After The Fire – Chapter 1

For the past three years I have been writing my first novel. Well, to clarify, the manuscript for my first major work of fiction. And because truth is stranger than fiction, some of the stories within this book do come from my own life. Just as my character has transformed, so have I — not unlike the struggle of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

This is in the proofing stage and I welcome all comments and feedback. If you’re interested, keep reading. Join the conversation at

After The Fire

By Debra Yergen

Dedicated to my families – the one I was born into and friends who have become family along the way. A special dedication to my mom, who inspired this tale.


Part I: The Eulogy, begins the journey with a story about acceptance and the journey to like the ones we love.

Part II: The Bench, deals with transformation and the passage to reclaim the dreams we know are possible.

Part III: The Gathering, brings home the importance of trust and the way we learn, live, and offer generous helpings of forgiveness to ourselves and those who share our path.


The chilly October afternoon Isabelle rushed to Providence Portland was not exceptional, aside from the fact that she didn’t know what to expect when she arrived. Usually her chaos was predictable. But not today. Her brother, Zach, hadn’t really given her any information, other than that she needed to come quickly. In fact, he hadn’t even given her a room number, and in her haste, she forgot to ask.

When she arrived at the hospital, the line to guest services was four deep, so instead of stopping, she walked briskly past the desk, toward the elevators, and dialed the hospital from her cell. She asked the person who answered the phone to be connected to Harriet Zelner’s room, hoping someone would answer. Isabelle recognized Zach’s voice and asked what room they were in. She was already in the elevator when he told her ICU-12, and after glancing at the floor map in the elevator, she reached over and pushed the button for the second floor. It was by coincidence she had selected the green elevators. She knew the intensive care unit signaled the seriousness of Harriet’s condition.

Once she arrived at the intensive care unit, Isabelle paused to compose herself before walking into her aunt’s room. Even collected, she appeared somewhat disheveled with her hair pulled back, a bag over one shoulder and her purse in the other hand. She knew she had to downsize her daily luggage, but that would require her to plan what she might need in any given day, and it was so much easier just to carry everything with her.

Her eyes immediately focused on the frail woman in the bed. It shocked her to see her aunt this way given the conviction of Harriet’s normally confident disposition as Zach and Isabelle were growing up. It felt surreal seeing her hooked up to so many wires and tubes. Harriet had been hospitalized before, but this stay in the ICU brought with it a more ominous feel.

“I’m glad you could make it,” Zach said.

“I rushed to get here,” Isabelle retorted.

“Must have been a lot of red lights,” Zach said.

Isabelle didn’t respond. She knew it did no good to engage him when he was like this. He wasn’t always so sardonic, so consistently surly, but he had become more so over the years, and Isabelle had learned how quickly innocent banter could turn to an all out family war.

Standing bed-side, Isabelle leaned down and kissed their aunt on her forehead. “She looks so peaceful,” she observed.

“Too bad it took this.” Zach snickered. “Hey, what’s that smell?”

“What smell?”

“You smell like raw fish,” Zach said. The normally unaware man walked determinedly toward his sister, repeatedly sniffing the air and mercilessly teasing her as he got closer.

“What are you talking about?” Isabelle was visibly annoyed that the only interest her brother seemed to take in her was to poke fun at her admittedly unusual smelling new face cream. She swatted at the air to send him a message to leave her alone.

Zach got right up to Isabelle’s cheek and neck area and coughed. “Is creamed herring the new health fad you recently signed up to try?”

“Stop it. Leave me alone,” Isabelle snapped her hand at Zach’s leg. “It’s different, but it’s not terrible.”

“It’s divine – if you’re an alley cat.” Zach laughed.

Isabelle wrinkled her nose. It’s not that bad. To be honest, she had the same reaction in her bathroom at home when she first opened the box, but she assumed it was the concentration of it in the bottle and it would dissipate. Guess I’ll be throwing this stuff away. She frowned. She couldn’t return it as she bought it in an airport the last time she was traveling home on a business trip.

Interrupting the sibling spat, a nurse with hot pink tubing on her stethoscope walked into the room with a vitals cart. “I like your bling,” Isabelle said.

“Thanks. We have fun with pink in October.” The tiny nurse with matching pigtails on each side of her face and long, dark eyelashes smiled. Isabelle didn’t readily connect, nor did the nurse explain, that October was breast cancer awareness month, widely supported by pink ribbons and other accessories. Isabelle was still stuck on the fact that her brother thought she stunk. I hope the nurse can’t smell my face cream.

The nurses and physical therapists visited Harriet every couple of hours, which gave Isabelle the sense that her medical team was doing everything possible to give her aunt a fighting chance. Zach was on his best behavior when he and Isabelle weren’t alone to pick at each other.

As Harriet’s only surviving family members, Zach and Isabelle had been briefed on the immediacy of Harriet’s condition. Their aunt had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. Despite a team of intensivists, neurologists, internists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists and of course the always kind nurses who never treated their questions like an inconvenience, the biggest take-away for Zach and Isabelle was that the prognosis for survival was a mere twenty-five percent. Thankfully, one of their close family friends was an emergency physician at this same hospital. Carrie had been a great support to Zach and Isabelle throughout Harriet’s hospitalizations over the years, and she offered them both answers and a bit of hope. Isabelle was confident that if anyone could survive this it would be Harriet, but Zach was not so certain.

Isabelle mildly resented Carrie’s constant presence in their lives, despite the fact that she couldn’t put her finger on why. Carrie was eight months older than Isabelle, but she might as well have been years ahead based on her many achievements and regular investments in humanity, all of which Harriet proudly shared with Zach and Isabelle over the years.

