Flowers, Schmowers (Sneak Peek from Chapter 8: Nortriptyline)


Thursday June 11th, 2010. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

Wait! I’m not ready!

Fioricet and I had been together for 19 years. Longer than Kevin and I had been married. My pulse raced as I heard myself agree to a non-narcotic migraine regimen. My breath came quickly as I watched the neurologist gather up his papers. What had I been thinking in coming to Cedars? That someone could teach me how to take Her as prescribed again? How I could turn back time?

No. I will not go. Leave. Us. Alone.

Yet, another part of me was exhausted. Ready to let go after this overdose. Shaking, still barely able to sit up, the idea of treating my migraines with something else felt like a sensual, cool breeze upon my clammy skin. I was willing to try.

A nurse entered with my first round of DHE (Diphydroergotamine): intensive non-narcotic IV therapy that would relieve my withdrawal symptoms. She stood at the computer typing new chapters into my already long story. The plastic bag swung as she dropped the medicine onto the pole.

“This will make you feel better.”

I watched the clear liquid flow through the plastic tubing. Over a couple of hours, the DHE—like a medicinal Roto-Rooter—blasted Her from my veins. I rubbed my bleary eyes. I had barely slept in five days. Above all else, it was sleep I craved. Sleep, thus, escape from the paralyzing reality that I would never know Her again.

Friday June 11th, 2010. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.


My husband does not like to talk about bodily functions, never mind experience them. When we looked after our seven-month old godson every Wednesday for a year, he never changed a diaper, feigning his trademark dry heave every single time. I, on the other hand, revel in being the girl who is super-cool about poop, pee and the like. I am the Anti-Princess who worked as a summer janitor to put myself through theatre school, cleaning blood, vomit and feces off Toronto’s subway platforms. Yet, there my Prince Charmin stood, at the end of my hospital bed, watching me hurl into a kidney-shaped plastic bedpan.

“You OK, honey?” the nurse asked.

I nodded weakly. “Uh, I think that was…"BLAAARGH!"

A transplant patient must have a precise balance of immunosuppressives in their system at all times, by taking them as close to twelve hours apart as possible. Even in chronic rejection, I continued to take my meds to sustain the life of my kidney for as long as possible. As I wiped at the drool strands dangling from my chin, Kevin and the nurse swooped in to eyeball the pan’s steaming contents.

“Did she swallow the Cyclosporine?”

Kevin leaned in. “This one is Cell Cept, for sure.”

“Is this one Cyclosporine?” the nurse squinted.

“No, that’s a gel capsule.”

“And what about this red stuff?” she said, pointing.

“That’s the tomato soup she had for lunch.”

My heart flipped as my husband exhibited a new watermark in protection. During my ’98 biopsy, he had trembled watching the single-packing semi-automatic needle plunge into my abdomen to extract a section of my kidney. With my '08 rejection diagnosis, his valorous wings had sheltered ever tear, and every fear.

Today, post-overdose, Kevin soared over me, circling, assessing every situation, pecking away at anything that might cause me harm: from judgmental nurses to a 5150 neither of us were ready for. To a big pile of puke. The man who hated bodily functions was practically submerging himself in mine.

As the pungent stank of Her remains ribboned up from the plastic pan, we locked eyes. Kevin’s shoulders were slumped, but his eyes glittered with purpose. My pulse quickened. How could I have ever forgotten? The love of my life was standing right in front of me, not lumped, regurgitated, in a plastic trough beneath me.

Kevin, not Fioricet.

My body still ached, but with something else. I was in, all in.

And just for today, grateful She was on Her way out.

In Pillness and in Health Chapter 7: Nortriptyline pg. 118

Henriette, you are from another world. I just adore you. I have lost two very close friends of mine this past week and was feeling kind of down. Then I read your post and I have a huge smile on my face.

— Dale Stewart
So. Moving.

— Nina Flores
I can’t wait to read the whole book. You are amazing.

— Victoria Kay

Birthday Boy (Sneak Peek from Chapter 6: Acetaminophen)


June 2010: Kevin handed me the three tablets of Cell Cept. Hand shaking, he watched me swallow them with a small sip of juice. I sighed against the bed grateful for the tender way he was attending to me. The lamp cast a triangular shaft of light over us. Under the room’s strangely romantic glow, we relaxed into our roles: nurse and patient.

“I know this is Cyclosporine,” he said, presenting me with the last pill.

Cyclosporine is an older immunosuppressive, a gelatin tablet encased in a tin-foil-esque packet. It cannot be exposed to air until you are ready to take it. Kevin popped the backside of the bubble and removed the enormous pill. Its chemical smell wafted out and our eyes locked.

“It still smells like skunk,” he said, offering half a smile. I knew what he was thinking.

In 1991, When I was 23 and Kevin was 18, I agreed to have dinner with him in the Toronto home he shared with four other roommates. After an endearing dinner of pasta from a mix and instant pudding from a package, we moved downstairs to his basement bedroom. I always carried my meds with me whenever I suspected I might not make it home. Swallowing my pills, I tossed the Cyclosporine packet into the empty bag that lined his garbage can. I suppressed a grin. Had he recently changed the trashcan for little ol’ me?

Jammed together in his twin bed, we talked long into the night. Kevin lay with his back pressed up against the wood-paneled wall, his arms wrapped around me. I faced outward, scrutinizing a room dotted with all the markers of a young man who had just left home: flannel sheets, a battered poster of a Broadway show, and a Tupperware box containing sheet music, and ceramics his Mum had painted.

He held me with a confidence that belied his age. Every square inch of his body pressed against mine, and yet he made no move to kiss me. Should I turn in towards him? Should I try to kiss him? His breath was hot and sweet against my neck, as we meandered through an all-nighter of learning firsts. We giggled. We sang. My skin blazed with the desire to be touched, but he made no move.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked.

