Special to The Bedford Citizen
Andrea Cleghorn is a longtime Bedford resident, having lived here in two different houses near the Common since 1981. She is a journalist, writing coach and writing workshop leader.Her new book is The Whipple Brunch, A Journey Through Cancer: the fears, tears, tiaras, & tornadoes.
That’s a crazy title. What does it mean?
I’ll get to that in a minute.
How would you describe the book?
It is a true story, a memoir. It isn’tjust about cancer, despite the subtitle. The narrative begins in Ireland, climbing Skellig Michael (as seen in the new Star Wars VII), the achievement of my own personal goal. I had returned home to Bedford happy, feeling great, and one night was literally knocked off my chair by my own intergalactic war.
There was one hospital admission after another,which required patience but allowed for lots of time for introspection. It was a hardtime, with plenty of drama, but certainly not unrelievedly so. The absurdity of it, the surreal nature, my own misconceptions and inability to fully absorb certain information led to some pretty hairy but hilarious situations. Often the twain did meet.
I would say the book isabout learning when to let go, when to advocate, when to ask for help, as when I begged a retired nurse friend to take me home with her.The rehab unit was discharging me because I was getting a terrifying wound pump the staff “wasn’t trained on.” Was I?
The book is about the value of women’s friendships, and, not to be too saccharine about it, the essential goodness of all of us flawed human beings. We are all just doing the best we can, I believe that.These are universal themes that transcend cancer.
That seems to be the consensus, looking at reviews, as in “,One need not be a cancer survivor, or even know one, to enjoy the humor and poetry of the author’s prose. And if you’re Irish, which I’m not, or like to travel, which I don’t . . . you’ll enjoy it even more! Trust me. It’s a great read that will make you smile, I promise.”
At what point did you decide to write about it?
Some people collect salt-and-pepper shakers or children’s books or grudges. I collect stories. I just started keeping notes. After a while I realized I couldn’t not write it. A basically healthy person – I hardly ever get a cold, for example, don’t get migraines and have no allergies — I had had kidney cancer twice before, but not in almost a decade and there were no residual effects from those episodes. That is not to say I was the same as before. I had had pieces of myself cut out, one kidney, an adrenal gland, one rib and part of another (one of those tumors surgically removed was the size of Nebraska).
And now that Nebraska has come up, for that time period I had entered an altered state, the state of being a patient. I was a person of interest to the medical community. No one desires being in this category. We all want to be what the medical charts describe as “unremarkable.”
What was the hardest part of the journey?
The seeming endlessness of it. That, and losing confidence in my body, were probably worse than any pain.
What was the best?
I lost 50 pounds and could eat anything I wanted! The trouble was, there was nothing I wanted to eat. Actually, the feeling of community, the feeling that I had a team behind me in the hospital and out of it. And the laughing at things that weren’t funny, which happened all the time, was pretty awesome.
Now will you tell us what the title means?
Okay, okay. The Whipple Procedure, named for the surgeon who developed it in the 1930s, is a complicated re-routing of the digestive system, cutting and pasting several organs.I had never heard of it and when it was explained initially wanted nothing to do with it. The Whipple is used for cancer in the pancreas, specifically the head of the pancreas. I had several choices of treatment for a renal cell cancer, a slow-growing but unpredictable type of cancer that does not respond to chemo or radiation. I had no interest in waiting to see if something worked. I didn’t have the time for it.
Brunch is just what is sounds like, the thing I hosted for my friends the week before the surgery.
Would you tell us something about the process of writing the book?
Do you really want to know? Is it like making sausage, better not to think about what went into it?
Go ahead, try us.
The book is made up of vignettes, more than 30 short chapters. I test-drove the material as I went and got enough positive reactions to keep the listeners entertained and me continuing.I didn’t have a single editor, it was more of a Wikipedia approach! I sent it to people I trusted who knew me and knew writing technique and were kind enough take a look. Some read it for general concept, then then structure and I took their suggestions really seriously. I put things in, took others out. I expanded subjects and trashed others. I still mourn the visiting nurses didn’t make the cut! That was left out in favor of must-haves such as using a prayer blanket to disguise a Chihuahua as a nursing a baby to get him into the hospital, for example. These are hardball editorial choices.
Some friendsreadit more thanonce, God bless them. Toward the end a couple of people went through manuscript, nit-picking for errors the rest of us (certainly me) couldn’t see anymore. I needed to make sure I wasn’t disrespectful to the subject, because even though I can be silly about events, we are talking life and death here.
How did you find a publisher?
I didn’t. I had been through that route with other books and didn’t have the patience.This time I self-published (which is really just printing) through amazon.com. I sent the edited book to a designer who put it into a pretty package and the files were electronically sent to amazon. That’s the quick answer, perhaps it wasn’t as nice and easy as it sounds. Within a few days, after it was checked for printing requirements and basic industry standards of decency, if not good taste. Then quick-as-a-wink it was up for sale on the amazon website. It is now printed on demand, which means if you order a copy today, in a matter of minutes “The Whipple Brunch” will be printed and a day or two later it will magically arrive on your doorstep.
Where did you introduce the book?
Launches were in New York City, Lexington and Bedford were the three.The first was a reading at the First Fridays Irish Writers Group in Manhattan, an organization that has been around for decades and has included novelists, lots of newspaper people, actors, screenwriters, columnists. Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes famewas heading it up when I first was invited to join, now it is his brother Malachi McCourt who is an actor, former publican, writer, all-around really smart, wonderful human being.
I see you have a quote from Malachi on the book: “my disbelief in miracles has been well-shaken by this book, that a woman’s insides can be removed, cleansed, the cancer sliced away, and her body made whole again….one great, superbly written autobiographical epic….you will want to find this gloriouslywoman and hug her for going through the tunnel of death and emerging triumphant.”
Is this true?
Well, [choking a little], I would have been reluctant to describe my experience that way exactly, but, yeah!
What have you written before? I am primarily a journalist, starting at ‘Teen Magazine in Los Angeles and progressing to the Middlesex Daily News in Framingham, the Lexington Minuteman and onto the Boston Herald where I did a lot of different things – travel writing, book reviewing, copyediting, lifestyle column writing. I like a lot of variety in my work life and I have had that.
What books have you written before?
Depends on what you count as a “book”! My first library was full of my own little writings. When my Irish grandfather died I put together a book of essays by his children and family stories about him. I co-authored a history of our neighbor to the East, “Life in Lexington,” with my dear friend, the late Alice (Mickey) Hinkle. My next one was “Rosie’s Place: Offering Women Shelter and Hope” about the first women’s shelter in the country, founded in a former meat market in the South End. That book grew out of a Sunday Magazine story I did for the Boston Herald. After that I wrote a memoir for a woman who escaped Communist Cuba under Castro. I did a lot of work on a massive three-volume memoir of a larger-than-life Wyoming cowboy who ended up traveling the world, making it big in international oil concessions and hobnobbing with likes Jackie O. and running against Alan Simpson for the U.S. Senate.
Why did you write this book?
I felt I had some great stories and wanted to share them. It has been a valuable experience to be able to do that. People have told me they know me they know me better after reading – it’s pretty revealing — and I certainly know them better by the conversations we get into. I just love that aspect of the project, what a gift.
The Whipple Brunch, A Journey Through Cancer is available on amazon.com.