Unlike his sister, Zach was completely detached from any of what he coined chick shit. He wasn’t the least bit aware of Isabelle’s feelings of competition and insecurity toward Carrie. In fact, he was completely oblivious even to the tension between his sister and his aunt. Zach operated from the fifty thousand foot perspective of life, describing himself as a big picture guy. He was a man driven to extremes by everything from his penchant for risk to his multifarious moods and wry sense of humor.

“How’s she doing?” Isabelle asked the nurse.

As the nurse started to respond, Isabelle’s face fell as she realized she completely forgot to pick up her daughter from ballet. She checked her phone, which was on vibrate in her purse, and saw there were three missed calls. The ballet class had been over for an hour. She didn’t want to interrupt but she suddenly felt pulled between being rude and getting to her child.

Just then, Zach’s girlfriend-of-the-month walked in, glamorous, self-assured and aloof. Yet another example of his penchant for ephemeral perfection. Zach didn’t make any observations about her being late. Isabelle tried to ignore her legs that seemed to go on for miles in her mini skirt designed for someone fifteen years younger. Isabelle wondered how she was allowed access to the ICU, but knew that even asking the question would likely lead to a place she didn’t want to go. And so Isabelle waved politely to Amone, a gesture which went completely unacknowledged by both Amone and her brother. Amone either didn’t notice or didn’t care to respond, but instead walked over to Zach and draped herself all over him, ignoring Isabelle and the nurse. And Aunt Harriet.

The nurse with the brightly colored stethoscope barely seemed to notice Amone’s grand entrance, but Isabelle did. Without missing a beat, the nurse noted that the intensivist would make rounds in the next hour if they had additional questions. Isabelle had so many questions but they would have to wait.

When the nurse left the room, Isabelle picked up her purse and clunky bag before apologizing for running out so quickly, explaining that she forgot to pick up Grace at ballet.

“Good thing you misplaced that application for mother of the year award,” Zach joked and then laughed. Isabelle clenched her fist and hurried out without responding. “It’s a joke, Izz. It would do you good to learn to laugh,” he called out as she exited the hospital room. Isabelle refused to acknowledge what she considered to be his juvenile humor.

On the way out, Isabelle began texting the other parents, hoping one of them would write back that Grace had caught a ride with them. No one immediately responded, leaving Isabelle feeling simultaneously scared, worried and frustrated.

In her state of frustration and haste, Isabelle didn’t notice a soda that had been dropped on the floor just outside of the elevator, until she stepped in the small puddle, leaving the bright red soles of her shoes sticky from the syrup. She didn’t notice the grieving family in the first floor hall that she had to step through on her journey to the entrance. She didn’t notice the doctors and nurses running toward her, and then past her to the elevators. She didn’t notice the Code Blue called overhead.

All she could think of was getting to her car and to her daughter – hoping the school was still open or that someone could tell her if her daughter had gone home with a friend. Isabelle’s spirit was crushed by Zach’s thoughtless remark about her not being mother of the year. She knew she wasn’t mother or anything else of the year, but she wanted to be. Deep down she wanted to be someone else – or at least a brighter, sunnier, better organized version of herself.

            Zach always knew how to hit her where it hurt.

When she arrived at the rustic, brick building that housed the ballet school, it was dark. The lights were out and the doors were locked. She called out for Grace but Grace wasn’t there. Panic strangled her. Her breathing was staccato and she began to cry. In her gut, she knew her daughter was safe. But where was she? And what must whoever had her be thinking about Isabelle? She placed the last call she wanted to make – first. She called Arnie – her estranged husband and father to Grace – although a much better father than husband at this point.

“Grace is missing,” she started. Arnie let her talk. In fact, he let her tell her entire panicked story, so soon she was sobbing and repeating, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

It was only then that he volunteered the news she wished he would have said when he answered. “I have Grace. She’s fine.” Isabelle was at the same time relieved and angry. It was just like him to let her go on and on like that when he could have immediately put her mind and fears to rest.

When Isabelle arrived home, she flung open the door from the garage, which led to the pantry next to the kitchen. Without bothering to shut the door completely, she ran through the pantry, nearly tripping on some shoes. When she reached the kitchen, she found Grace sitting calmly and completely content at the kitchen counter in a yellow t-shirt, denim shorts and bare feet. Her crayons were spread across the counter, and a few had rolled off onto the floor. She was drawing a picture of a mom, dad, child, sunshine and grass. Isabelle didn’t bother to remove her coat before rushing to her child.

Grace’s pictures always included sunshine and grass. Isabelle found this both mystifying and at the same time oddly comforting. Isabelle appreciated the stability Grace’s childish drawing represented, but unfortunately it did not represent the reality of their lives. Isabelle hugged Grace and exhaled slowly. “I’m so sorry, baby,” she said.

“It’s ok, mom. Dad said you forget a lot of things and not to take it personally,” the eight-year-old reiterated the explanation she had received an hour or so before.

“I do have a lot going on, but I never forget you,” Isabelle explained.

“It’s ok. I’m fine,” Grace said.

“Honey, I didn’t forget you. I was at the hospital with Yia Yia and I tried to get away. She’s very sick. I’m sorry,” Isabelle insisted, seething that Arnie would actually tell Grace something like that. It was just like him to be so insensitive. Isabelle did not see herself as a walking mess of a mother. She saw herself as a woman over-committed and under-equipped with the resources to please all the people who mattered so much to her.

Even when she was frustrated with Arnie, she never shared her misgivings with their daughter, and it more than pained her, it infuriated her that he didn’t extend her the same courtesy. Of course, Arnie had a very different perspective. He considered his comments harmless. He certainly didn’t intend to cause the enormous disruptions that always seemed to occur when he offered up what he considered to be the smallest joke about her less than stellar juggling abilities as of late. And frankly, the fact that Isabelle had the same issues with Arnie as she also had with Zach only further supported Arnie’s belief that Isabelle was the one with unresolved issues and hyper sensitivities.