I wasn’t really. The way we were positioned it was impossible for me to relax and fall asleep, but I didn’t want him to let me go. Plunged into a pool of feelings so fresh I could barely breathe. How could a 19-year old boy make me feel so safe?

With any other boy, I would have turned towards him and taken what I wanted, but what Kevin offered was enough. Holding me with such certainty it now feels like that was the moment he stepped into his lifelong role. Three and a half years later, the words “to have and to hold” would be mere formality.

19 years later, he was even more handsome. He had certainly aged, having lost all his hair, and at age 38, his skin already had a roughness about it. But he was a man who had arrived. The way he passed me my pills and the washcloth. Assuming control of what his arms had promised on our first date:

I will take care of you.

In Pillness and in Health Chapter 6: Acetaminophen pg. 81

Happy Birthday Kevin! Shari reconnected me to you just to hear this story. I am having the most ugly cry in a long time. It’s not pretty. But who cares, hearing a love story like that makes me believe in life and love. Gotta go, I really need an entire Entemans pound cake to collect myself now. —Peter Zinko
I so love your writing, and just get carried away each and every time I read your words.

— Lesley Traynor Smith
Wow! 1st of all, this story! And 2nd, this beautifully written retelling is just amazing!

— Norm Lewis



In Los Angeles yesterday, it rained for the first time in forever. On my 50th+ drive down to USC over the last year and a half, I saw a rainbow. And then Kevin called and told me our friend, Laurie, had died.

I met Laurie 23 years ago. She was a dear friend of my high school BF and maid of honor, N. They were both active in university politics which was super intimidating to a wannabe TV star like myself. I would play bohemian activist, Annie Hamer on the CBC series, Liberty Street (see: 2nd image). Laurie actually became one (see: 1st image). But we had a lot in common: We loved our friend Nicole, our dogs (her dog Emma used to eat and yes, poop socks), and our men (to whom we are both still married).

Laurie was a staunch feminist, whip smart, outspoken, witty and seemed very self-possessed. Quite frankly, she scared me a little. But I loved being around her. Around Laurie, the air was electric. She filled conversation with kindnesses and vulnerabilities, too.

When Kevin and I left for LA in 1996, she hugged me and said, “I hope all your dreams come true.” She may have not understood my dream, but she supported it. It was in her voice. Heartfelt. True. Delivered in a steady timbre with solid eye contact thrown in for good measure. BAM. Really, Laurie was my first woman crush.

Over ten years later, we reconnected on the love it/hate it/tolerate it/all-of-the above-it Facebook.

In February of 2008, my first kidney transplant had gone into chronic rejection. Nicole told me Laurie had been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in January 2006. By 2008, she had endured a double mastectomy and would have chemotherapy for the rest of her life. The stats on mets breast cancer are not great. Only 11% outlive diagnosis past 10 years. On one wide-eyed, drug-fueled night of insomnia, I devoured two years of her insanely readable blog, “Not Just About Cancer,” my heart pounding until the crack of dawn.

I felt sick for her, for her husband Tim, and their two very young boys, but I was grateful for our immediate kinship. For suddenly, I had found another comrade in this horrible club that no one ever signs up for: Chronic Illness and Pain.

Laurie wrote in a forthright, yet non-abrasive manner. She linked articles and definitions to highlighted words like metastatic and Herceptin (the chemotherapy drug her body super tolerated), so that the reader might learn along side her. She would publish a book from her blog, “Not Done Yet: Living Though Breast Cancer.”

In an absurd rush of insecurity, I admitted I was a wee bit jealous. Writing a book was something that seemed so incredibly out of reach for me at the time. I was spiraling ever deeper into renal failure, dialysis, and another kidney transplant, while “developing” the role of pharmaceutical whore. The “research” of which took me down, and very nearly out.

But Laurie’s tickled response to my insecurity was the encouraging and lighthearted,

“Lol. You can do it, too, you know.”

And that changed everything for me.

In 2008, Kevin set up a space for me on Blogger, and I began to write.

If you have read anything of mine, from those inconsistent first blogs to the more lucid, to excerpts from my completed memoir, In Pillness and in Health, know it exists because of Laurie. I hope she knew how transformative writing became for me, a daily reprieve from chronic pain. My spiritual salve when all else fails.

I loved that she took issue with Pinktober, the cancer–branded month of October. It gives the false impression that breast cancer is a “safe cancer,” that everyone gets out alive with a 5K walk and the purchase of a pink t-shirt. In fact, treatment options have little changed in the last 40 years. And when breast cancer metastasizes, it’s as deadly as any other form of cancer.

Perhaps Pinktober made her cringe the way I do when characters quip about selling their kidneys on sitcoms. My life-changing, science-fiction-esque medical miracle comes with myriad challenges I have been dealing with since age 19. A transplant is not a one day, quick fix event, nor should the curious prospect of selling a kidney to get out of debt EVER be batted around a Hollywood writers’ room, or come out of the mouths of glittering television stars.

In that Laurie and I were agreed. Not all publicity is good publicity.

(I’m betting Laurie didn’t like The Secret either, with it’s pernicious implication that the patient just isn’t “positive” enough if they are unable to cure themselves of cancer by watching funny movies.)

She served briefly as a beta-reader on In Pillness. Receiving a compliment like “riveting” from Laurie—who was one of the most well read women I have ever known—was like getting a gold star from your kindergarten teacher, the corner piece with the rose AND winning the lottery. In May of 2016, she read the first two chapters from my second draft, and then as she was packing for the hospital, squeezed in two more, before quickly shooting off an email.

The next day, Laurie would have an Ommaya Resevoir inserted into her brain for the delivery of drugs (e.g. chemotherapy) into the cerebrospinal fluid. She would be the first person in Ottawa to receive this treatment. That’s the kind of person she was. Helping little ol’ me mere hours before a shunt would be inserted into her cranium. By the end of 2016, she had 24 treatments injected into her brain. In 2017, she would have many more.

