Thank you Margaret Atwood

Joanna Phoenix Thank you margaret atwood.JPG

When I was pregnant with my daughter, a friend warned me not to read The Handmaiden’s Tale. Feeling emotionally tender at the time, I heeded her advice and shelved Margaret Atwood’s iconic work for the future. A few years later, the urge came again. I just needed to read it, even though I was pregnant again with another little girl.

I had a long TBR pile on my bedside table, but The Handmaiden’s Tale demanded to jump the line. So, I dove in. And I enjoyed it. The protagonist’s voice felt both intimate and prophetic as she whispered her story to me.

Then halfway through, on August 1st, I got a phone call. A phone call that changed everything. A massive aneurysm ruptured in my mom’s brain. My mom, my first best friend. I was on the west coast while she was on the east coast. All I could do was wait. Well, wait, panic, meditate, obsessively call for information, attempt to pack a bag, and tell my mom through the ether than I love her completely.

Thanks to good weather, helicopter airlifts, and surgeons willing to take a chance on a severe case, my mom’s brain stopped bleeding late into the night. Now we just needed to wait some more. Would she survive? Would she open her eyes? Would she speak or move again?

Flights booked and bags packed, I laid down that night and tried to get the rest I would need for the coming day. But my mind whipped around trying to understand what had happened and find a way through an unfathomable new reality. I reached over to my bedside table and picked up Atwood’s book. With my friend’s warning echoing in my mind, I second-guessed my impulse. Should I read this now?

But I wanted to be with the woman they called Offred.

Offred’s situation and my own were worlds apart, but this story understood the loss, the fear, the unknown, the confusion, the pain, the crushing aloneness, and even the splinter of hope in my heart. The book held me long enough that I could close my eyes, and then at some point in the early morning hours I found a bit of sleep.

I woke into my unimaginable existence again – but I felt a little stronger.

Against all odds, my mom survived the night, and I finished The Handmaiden’s Tale at her bedside in the ICU. I haven’t picked up another book since. Once my mom opened her eyes and said my name, I wanted to be in every moment. Week after week, my mom continued to endure risk after risk, surgery after surgery, on her journey to recovery.

When I came home, I had a hard time returning to my work. How can I write? What difference does it make? And then I remembered how Margaret Atwood held me in a way that no other could in those desperate moments. So I picked up a pen.