Arnie was leaned back in the recliner watching football in the den with a bag of potato chips in his lap when Isabelle walked in. “Really, Arnie?” she started. He looked up at her surprised. “You told Grace I forget things?” Isabelle fumed.

“Hello,” Arnie said, pausing a beat for effect. “Thank you. Those are things you might say to someone who picked up your daughter, brought her home, fed her dinner, and babyset her until you were able to arrive,” Arnie said.

“And that’s the problem,” Isabelle pointed out. “You are not her babysitter. You are her father. Picking her up does not make you a superhero. And,” now she paused for effect, “you told her I can’t remember anything, so now she thinks I’m unreliable.” Isabelle was so irritated she forgot she hadn’t said thank you, until he mentioned it, and now she didn’t feel like saying thank you, even if she had remembered.

Isabelle and Arnie’s relationship started out with what seemed like such perfection compared to how it had deteriorated over the years. He was a fun and romantic boyfriend – playfully making jokes, surprising her with adventures, and encouraging that reluctant seed of spontaneity in her to sprout. There was a time he practically took her to Disneyland every time they went to bed! Unfortunately, the things she loved about her boyfriend became the same things that failed her in a husband who she expected to protect her from life’s complications and adjust to the responsibilities of parenthood the way she thought he should. It wasn’t so much who he had become that bothered her, as much as who she had become in response to their changing lives and roles.

She had become the protector and the guardian of their security, and instead of stepping up and taking charge, he criticized her initiative to oversee a job she never wanted in the first place.

“She’s a smart kid, Izz. She’s got this figured out,” Arnie snipped. Those are fighting words. She was never happier that he had moved out than she felt in that one moment. She was tired and had become frequently irritated at his blanket observations and insults.

“Why didn’t you call me to let me know you had her? Why did you let me frantically scramble to find her?” Isabelle fired back in a high-pitched tone. Arnie hated it when she whined. It was his equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, and he didn’t want to be there anymore than Isabelle wanted him there.

Arnie stood up to leave and turned to Isabelle. “I’m sorry for whatever your current crisis is, but it would have been really nice if you could have just said, ‘thank you,’” he stated mater-of-fact as he picked up his jacket.

“Thank you,” Isabelle said, before pausing. “Thank you for picking her up. You’re right. I should have said that first.” If only she had stopped there, her acknowledgement would have made a difference to Arnie. He still loved the girl he fell in love with more than a decade ago. But Isabelle could never just stop. It wasn’t in her nature to let things lie. She always had to defend herself, and offer one more excuse or far more explanation than the situation required, which more often than not completely reversed her minor efforts to get along.

“Harriet is in the hospital again. She had a stroke. She may die. But I didn’t know that much when Zach called and said it was an emergency. I rushed there and I guess I lost track of everything else for that tiny piece of time while I was responding to my current crisis. And I’m sorry that inconveniencing you pissed you off so much that you had to punish me. But I’m not unreliable, and how dare you perpetuate that myth, originally or secondhand to our daughter,” she said more softly.

Arnie stood before her expressionless, looking at her with what she frequently referenced as his blank stare. She couldn’t read his mind. She couldn’t even read his face. While Arnie was drawn to Isabelle’s passion and exuberance for life, over time her constant nagging and inability to simply do things his way occasionally, made their relationship increasingly miserable for him. He didn’t want her to lose her personality – simply to compromise some of the time.

The truth was that Arnie was in many ways unconventional, but not to the point of putting the well-being and security of his family at risk – a concern Isabelle never outright articulated, but too often hinted. He desperately wanted to give Isabelle and Grace a better life and he believed that would require both creativity and risk on his part.

Finally, he moved to turn away.

“It’s ok. She’s fine. And I did call you. I must have called your work number. I left a message. I wasn’t trying to freak you out but,” Arnie stopped after “but” and changed direction with what he was going to say. “I was going to ask you if you wanted me to move back in, to try one more time to make this work, but after tonight, I think it’s probably good that we take some time apart right now. I’m sorry your aunt is sick. And Grace is ok. She is ok, Izz. I made her dinner. Hug her. Put her to bed. We have a great kid. We did that right at least. I gotta go,” he said as he turned back and leaned in to kiss Isabelle on the forehead, before he stepped back away and headed toward the door. She wanted to push him away when he kissed her, but she didn’t. Why does he always have to be so stupidly patronizing?

When Isabelle walked into the kitchen, Grace was just finishing her drawing. She had added a house and a dog. Her big hazel-colored eyes looked sad. Isabelle knew she must have heard them fighting in the other room. Do I address this or let it go?

“I see you’re still holding out for that dog,” Isabelle said as she picked up Grace’s drawing and carefully looked it over. “This is really good, honey.” It pained her that Grace’s pictures always included the three of them. Even more, she worried that Grace remained steadfast in believing that their little family would remain intact, when in fact, this was a reality about which even Isabelle could no longer be sure. She wanted to bring it up, but she was afraid of what Arnie may have told their child, and she didn’t want to initiate a difficult conversation before bed. Isabelle wasn’t emotionally capable of witnessing, let alone responding to, anyone else’s tears that night – especially her daughter’s. She knew there were no easy answers.

The reality was that Arnie was not moving back into the house. The divide between them was too wide to bridge right now and Isabelle had more pressing matters on her mind. She sat down next to her daughter and said the words she had always longed to hear in her own small ears decades before. “Grace, I made a mistake tonight. I was at the hospital. I forgot to make arrangements to have dad pick you up and I’m sorry. I’m glad he was there. You must have been really scared.” Isabelle didn’t like admitting her mistakes.

