For more than three years recently, I had been writing the story of a brave woman who was no longer with us, but she seemed to ride around on my left shoulder. When I saw something about Dunedin, Florida or Greenville, Maine, Vietnam or POWs, or anything about the many controversies from the late 1960s to early 1970s, I would stop and think about how it connected to this person. I reviewed the history of the Vietnam War, watched documentaries about it, and pored over this fascinating woman’s scrapbooks, letters, pictures, and tapes. I interviewed people who knew her. I talked with people who had written about that period of time. I felt close to her even though I had never met her. I wrote about her and revised and anguished over dialogue and details of her story.
Suddenly this summer, I lost her for a while. In July, I was whisked away literally on a stretcher from my cardiologist’s medical practice to the hospital via ambulance. A triple bypass and valve repair kept me hospitalized for seventeen days. Somewhere in my miasma of fear and anxiety concerning what was happening to me, her presence disappeared. She must have been wise enough to realize I didn’t have the energy for her at that point. She graciously gave me a break. I will admit I didn’t notice or think about anything to do with her as I tried to pull myself back together and come to an understanding of what had happened to me and what I needed to do to recover. One night toward the end of my stay in the hospital, she appeared in my thoughts as I lay awake in the noisy hubbub of the cardiac ward. I imagined the future launch for the book that would tell her story―one that was important to share about the courage of a mother whose son was being kept in a prisoner of war camp in a hopeless military intervention in a country half way around the world from the United States. In my half dream, half daydream, people warmly received the book about Minnie Lee Gartley, and I was elated. I woke up to a nurse putting a medicine cup full of pills in my face. I was informed my blood pressure was sky high. Minnie Lee disappeared again for a while.
Now at home, I am trying to regain her trust. I am digging back into my manuscript, attending my writing workshops, and talking with beta readers. Armed with a bag of pharmaceutical products, next month I will visit Swarthmore College to do some research in their Peace Collection. I will read journals of Cora Weiss and David Dellinger who both helped Minnie Lee go to Hanoi to get her son Mark. She is back on my left shoulder most of the time. She seems worried about the number of naps I need to take and the slowness of my movements, but she seems glad I’m back. To use one of my mother’s favorite expressions, I have informed Minnie Lee we will finish this book, “Come Hell or high water!” She smiled.