“If you’re in Heaven ... I won’t see you anymore.”
By: Ashley Mackler-Paternostro
I should probably begin this guest post by telling you something about myself as a writer.
I cannot read my own novels -- as in, the finished, printed and bound final product.
I do read my work in bits and pieces, probably over a hundred times. But rather than cozying up with the novel as a whole, my reading of it happens gradually as I’m working on my book; chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph. I write, read, edit, rewrite, reread, reedit, rethink, rewrite, reread, reedit ... those steps become an endless cycle until it’s been thinned and stoked and fleshed and eventually filled again. That process, the cyclical task of developing a story, can be as endless as a writer wants, there is no concrete finish line to cross ... but there comes a point where I personally realize that the time has come, I have to put down the red pen. And when that happens, my time with a novel has ended, or rather, it changes. I give the story away to the readers and I let my white knuckled hold on it slip free.
When Ravina asked me to do a guest post on the exploration of 99th page I was excited, surprising really, given my aversion to reading my own work. I decided to tear into the eBook formatted page over the print page since it’s a much more interesting moment in the novel.
The 99th page of The Milestone Tapes happens to be the turning point of the plot. Everything in the first half of the novel is leading up that moment, and everything in the second half of this novel is because of it.
Jenna Chamberland, at the start of the story, is given a very loose promise of six months, and this what she clings too. Those 4,320 hours become a touchstone for her, yet that small amount of time something she almost entirely ignores. She knowns when she’s expended those hours, those days, those minutes and seconds, her life will be over and she’ll no longer be a part of her daughter’s life. Nothing can save Jenna from what’s coming. But, Jenna made a choice for that time. A trade. The 99th page is where the tides of that decision begin to turn and she is forced to face the consequences of it.
From the moment Jenna realized she was dying, she couldn’t figure out a way to tell her daughter, Mia. To her, saying those words aloud would effectively dash Mia’s childhood, with that confession, she’d be asking Mia to shed the skin of youth and grow up.
Mia is, at the beginning of novel, a child ... a little girl who has known heartache and sickness for more than half of her life, things like cancer and chemotherapy are everyday considerations of hers. So when Jenna is given the choice to stop treatment, to give Mia a normal life for just a little while, she does so hoping that for whatever time is left, she can focus only on making a lifetime of memories for her daughter, a way Mia can remember her.
The page finds Jenna and Mia are sitting in woods beside the Chamberland’s home in Port Angeles, Washington. Jenna’s body is giving up now, and she can no longer ignore the fact that Mia needs to know she’s dying, that to continue keeping it from her would be wrong because their time is slipping by faster and faster. She needs to figure out how to speak the words, to explain to a five year that their time together is ending and that Mia will soon be without her.
The scene is a conversation no mother ever wants to have and it was incredibly difficult to write. As the author, I had to think like a children and a mother in the middle of a moment that is, by nature, horrifying and raw.
I approached the scene like this:
I knew that I wanted to keep Mia’s innocence firmly in place and to give Jenna the ability to speak candidly but quietly about what coming for them. Then, when I really thought about how wanted it to play out for the reader, I realized didn’t want to overtake this moment with my character’s words -- or dialog -- it’s not a loud proclamation. So much of makes this moment what it is is Jenna’s interior monolog, the small flashes of understanding and emotion she faces. The silent realization that her child is terrified, hurting and broken because of the path their life took, and that is what settles over Jenna and she becomes a little lost in that.
For Jenna, this was what always she feared the most, what she has been fighting against for years. It’s the realization for her that Mia will never again have the benefit of being that sort of innocent. Jenna will take away the purity of youth, and replace it with the knowledge that parents aren’t invincible beings ... that they are no more than flesh and bone.
Then, there is Mia.
When I was writing this part, Mia wasn’t as familiar to me as became later in the novel. But this is moment where there is shift and Mia becomes a rounder character, who she is starts to shine laying the foundation for later on in the book.
Through the eyes of a five year death is a concept, but it’s not concrete, it’s not fleshed out for them like it for an adult. Most children have been sheltered from the actualities of the what dying means. The end of life is not something they’ve probably been exposed to in a very tactile sense of the word. They don’t, for the most part, understand what’s happening and their concerns and worries give that inexperience away. For some children, death is introduced to them by way of Heaven, and that’s what I wanted Mia to know of death. I went into this scene thinking -- this is all she knows of the word and what’s happening to her Mother.
She’s five years old and scared. She just wants her mom, and all she knows of death is what she’s been told when she’s asked about her Grandmother ... that when someone dies they go to Heaven and you can’t see them anymore, but they’re with you in spirit. Mia needed to realize that there was break between her mother being alive and her going to Heaven, how that break came to be was in the simple fact she wouldn’t see her Mom anymore. Mia had lived with Jenna being sick for years, she was no stranger to illness, but Jenna was always there, and when she died, she wouldn’t be anymore ... that to Mia is incredibly unfair and incredibly hard to understand.
As a writer, I can tell you, there are moments when you stop writing the novel and become the typist of the story. Page 99 was one of those moments for me. Jenna has a particular way about her and it’s her nature to approach life with a certain attitude ... she really drove this passage of the novel. She let me know how she would tell her child she was dying. And what came from that, the words on the page, are really her own.
Jenna Chamberland never wanted anything more than to be a wife and mother. That is, until she realized that her life was ending after a three-year battle against breast cancer. Now, all she really wants is more time.
With 4,320 hours left to live, Jenna worries for her loved ones and what she knows awaits them on the other side: Gabe will have to make the slip from husband to widower, left alone to raise their seven-year-old daughter; Mia will be forced to cope with life without her mother by her side. In a moment of reflection, Jenna decides to record a set of audiocassettes — The Milestone Tapes – leaving her voice behind as a legacy for her daughter.
Nine years later, Mia is a precocious sixteen-year-old and her life is changing all around, all she wants is her mother. Through the tapes, Jenna’s voice returns to teach Mia the magic of life, her words showing her daughter how to spread her wings and embrace the coming challenges with humor, grace and hope.
THE MILESTONE TAPES is the journey of love between a parent and child, and of the bond that holds them when life no longer can.
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