The little girl took it all in stride, “It’s ok, mommy.”

“It’s not ok, and it won’t happen again. I love you, Gracie,” Isabelle cradled the little girl she loved so much.

“I love you too, mommy,” Grace said.

“What do you say we get your bath going?”

Grace wrinkled her nose. “Do I have to wash my hair?” Grace pleaded against it, shaking her little head no and scrunching her face.

“You don’t want to stink,” Isabelle said, playfully holding her nose and mimicking Grace’s expression. Suddenly, Isabelle remembered how she felt in the hospital when Zach made fun of her face cream. She didn’t want to make Grace feel this same humiliation. Grace pouted and made groaning sounds, which cued Isabelle to quickly give in a bit. “You don’t have to wash your hair tonight but you need a bath,” Isabelle said. Grace agreed and walked out of the room and down the hall sliding her feet in a shuffle along the wood floor.

Isabelle reached down and unzipped her camel-colored boots. She peeled off her socks and tucked them into her boots before sitting back down on a stool at the kitchen bar.

Isabelle laid her head on her folded arms on the kitchen counter. How has this become my life? Nowhere in her planning had Arnie moved out or Zach become such a jerk with all his master of the obvious observations. They were both monumental disappointments. What if everything in her life were different? What if she had never broken up with the Portuguese exchange student she fell madly in love with in college? What if she had followed Masingho back to Europe and had never met Arnie or even moved to San Francisco? What if she had become a novelist like she once planned instead of managing large third-party insurance brokers? She wouldn’t have Grace. That wasn’t a thought she wanted to entertain for even one second.

Just as she started to feel lost in a daydream, she suddenly looked up when she heard heels clicking behind her, on the floor across the room. Someone was in her house, with her and her daughter – someone she had not invited in. Arnie must have left the garage door up when he left.

She looked at the counter for what she could grab to defend herself, but all she saw were a couple of magazines and a ketchup bottle Arnie had left out. “Stop there!” she warned, with her back still toward the intruder. She hadn’t considered if the prowler was armed. She didn’t have time to plan a response if the shadow in her kitchen had shot back, “Or what?” Or worse, what if she heard the snapping sound of a cocking gun? Fear was not an option. She had her child to protect. Pulling together every ounce of courage and confidence she could muster, she spun around swiftly, never expecting to have her breath grabbed from her chest as she exhaled with force and froze.

Isabelle began to panic. She covered her mouth. She couldn’t even blink at first. All she could do was push out and inhale tiny breaths of air. Where was her phone? Who would she call? There’s no way this was really happening.

Not again. No, not again please. Isabelle gasped for air, the way she first had several months ago when she was sure she had developed an arrhythmia, only it turned out to be a panic attack. The first time was her worst – it lasted five days. In stressful circumstances since, she had moments of relapse, but nothing like the first time.

Her first symptoms back in June, when Arnie moved out, started with an entire weekend of continual yawning. This led to yawning followed by needing to take one deep breath after another, like on mornings when she woke up without having slept enough. Only one deep breath wouldn’t be enough. As soon as she caught her breath, she would yawn again and need to take another breath.

Even just thinking back to that time intensified her symptoms. She actively had to force herself to not think about that and instead repeat what Carrie had told her. You do not need to gulp in these huge breaths of air. Your saturation levels are fine. It was a reminder that normally helped her, despite the fact that prior to these episodes she didn’t even know what oxygen saturation levels were.

And sure enough, just as instantly as she became aware of the intruder, the early symptoms of the panic attack started. Those familiar yawns followed by her slow gasps for deep breaths of air commenced. Isabelle’s chest was tight and her heart raced. There were few things she hated as much as these episodes.

Isabelle had become accustomed to talking herself into believing or not believing things that made life easier for her to accept. She did this with strangers. She did this with friends.

She also told herself a lot of things about Arnie. And Zach. And Harriet. Harriet’s advice is intended to help me be a better person. Harriet loves me the way I am. Harriet appreciates all I do to help her. It would have been impossible for her to make the sacrifices she made on a regular basis if she didn’t convince herself that they were quietly recognized and appreciated by the people who meant so much to her, even if none of them actually verbalized their appreciation with words of affirmation.

Isabelle struggled to come to terms with what her eyes were telling her. She struggled to differentiate if it was real or in her mind. Is this a dream?

The woman in her house was not a stranger, and yet, she certainly didn’t belong there. Not now. Isabelle bit her lower lip the way she always did when she was scared or angry. What in the hell?

It was Harriet.

The intruder was Harriet. Aunt Harriet, in the hospital. Only she was here – in Isabelle’s kitchen. And she was twenty-five years younger than her current version lying in a hospital bed across town. The wrinkles in her cheeks and forehead were gone. Her hair was dark again, not gray. The hollows in her cheeks were filled out as they were in her youth. It was Harriet, but it wasn’t Harriet. It was how Isabelle remembered Harriet, which is what made her question everything about the interaction. There was no way she could easily accept something so spooky. It just didn’t make sense.

Isabelle shook her head and blinked.

I must have fallen asleep. Or maybe I’m going crazy.

She cautiously stepped closer until she was face to face with Harriet, who was almost her same height. They were eye to eye, Harriet in heels and Isabelle barefoot. Isabelle examined her aunt, looking her up and down as Harriet had done so many times with Isabelle.

Isabelle blurted out, “Did you die?”

“No one told me if I did,” Harriet said.

“Well, I left you in the hospital, a few hours ago, and,” Isabelle put her hands on her face as her eyes grew wide. “Oh my gosh, the Code Blue. I didn’t even think about it but, yes there was a Code Blue. I was in a hurry to, uh. Was it you?” Isabelle asked, jumbling her words together in rambling nonsensical sentences.