There’s just no way around it. Laurie inspired me. (I have a total love-hate relationship with this word.) It is not because she had cancer and was fighting the good fight. Those of us who are ominously tapped by the crooked finger of chronic illness, never asked to become inspiration porn.

If you have spent the majority of your life jumping out of bed every morning, without giving much thought to your physical health (and posting about your cold on Facebook doesn’t count), you are one of the lucky ones. You really, really are. But you will never know it. You can’t know it until it is taken from you. You have never heard the ticking of some Unnamed Thing in the air. And even on my darkest days, I still don’t wish that sound on anyone.

Medications. Side effects. Procedures. Pain. It wears down the best of us. We, The Sick, must give ourselves permission to express all sides. Over 11 years, Laurie’s words ran the gamut: From fear to appreciation to delight to resentment to absolute humility in lowering her expectations of people. (Oh, that’s a hard one to learn!) To taking a break from Facebook because she was a little sad and envious.

I loved reading this. (I did the same when I got sober in 2011).

I loved reading anything Laurie wrote.

It is a real gift to speak your mind, to live your truth and be willing to learn along the way. Laurie possessed that gift. It took me a while to realize that in pointing my finger at everyone, I might be telling the truth, but I wasn’t being honest.

Long before Oprah’s Golden Globe reminder, “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Laurie seemed to have a lock on this nugget. And she polished this nugget to a profound gleam every time she wrote or we corresponded.

That was how she inspired.

One of the last times Laurie and I communicated was on one of my Facebook posts. I had written about staying sober through relentless nerve pain. Laurie told me I was a true inspiration, and that she didn’t use that word lightly.

Well. When she wrote that, in a weird way, I felt like I had arrived. As a writer, and a person.

I have one regret.

It has always been my intention to dedicate my memoir to two people:

“To L., who believed I could write. And to K., who never has to read it.”

I wish I had told her that.

Do me a favor. Tell someone who inspires you that you love them. That they have touched your heart. Please. For me. For Laurie.

Summer 2016: On the other hand, I feel lighter these days. I spent much of the summer feeling like I was about to die and just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing has changed really except that I seem to have decided to enjoy living. It's so much easier to exist this way.

Enjoy your health. Work hard. Love harder. Speak your truth.

Telling each other our stories is what keeps us alive.

Thanks for writing such beautiful and true words. “If you have spent the majority of your life jumping out of bed every morning, without giving much thought to your physical health (and posting about your cold on Facebook doesn’t count)...I still don’t wish that sound on anyone,” really resonates with me. It’s so, so true.

— Lisa Greaves
What a beautiful tribute to an evidently special person. I marvel at how your performance gift has in later life been eclipsed by the quieter magic of your words.

— Laura Boujoff
What an amazing tribute to your friend.

— Melanie Florence

Daddy's Girl


“You’re too sensitive for this world, Henriette.”

The bedroom was dark, shadows crawling in from every corner. I was sleeping in the bottom bunk that night. Perched on the edge, you leaned over to give 8-year old me a night-night kiss. As you pulled back—WHACK!— went your head on the top of the bunk. Hot tears formed in the back of my eyes. My heart squeezed, barely able to stand the thought of you in pain.

“I’m sorry!” I cried out.

I knew it was not my fault you had hit your head, but wanted to protect you from any more pain. I had eyes. I had watched your frame shrivel, and the pile of brown bottles grow.

Children know what’s going on. They can smell inevitability, it permeates, saturates, drowns the words of elders, cuts through the party line like a knife.

“Daddy just needs to go on vacation.”

I knew what was coming.

But that night, you laughed and laughed in your melodic tone, almost giggling, filling my shredded heart. And that’s when you said it.

“You’re too sensitive for this world, Henriette.”

It is one of my favorite memories of you. In the quiet of the night, we had this moment. Not an official father-daughter moment. Not the kind the world dictates: buying me a car, career advice, or walking me down the aisle. No. We would never have those. But it was everything to me. I felt like you understood something about me that I had yet to understand about myself.

You died on December 13th, 1978.

You were 38. I was 10.

It’s the quiet moments I wish we’d had. We could have talked about books. I know you wanted to write a novel. You were a beautiful writer. Your letters are ink explosions of your soul, your charisma oozes everywhere. Exclamation points!!! Heartfelt scribbles consuming every possible corner of the page:

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat…etc…It really is a feast for children. I had always heard the phrase, but never have I appreciated the truth of it until this year, when Henriette is now old enough to take delight in the decorations, lights, and trees springing up all over Toronto. Commercial as some and many of these displays may seem to be, and are, the delight in Henriette’s eyes is so genuine—sparkling—smiling—lips—joyous squeals—that soppy as this may sound, just watching her reactions make my heart turn over, and make me feel as if that this…really this…was what I was born to experience, and if I never ever saw another, this would have been enough to have lived for.

I wish…

I wish I didn’t have to know you through other people’s letters.

I wish my memories of you weren’t so few: Singing “Yellow Submarine” together in the car. Your made-up word puzzles. The way you made me strawberry milk. Watching Pele together at Varsity Stadium. Your tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. Hockey Night in Canada.

I wish we could have talked about your diabetes and my kidney transplants. About the private hell reserved for those of us who stumble down the path of chronic illness.

And I wish we could have somehow found each other in our shared pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. Although no-one could have diagnosed you but yourself, I know you knew. It wasn’t pneumonia. I remember the day the light in your eyes went out. And it never came back on.

I wish…

I know you held me, but I can’t feel your arms. I know we laughed, but I can barely hear it any more. I know we talked. About The Queen’s 25th Jubilee. About All in the Family. About why you needed to give me a polio shot. But it was not enough.

You are not just a photo in a frame.

