St Michael is the patron saint of paratroopers.) The medal he sent me which I wore to the gala, wasn’t the one he had been given originally because that one was destroyed by the explosion that literally melted his HUMMVEE. The one I wore that night and the one I’m wearing now is the medal Cesar was awarded after he got out of the hospital and went back to work.
The medal seems to be working well for me, too. My cancer was caught early and I’ve been told that no further treatment will be necessary other than the surgery I’ve already had. I finished my talk by explaining how, on Monday of this week, Bill and I have a ten AM appointment to take books to Walter Reed Hospital where we’ll have a chance to visit with some of our nation’s heroes while autographing books and CDs for them and thanking them in person for their service.
By the time I sat down, my feet still hurt, but my knees were no longer knocking. After all four speakers finished their presentations, off we went to dinner–up the many stairs through the auditorium and up many more marble stairs to the mezzanine. As I made my way to the table, people stopped me and told me how much they had appreciated my remarks.
The dinner was wonderful although, through a fluke, Mrs. Billington and I, in our matching outfits, were seated at the same table. Fortunately, the man between us wore a red bow tie, so it looked like maybe we had done it on purpose. The President and First Lady were seated at the next table over. After occasions like that, etiquette requires that the two of them leave first. On their way past, President Bush stopped at my table, took my hand and said, “Great speech.” It took my breath away.
As we made our way out of the building to find a cab, my feet still hurt, but not that much. And when we got back to the hotel, I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep. It reminded me of Eliza in My Fair Lady when she’s so excited that she could have “danced all night.”
So that’s part of the story, the speech part. But there’s a continuation. Cesar and I continued to stay in touch via e-mail. When he sent me a joyous message saying that he’d managed to arrive home from deployment in time for his wife Leticia to give birth to their daughter, Kendyl, I went straight to Nordstrom and bought the prettiest, softest pink blanket I could find and sent it off. It was the same blanket I had purchased years earlier when my then editor, Trish Grader, brought her new daughter, Lulu home from an orphanage in China. (At the time I had no idea that two of my granddaughters would also come from orphanages in China.)
Then time passed, a decade or so. A year ago or so, I was sorting through the contents of my bedside table and stumbled upon my St. Michael’s medal. At the time one of my friends was facing a breast cancer diagnosis. Since Cesar’s St. Michael’s medal had been a comfort to me, I passed it along to my friend. And it’s evidently worked for her, since her latest tests show her to be cancer free. In 2018 I wrote a blog about that and this morning the following comment showed up on that old post, a comment from Kendyl Flores herself, now eleven years old. Here’s what she wrote.
Hello! I’m the little girl you gave the baby blanket to. My father told me about this article and I decided to read it. What a lovely story! I never knew my father gave one of his medals to you. He’s such a hero to me. You are also so very strong for going through a battling cancer. The blanket is still safe and soft on my bed, and I always thought that it was parents who gave it to me. Turns out, it was you. Thank you so much for the soft, pink baby blanket.
Goosebumps anyone? I had them all over my body.
This is what Cesar wrote to me today about his daughter:
Kendyl is absolutely amazing! She loves Japanese and Korean culture, she’s teaching herself Japanese language and writing. She loves Mythology, reading virtually anything, and grunge bands. She’s currently in gymnastics. We recently went to her first ever concert in London – The Neighbourhood! It was during a school weeknight but it was important for me to be there for her. She’s very independent but needed me to protect her at the concert from the massive, suffocating crowds… it was quite the moment. Her favorite place in the world so far is Prague and absolutely fell head over heels for Queen after watching Bohemian Rhapsody. She loves animals and is a deep thinker. She struggles with eating meat and wants to eventually become a vegetarian. Just an amazing young lady!
Lulu is seventeen years old and heading off to college soon, but Trish tells me she still treasures her tattered and much repaired pink blanket. Lulu, now Louisa, is a rising Senior in High School. Co-head of the Asian Culture Club, the Opera Club, and co-editor of the science journal, she will also be a Peer Leader for freshmen. She’s enjoying her second summer interning in a lab at Mt Sinai Hospital doing epithelial stem cell research. She plans to study Earth Science in college. Obsessed with politics and cats, she has recently become an avid knitter (after spending last semester at a fantastic program in Maine that combines sustainable farming with academics).
As you can see, Kendyl and Lulu are both lovely young women. They may never meet each other, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re “blanket sisters.”
Apologies for being somewhat long-winded, but as Paul Harvey would say, now you have “the rest of the story.”
P.S. This morning I received a note from Loretta, the woman to whom I sent Cesar’s St. Michael’s medal. She’s a police/fire chaplain and the widow of a Vietnam vet. Here’s what she wrote:
As for Cesar and the medal, in full chaplain uniform (you may share with him) I recently wore it in honor of a beloved friend of 92 years old who lost his battle with cancer, a veteran of WWII, former firefighter, and lastly, a pastor who married his grandson to a lovely young lady last year. Tell Cesar I wear it every time I officiate a veteran’s funeral or memorial at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, where my Marine is at ease. And that each time as I finish with the Lords Prayer, I touch that medal throughout the prayer and whisper “God bless Cesar, and thank you for bringing him home.”