Had she finally lost her mind? Had her aunt passed away and come to her now, somehow years younger, which seemed weird but oddly comforting? Was she dreaming? Had she fallen asleep? Isabelle was pretty sure Harriet wasn’t an angel, but then, maybe she was. Was this a terrible joke orchestrated by Zach? And if their aunt had died, wouldn’t Zach have called? Wouldn’t someone have called? “Who sent you?” Isabelle asked. “Why are you here?”

Harriet simply smiled. Her eyes were warm. “I’m here because you need me,” Harriet said. “I’ve always been here when you’ve needed me.” Isabelle could think of more than a few times when she needed Harriet and she wasn’t there, but this didn’t seem like the time to bring all that up. “You weren’t really very nice to Arnie. Is it really any surprise he left you?” the younger version of the same old aunt chimed in.

Seriously? Same opinionated Harriet. Isabelle broke her stance and walked away abruptly, headed toward the door. “I’m not going to fight with you and I don’t need you here,” Isabelle said. The moment she said that she wanted to take it back.

Inside she was torn. If her aunt had died, this might be her last time to see her, to talk to her, to thank her for all she really had done. Despite her rough edges, Harriet and Uncle Frank took Zach and Isabelle in as their own children when their parents were killed in a car accident. If it hadn’t been for them, the two may have been separated or bounced from one foster home to the next. Instead, they grew up in a well-appointed home – where they were loved and given every material advantage in life. It’s hard enough losing your parents at such a young age. Despite what a jerk Zach had become over the past two decades, as children, he was highly protective of his little sister. Isabelle couldn’t imagine growing up without any of them – Zach, Harriet or late Uncle Frank.

When Isabelle was Grace’s age, Harriet adored her. She fussed over her continuously. She dressed her fashionably and paraded her to the many organizations to which she volunteered her time and talents. But as Isabelle got older, into her teen years, the two began to argue incessantly. Nothing Isabelle did seemed to meet the impossible standards set for her by Harriet.

Isabelle suddenly remembered Grace – taking a bath and getting ready for bed. She looked at the clock and saw that Grace had been gone for fifteen minutes. She should be drying off by now.

            “I need to check on Grace,” Isabelle announced.

Just then, Grace appeared in the kitchen in her fluffy pink bathrobe. “I’m right here.”

Could Grace see Harriet too? How would this be for her? Should Isabelle acknowledge their guest or just hope she was invisible – not to mention silent? When was Harriet ever silent? In the hospital – Harriet was silent in the hospital – on a ventilator with a feeding tube. Oh that was a horrible thought. Isabelle cringed. “How was your bath?” Isabelle asked.

“It was a bath. I’m hungry. Can I have cereal?” Grace asked. Grace didn’t appear to notice anything out of the ordinary.

“May I…” Harriet corrected the child.

Isabelle looked back and forth between Grace and Harriet. Isabelle coughed a bit as if she had swallowed air. She was nervous about so many things. This whole experience was so far outside of her comfort zone, and she didn’t feel even a little bit comfortable acknowledging it to herself, let alone probing to discover if Harriet was visible to Grace as well.

“May I have cereal?” Grace rephrased the question. Isabelle was speechless. Wouldn’t Grace say something if she saw Harriet? She doesn’t seem scared.

“Didn’t daddy feed you dinner?” Isabelle asked, trying to act normal, but still coughing.

“Yes, but I’m hungry,” Grace replied. “Are you okay?”

Whoa! That was a question Isabelle didn’t know how to answer. So she sidestepped it. “You can have a little cereal before you go to bed, but not the sugary ones.” Isabelle reached for the corn flakes. She knew they weren’t Grace’s favorite, so if she was really hungry she’d eat them and if she wasn’t she’d push them away. Grace sat at the counter and Harriet sat beside her while the child ate four or five bites before pushing the bowl away. “Okay kiddo, time for bed. Brush your teeth and I’ll be down to tuck you in.” Again, Grace shuffled away.

“So what are we going to do about you and Arnie?” Harriet asked when Grace left the room.

“We aren’t going to do anything,” Isabelle said, stressing the word we.

“What are you going to do about Arnie?” Harriet restated.

“Look, I don’t know why you came or how long you’ll be here, or if you’re even here at all, but whatever time you are here, I don’t want to spend it talking about my failing marriage to Arnie,” Isabelle said.

“What do you want to spend it talking about?” Harriet asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I want to know why you’re here and what I’m supposed to do about it,” Isabelle said.

“Well, that’s up to you,” Harriet said. “I love you, Isabelle. I’ve always loved you.”

Oh my gosh, you are dead. “I love you too, Harriet. That was never in question,” Isabelle sighed and shook her head. “I need to put Grace to bed. I’ll be back in a few.” Isabelle wasn’t sure what was going on – with anything in her life, frankly. How had it spun so far out of control?

Grace was in bed asleep when Isabelle walked into her room. Isabelle pulled the covers up, and Grace awoke for a few seconds, long enough to say, “Good night, Mommy. Good night Yia Yia,” before turning on her side and falling back asleep.

Yia Yia was Grace’s name for Harriet. Isabelle had no idea where it came from. It was Greek for grandmother but Grace had never been to Greece. Could Grace see Harriet? Was she real? Was she here? Did she die tonight and no one called to let me know? She didn’t want to wake Grace up to get to the bottom of this now.

When Isabelle walked back into the kitchen to finish her conversation with Harriet, her aunt was nowhere to be seen. “Harriet?” Isabelle called. No answer. No presence. No Harriet. Just then the phone rang.


Investing In Creativity

I’m picking up the pieces of last year. Well, more than that, I’m juggling recovering from yesteryear with reinventing this year and beyond. It’s not easy picking up the pieces, but it’s something we all understand because it’s something we’ve all had to do or will have to do.