You are my Daddy.

You were here.

You were right. I am too sensitive for this world. Kevin calls me The Roller Coaster of Hen, but I no longer ride alone.

I lost the light once, too, Daddy. Today, I have found a world where others keep the light in my eyes aflame.

You live with me there.

I’m crying. Real tears falling down my face. He loved you so much. He was a beautiful writer and a beautiful person. His beauty lives in you.

— Christy Carew Marshall
Is that where you got it? That incredible ability to touch the heart of the world with your words. He did that too, did he? I know he loves you still.

— Karen Libuse
God love ya. I see where you came by your poetic soul.

— Joe Matheson
Jesus, woman...Your way with words is unbelievable! He clearly lives on and writes through you beautiful, sensitive one.

— Marin May

Creek Fire


Tuesday Dec. 5th. 10:30 am: A 4000-acre wildfire was burning in Sylmar. It had been named The Creek Fire.

I remembered the Sayre fire in Sylmar back in 2008. As new homeowners, Kevin and I were unfamiliar with the foothills and wildfires. So we walked up to Hillrose—one street above ours on the hillside—and took in the incredible view: Hansen Dam, the Sunland Golf Course, the Angeles National Forest and the 210 freeway that snakes through it all.

That night it looked like a comet had struck Earth and exploded as Armageddon: Mushrooming smoke and sizzling shades of orange and red lit up the night sky. Awesome and terrifying. The destruction would be devastating. An entire 600-structure trailer park would be wiped out.

On Tuesday, I wasn’t worried. Sylmar is 7.5 mi. away. Kevin was going to an audition for 1 pm, so I said,

“I’ll come with you when you leave. I want to see where the fire is. To make me feel better.” Ugh.

12:00 pm: As we drove down our driveway and around the bend, black smoke came billowing towards us.

“Ahhh…This is not good..." My husband’s voice vibrated in the way that terrifies me. Piercing my skin with a frequency that indicates he’s more than a little bit scared.

The normally quiet Hillrose Ave. was in chaos: Black smoke rolled across the sky. Cars were parked everywhere. Several helicopters zoomed overhead, dropping water in multiple locations. 30-40 neighbors were gathered at the top, most of them on their phone. The wind, the copters, the panic in my neighbors' voices battered my eardrums. This was bad. My hands shook as I tried to hold my hoodie over my head against the cacophony.

The fire had “jumped” the 210 freeway. How could it have not? The gusts were ferocious, unpredictable, nearly knocking me over several times. To my right, Little Tujunga Canyon was clearly aflame. To my left, flames were greedily consuming the dry brush of Hansen Dam, quickly spreading further to the left into Shadow Hills. Hansen Dam runs parallel with Wentworth Ave. If it jumped Wentworth, it would be at the bottom of our hill.

We looked at each other and gasped,

“We have to leave.”

Living in the foothills, you know this day might come. But it’s still a dissociative bit of information like, “Flying is so much safer than driving.” You can’t imagine actually being in a plane crash. Or like watching Mother Nature clobber Earth from an aerial shot on the evening news, never actually sustaining Her trauma live: sand in your eyes, wind howling in your ears, and smoke as far as the eye can see.

Kevin zoomed to the top of our steep driveway. My heart ricocheted against the walls of my chest. Inside my car, I spread out a blanket for Wahlter in the back seat, grabbed a bunch of recyclable bags, and threw them into the middle of the living room.

What do you take when it’s possible you might lose everything? Hands shaking, struggling to breathe, my brain moved slickly from one decision to the next: Medications. Wahlter’s medications. AA inventory and literature. Computer. Hard Drive. Zip Drive. Valuable jewelry. A few framed pictures. A box of negatives. A ceramic serenity prayer. (Kevin: Computer, camera, bagpipes, and menorah.)

Then I opened two suitcases in the middle of the living room floor.

“Should we take clothes?” Dark smoke was billowing around the corner of our patio, filling the space beneath the pergola.

“Let’s get out of here.”

We drove away in separate cars, Kevin first. As I placed the metal chain link around our gate, I looked back at our sweet cabin nestled against the darkening sky and wondered,

“Is this the last time I will see our home?”

I turned to the right down Hillrose toward Sunland Blvd. Several police cars were already parked, masked officers standing on the street ordering us to evacuate.

Fast. Everything was happening so fast. The streets looked like a mass exodus. Cars everywhere. Long waits at the light. Blackness rolling down Sunland Blvd. Sunny southern California suddenly become night.

The Creek fire had spread to 11,000 acres.

“I don’t have anything to sleep in. For my skin.”

2:00 pm: Life still goes on even if your house might be burning to the ground. Starbucks’ cravings. Wahlter’s specialty dog food. And of course that bitch, chronic pain. So we head down the street to K-Mart. While Kevin books us a hotel from the parking lot, I go inside to peruse the ladies’ sleepwear section. I rub various fabrics against my skin, testing to see if I can tolerate it with my nerve pain.

Holding Christmas-themed pajama pants in my hands, I muse, "I wonder if I can find Chanukah-themed pants?! That would put a smile on Kevin’s face!” I do not, and as I stand in line with my Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” fleece PJ’s, “IT'S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR!” jangles from the sound system.

In that moment, I hunch over, crippled by a painful powerlessness. I am a thrift store demon, waiting in line (for 15 minutes!) to pay full-price for pajama pants I would never have purchased under any other circumstances. Skin burning, ears ringing, sick as a dog (no offense, Wahlter!), trying to find love and tolerance for the woman quibbling over her expired coupon, wondering if the flames have jumped Wentworth and if our house is still standing.

As I exit the store, I look north toward the ominous darkness and try to reassure myself. Our cabin was built in 1947. It has seen earthquakes and fires and flash floods and lightning strikes. Right?

[Please. I don’t want to lose our home.]