For me, it started with grieving. I lost a friend, a pet, and my security when my home was robbed. Grieving morphed into hours spent on Pinterest. For the record, Pinterest is more addictive than social media games that seduce you into buying fake candy and harvesting fake corn at two o’clock in the morning.

As a trained life coach, there’s extra pressure (from myself and others) to practice what I preach, which is of course a double-edged sword. But there’s also value in the proven practices I use to help others assess where they are and determine a plan for where they want to go.

A lot of people ask me if it’s just positive thinking. I’d like to say that just positive thinking is a social cliché and that what matters most is the plan to move forward. The truth is, positive thinking is a key element. We have to believe in a brighter tomorrow to be willing make an action plan to get there.

So right now, I’m combining positive thinking (which for me includes meditation and prayer) with a solid action plan to move forward and reinvent my life. It’s why I’ve been silent on my blog for three months. Time allows for perspective.

Part of my plan to move forward includes making time for my work as a food photographer. I just returned from Maui where I shot a new Hawaiian menu for Classic Events. And in a few weeks, I’m headed to San Francisco for more beautiful food shots. I launched my food portfolio on Instagram and Twitter @PNWfoodPhotog earlier this month. If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in heaven on my IG @PNWfoodPhotog Just browsing it cheers me and I’m the one who created it.

It turns out that investing in creativity is a sure way to smile more and worry less. My creativity is flowing again and I can’t wait to see where it takes me in 2018! Join me if you like. Let’s support each other investing in nurturing creativity and experiencing more joy in 2018.

Embracing the Detour – On the Road & In Life

Like life, road trips don’t always go as planned. But here’s to finding the beauty and value in the detour.

I had a life plan and I absolutely expected to achieve great things. Over the last four decades, I’ve learned that a life plan is not all that different than commencing a road trip using GPS (global positioning system). Without a plan/map, one could drive in circles. With a plan (GPS) what could go wrong?

Driving from Central Washington to the Washington coast during late fall presented two options for the 260-mile trip. The first option was to take a major interstate, across the mountain pass, through the Greater Seattle area, down through Olympia and west to the ocean beaches. The second option included a two-lane highway, more scenic, through a host of small towns, and according to the app on my phone, it was ten miles shorter and ten minutes longer – all roads being perfect and traffic free.

So I decided to take the scenic route, not knowing there was a 20-mile detour around Rimrock Lake, and not knowing the speed limit on the detour was 35 MPH instead of 55 on Highway 12. At first, I enjoyed the detour. The myriad of trees and shrubs beside the lake offered a full rainbow of fall foliage hues. I enjoyed a waterfall, deer, birds and mountain vistas. (I’ve included pictures below.)

At one point, with no cell service, I had no idea if I missed a turn and stayed on the route. There was no one to ask. Just before the detour around the lake ended, I was feeling stressed, impatient and frustrated that the road was so long. I wasn’t even a quarter the way to my destination and I was suddenly asking, “Why did I take this route? I can’t even call anyone or figure out where I am.” And once the detour concluded, I still didn’t have cell service. At one point I almost turned off to Mt. Rainier because the road wasn’t marked well. I started to worry about things that hadn’t happened: what if my car breaks down? What if I hit a deer? What if I have to go to the bathroom? What time will I arrive?

An hour later I stopped at a little motel in a tiny town with no cell reception and asked the clerk if I was on the right road. She confirmed I was and I would be able to access cell service a few towns ahead. GREAT! I totally should have taken the interstate through Seattle, I thought. But then, a mile down the road, I pulled over to find a family of deer. They were magnificent.  I’ve never been so close to large wild animals in their natural habitat. I was awestruck by their beauty.

I did actually get lost in Aberdeen, Wash., and I pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot to reconfigure my GPS, where I flagged down a police officer. I explained to him that I was lost, and he gave me back road directions straight to my destination.

To make a long story short, none of the things I worried about happened. I enjoyed the most incredible views and took some beautiful fall pictures. I had time to think, pray and cry (which is sometimes very cathartic, especially after what happened this past week at home.) I enjoyed my downloaded music and sang along. And with all my stops, and even getting lost, I arrived in two hours less time than my parents who took the I-90 interstate through Seattle and down I-5. You see, they hit rush hour traffic from Bellevue to Olympia, and crawled more than half their trip.

Twelve years ago, my life took a detour. At first, it was awesome. I enjoyed the slower pace. I enjoyed time with my family and life in a small town. I touched a lot of lives, and honestly, that felt good. It’s affirming to make a difference to someone else, especially someone who is not in a position to return the favor.  But over time, I felt like a hamster on a wheel, spinning and going nowhere. None of my great plans came true. My dreams were dying and while I knew my prayers were heard, I certainly didn’t see or hear any answers. God used me to help others but I didn’t think there was any way I could ever get my life back on track. Doors closed left and right on me, and my personal GPS stopped working. I felt panicky and hopeless. I was surrounded by loads of advice but no one who actually took my hand and said, “Here, let me help you.”

Then it occurred to me. What if my life wasn’t off track?

What if my destination was the same – and I could have taken the back roads with the great scenery, time with my family, the chance to make wonderful friends, and the inspiration to write my first novel, with my personal GPS disabled – or I could have taken the city route and sat in traffic, with my GPS working? What if this life detour that I have been lamenting was actually a hidden treasure?

The truth is – I don’t know how my story turns out. I haven’t arrived at my destination. I’m still traveling. I have faith that God sees and knows a future for me that right now doesn’t look that bright. I have hope that doors will open that right now are still closed.  I trust that my life has mattered beyond just the measure of achieving my own personal/professional goals, plans and hopes. And beyond that I just breathe and stay on the road – pulling over occasionally to marvel at our beautiful world, or to cry. Because even in the midst of struggle, loss, disappointment, and uncertainty, there is beauty. There are reliable friends and kind strangers. There are open windows and indelible views.