We call our parents. Beg for prayers on Facebook. In crisis situations, some people shine, some disappear. Others offer crappy or ill-timed jokes. Yet others whom you thought had vanished from your radar, reappear with stunning compassion. But it's all good. The two boyz waiting for me in the front seat of my dusty Ford Focus were enough.

4:00 pm: We check into our room at The Safari Inn in Burbank. (Not a plug. Definitely NOT a plug.) We hug, but it is perfunctory. I can’t feel the love of my life in my arms. I can’t feel anything. Just panic. Terror rattling my bones. Images of the wind-whipped black smoke and flames crossing the 210 freeway and into Hansen Dam flicker through my mind on a loop.

Then Wahlter hurls all over the bed. Goodbye $300 room deposit.

“We all feel the same way, bud.” I coo, holding him close to my chest. Then I turn to my husband, dreading what comes next.

“Are you ready to see if our house is still there?” One thing SoCal news knows how to do is work a “BREAKING NEWS” story.

Inside, I’m screaming, but I am not alone. In this, husband and wife are unified. Sometimes separate on our own iPhones, sometimes together on the edge of a hotel bed ready to take in the aerial copter view of our neighborhood on fire.

Other people’s dumb comments or inaction slide right off the sides of our protective bubble. We are sealed inside together. Because how can anyone else in the world possibly understand what we are feeling when it’s our world that might be burning to the ground?

Kevin turns on the TV.

4:10 pm: The camera must be mounted inside a truck. It is moving slowly up a smoke-filled street. Wait. I know exactly where they are.

“Kevin. It’s Johanna Ave.!”

Together, we cry, “That’s the house we looked at!”

The camera turns at the corner of Mary Bell and Radwin where I headed for home on my birthday jog last month. The camera is moving slowly, agonizingly slowly up Radwin. Ash snows across the lens. A gray and eerie light fills the sky. The neighborhood is getting darker. At the end of the street, fire trucks are parked, red lights flashing angrily. If you were to turn left, you would take a short stretch of Radwin to the fork at Hillrose and Wayside Drive. And then down to our house.

The camera pans upwards to a raging inferno on a hill. A structure completely engulfed in flames.


My husband’s hands fly to cover his face. I fall onto the hotel room floor. My head is spinning. I can’t breathe. I can’t see. I can’t figure it out.

Marc Brown tells us it’s a structure on Hillrose. Not Wayside Drive. NOT Wayside Drive. I take a shallow breath. We get perspective, realizing the burning house is at the end of Hillrose.

10 houses away from ours.

Brown explains (in an inappropriately cheerful voice) that the fire fighters’ primary concern is the brutal Santa Ana winds. They are too high to allow the 747 “Supertanker” to fly by and dump 19,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in 6 seconds. (It flies as low as 200 ft. above ground level and can climb away at 6,000 feet per minute.) But, they must get this burning structure under control, or it will spread throughout the neighborhood.

And then they cut to the Thomas Fire in Ventura.

There was nothing more to do but wait.

Kevin had a beer, his iPhone and Coke Zero. I went to a meeting. To celebrate a sponsee taking a sobriety cake, to hear a dear friend lead, and to share my fear out loud, with people who love me. With tears rolling down my face, I confessed I was terrified we were going to lose everything. That all we had were a few bags and the clothes on our backs. By the time I had finished the sentence, my sponsee and my friend were offering me the clothes they had in their cars.

I was surrounded.

And the miracle in all this was that it had not even occurred to me to take a sip from Kevin’s open can of Bud Light when he stepped outside the hotel room.

There are miracles everywhere, always, even if you have to squint through the gray and eerie light of a wildfire to see them.

Kevin’s friend who is a fire captain had texted, “Based on the aspect and defensible space of your neighbors, it looks like you guys might just be in the clear.” I take another shallow breath.

By the time the 10 pm evening news was over, it looked like the winds had shifted in our favor. It was blowing the fire down Wentworth, the blaze licking at the hillsides, charring them black and destroying a total of 30 structures in all. No people died, but wildlife did.

Fast. It all happened so fast.

I barely slept that night, or the next, at the Safari Inn. (I’m pretty sure there was a tweaker walking overhead all. night. long. Dropping baby grands on the floor, and rearranging the furniture just because he could.) Either way, rest was impossible. I could find no peace in my heart.

When the winds died down, and the hot spots were out, the evacuation order was lifted. We could go home.

But not everyone did.

It’s true. Undeniably true. We got out with the most important things: Our lives. Each other. Wahlter. Our passions. And we got to go home. But I am struggling to find joy.

The places we live in can meet dual needs: Necessity (a roof) and Spirituality (a sanctuary). For me, in the undesired and tired role of lifelong patient, to find peace in my home is not optional. For the chronically ill, there has to be a place you can renew. Cry your eyes out, scream, toss and turn, soak until you are pruned, flex a firm middle finger directly at the sky, or fall onto your knees and beg.

If we had lost our cabin in the hills, I would have lost the heart of my health: our home. Here I find peace, renewal and release from the burden of chronic illness. I am profoundly grateful we didn’t, but joy? Not tonight.

10 houses away, our neighbor lost all of that and more. And the rest of us watched someone’s life, history, and sanctuary go up in flames.

The highest house on the block caught an ember.

The luck of the draw.

The luck of the draft.

[Thank you, LAFD. Heroes beyond words.]

Words fail, sending love. Sorry you had to go through this... and that so many lost everything. Thank you for sharing (again) so articulately and with such compassion and insight.

— Astrid Van Wieren
You bring tears to my eyes. So grateful your sanctuary remains.

— Shannon Gosch
Grateful that your world remains intact through this terrifying experience, grateful for your expressive talent, and incredibly sad for your neighbors, and for animals who were unable to escape. This all feels like an allegory for a world in flames.

Laura Boujoff
You brought tears to my eyes. And to my kid’s, as I read this to him.