We are all traveling. As long as we’re alive, we’re traveling. And the truth is, everyone has detours and most people spend at least some time with their personal GPS disabled. I don’t even know what today holds, let alone tomorrow. But my faith is in the One who does, and I choose to trust that while I may not be able to live the life I planned, I can still live a life that matters and makes a difference. One step and one mile at a time.

Taking In Fall & Toasting Mom

There are moments in life when we hang onto every minute.  The first time I experienced this, I was 19 years old, and leaving my hometown for Washington State University. I had worked part-time at the tennis club since I was in high school and through a year of community college, and it was time to transfer as a junior to WSU. I remember going to the tennis club where I worked, standing out on the balcony where I had stood so many times, and gazing out at the tennis courts on which I had played hundreds of hours of tennis over the years.

I was super excited to go away to college and finish up my Bachelor of Arts at WSU, but a part of me knew that opening one door meant closing another. And I remember breathing in that moment so completely that now, more than twenty years later, I can still close my eyes and conjure up exactly how I felt that day.

The Pacific Northwest is known for our four distinct seasons – although not always equally divided up among the calendar year. Some people love them. Personally, I resonate better with a climate where I can wear shorts and swim outdoors year around. But right now, as summer has ended and fall is in full swing, I know winter is coming. Winters in the Yakima Valley can be severe. Snow. Ice. Unimaginably cold temperatures. Last winter was especially rough.

And so those days when the upper temperatures hit the upper sixties in October, it’s worth drinking in. It’s worth capturing physical and mental pictures, because like the days before I moved to Pullman, I sense life is about to change. And so here in the fruit and vegetable bowl of the nation, when the fall days are sunny and warm, and the evenings require only a light windbreaker, it’s worth appreciating.

Life has seasons too.

Today is a particularly special day for me. I finished the first draft of the final chapter of my first novel. Now the editing begins. It started out as a trilogy, but the books nestled so perfectly and they were on the small side. So instead of three small books, three shorter stories, I’m pulling them together to create one epic story of a how one family transformed in four years. I’ve been working on it since January 17, 2015, although I still do not have a name for it. The book is a special nod to my mom.

Mom and I are in many ways opposites. We see and experience life from very different lenses and that hasn’t always made for agreeable conversations. I wanted to get to know my mom better, and appreciate her more. I wanted to experience life with her in a way that would ensure I wouldn’t live with regrets if the day came where I didn’t have her. So I created one of my protagonists loosely based on her. It would have been impossible to make Harriet so likable and relatable without developing a better understanding of my mom.

Just tonight I called my mom for advice about some pie crust dough that had dried out due to inattention. “How long did you step away from it?” she asked.

“Well, it’s actually for the book,” I said. “Isabelle asks Harriet’s advice and I wasn’t sure how the dialogue should unfold.”

Without missing a beat, mom jumped in: “Throw it away and start over. That’s what Harriet would say.”

I smiled and savored the moment.

Mom and I are still very different, and we still get under each other’s skin from time to time. But I appreciate her and what drives her in a way I never could have without this book. And so, tonight’s wine is a toast to a dear lady who still drives me a little cra-cra, but who I have come to respect, accept and like as much as I’ve always loved – my mom. Here’s to you, mom. And to the changing seasons of life.Patio dinner 2

A Small Step in a Fresh Direction

We’ve all experienced those times when the best laid plans in life fell apart. It’s okay to grieve and grouse, but then it’s time to take a small step in a fresh direction. It’s basically that or drink a lot of wine, give up or die. This post tells you which option I chose.

We all have dreams! As a dreamer, I have lots of dreams! Have you ever felt stressed when you know you should be feeling lucky and thankful? I’m referring to those moments when everything in your rational brain knows one thing to be true, while at the same time, another voice is grumbling inner sounds that resemble the famous mumbling teacher in every Charlie Brown television special?

Despite the fact that looking back at what might have been is unproductive – unless there’s a specific lesson to be learned to move forward – I feel a bit like a puppy chasing its tail as I reflect on the last year.

Winter in the Northwest can be a bit of a bear, and last year, Central Washington saw more snow (I hear) than in the last twenty years. I’ve only been back here for twelve. It was also colder than when I lived in Wisconsin! So this past spring, I decided last winter was my last winter in a cold climate, and I started applying for jobs in Arizona (where I have a solid network of friends), California (where I lived for six years), and Texas (where two of my best friends live.)

And then it happened. My best laid plans went up in smoke. Last month, my knee surgery was postponed, and the dream job, with the huge salary and benefits amazing enough to make a grown woman cry with joy fell through. I came in second. It’s mid-September now, and I should feel incredibly lucky – but instead I honestly feel a little bit (okay, a lot bit) like engaging in high levels of grousing.

I really shouldn’t be complaining. I mean, I am really lucky! I tore my meniscus on the job 18 months ago and I had a Washington state claims manager who fought for me to have my case reopened and receive a second opinion. He even warned me not to move out of state until I had my surgery because he feared I might not actually get it once I left Washington, and he wanted to see me healthy again. (WOW!) I was assigned an exceptional physician for my second opinion. I was accepted by the exact surgeon I wanted, despite the fact that he rarely accepts L&I. My long projected recovery is due to the fact that I have no arthritis in my knee and the surgeon will be able to stitch my injury up in such a way that will result in a perfect knee ten weeks from now. I am employed at a job where I make a difference to thousands of students and teachers. I have a roof over my head, basic needs met, family and friends, three pets I adore – the list goes on.

But the other side of the coin: I lost a dream job and dream house, with a hot tub for ten, in Phoenix. I haven’t even had my surgery yet and I’m looking at a recovery that includes crutches for six to eight weeks. It’s mid-September. And the thought of spending another winter here makes me want to cry.  But I don’t cry. I take a deep breath and murmur quietly to myself like the teacher in Charlie Brown specials. I watch hurricane aftermath coverage and read social media posts about people who are battling life-threatening illnesses and I feel worse. Because despite the fact that another year passed me by without my dreams materializing, I know that life truly could be so much worse.

And so I do the only things I can. I send out resumes, connect with former colleagues on LinkedIn, hug my pets, thank my loved ones for caring and pull out boxes of Christmas cards to start addressing. Because if I’m stuck in a full leg brace, in a cold climate for yet another winter, at least my holiday cards are going out on time this year. It’s not Phoenix, Los Angeles or Dallas, but it’s a small step in a fresh direction. And hopefully it will silence the disappointment and grumbling sounds in my head.

Blog puppy

Energy Awareness and the Seven Levels of Winning

We are all made up of and surrounded by energy. Most people accept that. But as a life coach, one of the things that most impacted me, early in my training, was the realization that understanding energy levels and how to recognize and alter them actually gave me access to a tremendous reservoir of power I didn’t know existed.

To better understand energy and differentiate the possible outcomes, consider a gradient that divides this spectrum into seven levels of winning, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But first, it’s worth asking: Why does your energy level matter? Or more importantly, why does knowing your energy level matter? There are a lot of answers to this, but the most important one is that being aware of your energy level makes you the most powerful person in the room, circle or community as it relates to you.

It’s like having a mirror to make sure everything is where you want it to be. Imagine going into an interview with a tear in the back of your shirt. If you don’t know this, it might detract from the image you want to present. If you do, you might change your shirt or respond in a different way.  In life, everyone has people or entities that control them to some degree: bosses, creditors, the government, a partner, commitments to children, etc.  Knowing your energy level and having the tools to adjust it through the practice of reframing prevents the people you don’t want to control you from impacting your emotions and experiences.

Here are my seven levels of winning, or seven energy levels, if you will.

  1. I lose. I am losing.
  2. I win, so therefore you must lose.
  3. I win, and hopefully you win too.
  4. You win.
  5. We all win or no one wins.
  6. We always win.
  7. Winning and losing are illusions. (With which no sports coach ever agreed!)


Taken out of context, these seven statements mean absolutely nothing. Taken out of context, there are clearly better levels and worse levels. But because this is energy, and not a football game, every level has a purpose and a place. Every level is equally important. For instance, in grief (about anything), it’s very normal to experience, acknowledge and even sometimes accept losing. Whether you lost a purse, a pet, a game, or a person, failing to experience Level 1 Energy equates to lacking the capacity to emotionally connect. You have to connect to grieve. And you have to connect to give and receive from others within the context of a relationship.

While self-preservation is critical to help ourselves and others (which is why flight attendants reiterate, “Secure your own mask first,”) anyone who has volunteered to help someone or chosen to serve others, understands that serving others supersedes the need to care for themselves. If you’ve ever served food to the homeless or the needy in a food kitchen, or at a company Thanksgiving celebration, you are exercising a classic Level 4 Energy where your goal is to experience the Level 4 Energy of Winning: You Win. It feels good to help others win!

The most important take-away is recognizing that every level of energy has its place. Every level includes distinct advantages and disadvantages – and knowing where you are, gives you the power to continue or reframe your mindset and energy to project the message and give off the energy that will best serve your goals in any given situation. Find thorough explanations of each energy level and what it means to your personal or professional life on the Olive Press Coaching Facebook page.

Debra Yergen – Author

Join Author Debra Yergen on a journey to explore the best parts of humanity – how we live, how we serve, how we help and how we make a difference collectively.

Still in Development

More than two decades ago, my high school English and Journalism teacher told me to write about what I know. That one comment induced what felt like a 10-year stare into space (creatively speaking). What DID I know? From the time I was little, I knew I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to eventually create characters that made the story compelling, not that merely plugged into an interesting story. I knew I wanted to elicit emotions and inspire my readers to believe that every obstacle had a lesson or a silver lining. And so, long before I knew it, I started observing and taking notes on current events, on people I knew, and some I only met. I started paying attention – to the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful aspects that made up human behavior and the circumstances we face.

But that’s not what I wrote about – at least not at first. My first book Real Life 101: Winning Secrets You Won’t Find In Class, addressed the challenges of adapting from college to the professional working world, because I did that! And then the Creating Job Security Resource Guide and the Green Light Scoring Model came next, because again, life gave me the opportunity to hone a set of skills and resources that could help others, in addition to myself. I wrote a children’s book series set in the Louisiana Bayou, because I’m a big kid at heart, and I probably always will be. And now, I’m working on The Gift of Grace fictional trilogy, that might have originally been planted by my English and Journalism teacher at West Valley High.

Does life come full circle? Ask me two decades from now. I’m still figuring it all out.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Feel free to comment. Hopefully I’ll make you laugh and cry along the way as we dig into the hearts of humanity, current events and the evolution of the human spirit. And you never know: share your heart, infuse kindness in your community, and find a way to inspire one person in your world – and your good deed might just end up included in the Gift of Grace fictional book series. Like life… it’s still “in development.”  First blog post

Welcome to my world…

This is the post excerpt.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Feel free to comment. Hopefully I’ll make you laugh and cry along the way as we dig into the hearts of humanity, current events and the evolution of the human spirit. And you never know: share your heart, infuse kindness in your community, and find a way to inspire one person in your world – and your good deed might just end up included in the Gift of Grace fictional book series. Like life… it’s still “in development.”