— Anne Priscus Fair
What an incredibly beautiful expression of the fear and awe of this tragedy in our city.

— Donna Brenner Cohen
Thank you for sharing your story. What a horrible experience, yet somehow you shared it so beautifully.

— Jeni Lehmann



Thanksgiving reminds me of Armageddon.

When, might you ask, have YOU experienced a: “dramatic and catastrophic conflict, typically seen as to destroy the world or the human race?"

Oh, please.

A post-apocalyptic vibe permeates Los Angeles during holiday weekends. Families flee by freeway, and by Thanksgiving the streets are abandoned. Honking ceases. Chaos un-ensues. Throw in 95-degree heat in November and it feels a little like the end of the world.

To see the freeways barren-ish this weekend was unsettling, but it was nothing like Carmageddon.

Who remembers the weekend Angelenos were warned about for months? The 405 was SHUTTING DOWN for an unprecedented 53 hours to allow crews to demolish a bridge in preparation for the freeway’s planned expansion. Over the July 15th, 2011 weekend, a stretch of 10 miles between the city’s two busiest interchanges—the 10 freeway to the south and the 101 freeway to the north—would be inaccessible.

If you are not from Los Angeles, it is difficult to explain what the 405 means to a city defined by The Car. The 405 runs from Irvine in the south to San Fernando in the north—through Orange County to Long Beach and up to Los Angeles County. The 405 is what drives L.A. and is how it is driven. On the 405, Angelenos stay connected to each other inside a sprawling labyrinth of hills and canyons, ocean and cement. This city of The Car has even inspired a dialect of sorts: Freeway-speak.

“Take the 210 to the 2 to the 5 and get off at the 4th street exit.” (This is how Kevin gets to his studio, par exemple.)

The 405 is Los Angeles’ Life Force.

In 2011, I was the Golden State’s healthiest alcoholic/addict, hitting all 5 food groups as hard as I hit the bottle. On the conveyor belt, cheap $4.99 Russian vodka lay nestled amongst avocados (Omega 3!), tomatoes (Lycopene!) and broccoli (Super food!). I chose not to think about how the days of Grey Goose were long gone. That I was drinking our dollars away too quickly to keep up with my penchant for designer vodka. No, it just made good sense to save our pennies! As long as everything else I was putting into my newly transplanted body was organically A-OK, this Siberian liquid—with its origin in potatoes—could not possibly harm me.

But the night before Carmageddon, I drank more than I ever had, including substances never before guzzled by my unquenchable gullet and gut. When I awoke the next morning, I could not move.

My body oozed alcohol. It trickled down through the shafts of my hair to the tops of my toenails cooked soft from the toxic blood alcohol level on which I was barely breathing. If I had walked by a candle I would have burst into flames.

On my skin, I could feel the late afternoon light, warm and full. I tried to cover my face with my arm and got as far as my thigh. This later-day light guides regular people through their day as from the kindly beam of a flashlight. For me, it was a beacon reminding me that those who were in bed in the middle of the day were different from everyone else.

Depression like a virus mushroomed inside my chest. My body craving Life I could not muster for myself. Somehow, I got the TV on. Had I ever been this hungover? I was past hungover. I was hanging on.

A female news reporter appeared on the screen. Her slick fuchsia suit hugged her hips. She held the microphone in a territorial grip beneath her glossy mouth. She was ferocious. She was ALIVE.

“The mayor and the police are advising people to stay at home. But emergency operations centers have been opened across the city.”

She was standing in the middle of 405. No cars were driving in either direction. Long river-like cement roads flowed behind her, eerie stretches of abandoned asphalt burning in the summer sun.

I shivered. It was startling to observe the typically vital freeway shut down. The roads looked surreal without their regular tin can chaos, yet also insignificant. Stripped of purpose. Los Angeles was drained of all life without its main artery open and flowing.

Even in my unconscious state, it was obvious. This was me. I was the 405 unplugged.

I remember being unable to move as my soul screamed. The recent alcohol-splattered, pill-strewn road I had walked had wound through the small towns of Dabbling to Dependency through Desperation. It was the end of the road for me.

Pills and alcohol were my LifeForce. A glass of straight-up relief or a narcotic cloud of ignorance had worked for so long. Offering me distraction and peace. Freedom. At Carmageddon, they offered me nothing but death.

And that day, it’s the closest I came to welcoming that.

Into evening, waves of depression radiated outward from my soul as melted core, obliterating my spirit with each ripple. I clicked the remote and the barren stretches of freeway disappeared into a tiny pinprick of light.

LifeForce out.

On Thanksgiving, in addition to turkey and cranberry sauce, it’s a North American tradition of sorts to go around the table and articulate what we are thankful for. It’s lovely. It’s heartfelt. But gratitude can be easy. It can be a list of the external: My iPad, my Botox, or my million-dollar business. (None of which, BTW, I possess.) Or it can be hard.

Gratitude, for me, has been found through work, the willing excavation of my soul and restoration of the ruins I have found.

Gratitude came through loss. When I say, “I am grateful I am not homeless” it bounces off me, for I have never been homeless. But I have lost my health, and yes, very nearly my life.

You would think everything would be uphill from Carmageddon on, but poor health has a way of wearing you down to the very nub of yourself. Just once ‘round the table I wish I could quip, wryly, like a bit of an asshole, “Well, at least I have my health!” but today that is not my story.

My burning skin still cries out when I wear clothes, and now Houston, we have a new symptom: ear-ringing, or the frequently mispronounced tinnitus. Whether this will be a temporary blip on my medical chart, or a permanently torturous condition that I can barely write this piece through (never mind the rest of my life), remains to be seen.

My deepest gratitude? Turns out death ain't all that bad. For I had to die in order to learn how to live. Grrr. God, I hate it when all those clichés turn out to be true! My favorite? One day at a time. Sometimes an hour. Sometimes one second.

Every morning, my soul still screams. Sometimes softly, sometimes in a you-better-hit-your-knees-lady kinda tone. Because daily, I am faced with the same conflict, and it is as dramatic and catastrophic as it has ever been.

What Life Force will I plug into?

Pills and Alcohol or something altogether miraculous.

In some ways, I still feel trapped inside my body the way I was on that Carmageddon afternoon, unable to lift my arm to shield my face from the afternoon sun.

But today, no matter what, I choose to live in the light.

Gawd, you are brilliant. You make me crave the Divine while you search for your true light. How brightly you shine.

— Katherine White
Henriette, your words are powerful!

— Elizabeth Rose Figuls
Is the book out yet?

— Debbie Trujillo

—Heather Bianchi

To Henriette on her 13th birthday


October 29th, 1982
To Henriette on her 13th birthday,

In 36 days you will be diagnosed with chronic kidney disease.

Yes, I know Daddy just died, but this is up next on your docket.

This diagnosis won’t mean much to you right now, because you are finally a teenager! You won’t look or feel sick until you are almost 19. You will get your ears pierced. Win a writing contest. Get head lice from a fedora you bought in a thrift store to totally copy John Taylor from Duran Duran. And you will fall in love.

At 14, you will be prescribed medication to take every day: Prednisone, Imuran and Baby Aspirin. Officially, your growth will be stunted, but at 5’3” you are of average height and this becomes the least of your worries. With medication, Toronto doctors slow the deterioration of your kidneys, but eventually, they will fail.

At 19, you will have 3% kidney function and go on dialysis. A Perm Cath will be surgically inserted into your Subclavian Vein. This lies beneath your Jugular. Just sayin’ because, hell-o, we already know you’re no science whiz.

On Christmas Eve, 1987, you will endure a 3-hour dialysis session. On the streetcar ride home, you will collapse against Mum, barely able to breathe. Toxins your kidneys are unable to clear from your blood will clog your brain. Thought will become near impossible. Through the streetcar window, you’ll watch the white snow fall deathly silent against the dark winter night. There will be much holiday to-ing and fro-ing of the people. You won’t care. Your head will feel like a rock, a weight you are no longer able to lift. You will understand that you are only alive because of a machine. You will want all of this to be over, but it has only just begun.

Your heart will crack.

But you will survive.

At 19, Mum will give you one of her kidneys. It sits in your belly! You are science fiction personified! But there are pills. So many pills and in dosages that change the way you look and feel. Your body twitches, agitated. You cry for no reason. High doses of steroids give you such moonface, you cut your own hair to hide your swollen cheeks. It looks awful. I wish I could give you a big hug right now and tell you, you are beautiful no matter what. Can you hear me? YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. YOU ARE ALIVE. But you are 19, and your heart is broken and you want to look like you used to. But you never will.

But you will survive.

But hold the phone! Here comes more fun stuff! You will become an actress! Your dream is not restricted to a Grade 3 project where you drew yourself singing/dancing/acting like Marie Osmond! Boy, her brother is cute, right? With your new kidney, you will have boundless energy to do theater, film and TV. You are a medical miracle!

At 21, you will be prescribed a controlled substance called Fiorinal for your crippling migraines. Euphoria will saturate every pore. Rubbery limbs. Soaring soul. She will be the greatest thing to happen to your body ever since…ever. Then you will meet a really cute theater stud named Kevin. Like, really cute. You will marry him, but you don’t give Her up. Kevin will marry You both.

But you will survive.

When you are 26, your platelets will drop so low you are tested for cancer. You will get month-long chest colds and 5-day migraines. When you are 29, you have a kidney biopsy that leaves you bleeding for days. You take Codeine every morning and float away for a couple of hours. You have done this every morning for 10 years. And you will do it for 10 more.

But you will survive.

You newlyweds will move to Los Angeles, the City of Angels! Guess what! You will be on Star Trek: Voyager! You have never actually seen an episode of Star Trek—with the exception of the Shatner reruns you and your brother watched afterschool in the mid-70’s—but still, it’s really cool. You drove yourself to Paramount Studios! Fucking A! You travel. You run 5 miles a day. You are in love. You are a healthy goddess with long, luscious hair, nary a zit and guns for days (The non-NRA kind.).

You will never have children. Are you surprised? It is not easy for a transplant patient to bear children. You are on very toxic medications. You guys will try, but it does not happen to your broken body. You will wonder what that bond would have been like. Your soul will cramp a little, no, a lot, at the feel of your nephews,’ niece’s, and godsons’ newborn-fingered grasp.

But you will survive.

You will have HOUNDS! A whole bunch! Well, five. You and Kevin adopt senior basset hounds. Somehow, you relate to their old and mangy, broken-down bodies, tails wagging at half-mast. Soon their adoring gazes and stubborn companionship will have you wondering who rescued whom.

At 40, all health will break loose. Your transplant will go into rejection, and you will fall into the gap. Even your husband turned Prince will not be able to find you. Or Codeine. Or Fiorinal. Darkness will sear your soul. Isolation becomes your friend. You will add new friends: Xanax and wine. Then a couple more still: Vodka and Vicodin. And so on…

They are cunning companions. They offer momentary Euphoria, untold and repeated release from the prison your body and mind have become. Then, they will thrash your soul until it is bruised, bleeding, and welcoming of Death. Aloneness consumes your every pore, so incomprehensible that finding comfort in the company of worms six-feet-under flashes through your mind as an option.

[Hang on, sweet girl, hang on.]

Your heart will crack.

You will overdose, but you will survive.
At 42, your Prince will become even more Charming and offer you his kidney as Glass Slipper. You let him rescue you, but you want more, more, more. You cannot get enough. There is never enough—of pills or what’s-your-poison? Or both. You want it all. And more still.

At 42, you will overdose for the second time.

At 42, you will go into rehab.

At 43, you will relapse.

At 44, relapse still.

At 45, you will get sober.

You could write a book about the road to recovering—present tense, please note. “One Day at a Time” turns out to be for realz, not just some clichéd bumper sticker slapped on the back of a VW Bus. The 12 Steps give you mad skillz. And guess what? You write a book for real. First it was called, “The Glass Slipper,” then “Every Pill Has a Story,” and now, “In Pillness and in Health.”

You will finish that fucking book, no matter what.

Because your first 45 years were just a warm up.

One night in the bathtub, at 46, you will go to town on itchy forearms with an old pumice stone from the side of the tub. Two days later, what looks like an enormous sunburn covers most of your left forearm. The next day it spreads to your right forearm. Horrified, you watch as little red dots swarm across your skin, penetrating nerve and sinew.

You are now in pain. Burning/Itching/Pinpricking/Stabbing pain.

Over two and a half years you will see: Three dermatologists, your nephrologist, neurologist, an acupuncturist, allergist, immunologist, naturopath, and your transplant team. It is not autoimmune. It is not a virus or infection. Not nerve damage. Nor any skin condition any East/West doctor has ever seen.

It is their nothing. It is your everything.

It is chronic pain.

The rash will disappear as will your hope, but your “invisible” pain will persist. Fabric chafes your skin like sandpaper, as if thorns are poking up through your skin. You wear your husband’s underwear around the house, and when the band snaps you will hold it up with a clothes peg. It is ridiculous. It is your life.

This pain will bring you to your knees. You beg for direction, abandoning yourself to something you have always believed in, but never been able to access. This source of strength will fill you up every time you ask. It will not kill the pain, but it will kill your fear. If only for a few moments. You call it God.

You are grateful for this. So incredibly grateful.

(Oh, and BTW, you are also very dramatic.)

Why, why, sweet girl, am I telling you all this?

Because through all this pain, you will be the happiest you have ever been.

On your 49th birthday, you will struggle to wake up. Your eyes will crank open and your skin will alight. But as you turn to your right, your heart will crack. He’s still there. In the bathroom mirror, the woman you have become will both startle and impress. Your puckering lips can no longer be moisturized away. Your hair no longer grows, but you’re rockin’ the pixie cut. And look, look at the spark in your eyes. You can see the miracle. You are the miracle.

You will never look like you used to.

You will never feel like you used to.

Thank God.

You do not want to die.

You do not want to use.

Your heart cracks over and over and over again.

Because the light is coming in.


You will survive.

Yet again, your strength at storytelling astounds me. In this short piece, I experienced laughter, tears, heartbreak, and inspiration. You are a blessing to so many.

— Tanya Gregory Thomlinson
Wow, this brought tears to my eyes.

— Robert Freud
Incredible. You are truly a miracle.

— Shannon Sabelline
Happy birthday, sweet friend. I wish I could take your pain away. Your writing is so incredibly beautiful.

— Amber Wallace
How beautifully this is written. My eyes were glued to every character of every word and my heart ebbed and flowed with her every emotion.

— Linda Law
Amazing. She doesn’t just share her journey, she takes you for a ride in the backseat.

— Sheila Jones Corrigan

In the morning, I feel no pain


In the morning, I feel no pain.

I’m granted a second (maybe two), of reprieve when I awake. This, make no mistake, is no gentle rousing, but rather a painful slog upwards from horizontal to vertical. First, my eyes blink open through the gritty sands of slumber. Next, my ears twitch, alerted to my white noise Bed Time Fan app and our A/C wall unit blasting its technological guts out. (Thanks, tinnitus!) But in those fleeting moments, when The Hen has not quite landed on Planet Earth, Life is bliss. I forget. And my skin forgets its singular mission to hurt me.

It is so cunning, this skin of mine. For the bitter irony is that I have never felt more comfortable in my skin, and never wanted more desperately to crawl out of it every second of every day.

At night, another moment of grace. No, my body is still itching/burning/pinpricking with this physiological nightmare of mine. But as I close my willing eyes, as my brain’s circuitry downshifts towards sleep, my last wisp of a thought is always,

“Maybe tomorrow it will stop.”

It had been declared. It has been one of those weeks, and my beautiful sponsor deemed Sunday: A Day for Hen. To let myself off the hook of any and all expectations that I “achieve” anything. Maximum Self-Care-us was the aim. Doing nuthin’ was the game.

But there were addictions to feed. Calm-down. This cross-addiction of mine is but to a tropical nut. And Hell-o, did you know that coconut is neither a nut, nor a fruit, but a drupe? Who knew! And then there is the addiction over which hubby remains powerless—Coke Zero. Although initially perturbed that COKE ZERO CHANGED THEIR FORMULA, it hasn’t stopped anyone I know from his daily guzzle.

It was about to go down at Ralph's.

On days like this, shopping is torture. Squatting down to collect a can of organic coconut milk from the bottom shelf, my jeans scrape my skin. As I carry my weighty packages out to the car, the plastic handles dig painfully into my arm, branding me with disturbing angry marks.

Ignition on. Pedal on the right. I head for home, reminding myself the precious seconds I could shave off while speeding are not worth it. (Speeding bad. Law good.) I repeat this mantra all the way home. The image of stripping off all my clothes the second I walk through the door blocks out everything: the traffic light, the sunset and the sky.

When I bust through the front door, I hear him coming…Clip-Clip-Clip-CLIP-CLIP-CLIP...His trotting intensifies as he turns the corner from the bedroom and spots me. Our eyes lock. He is crying, near dancing with joy. Unreasonably excited! I call out his name! Dropping to my knees, we embrace. His tail beats the sweetest canine metronome beat against our hardwood floor as I hold my bouncy basset hound boy: Mr. Wahlter White McIntyre.

I have been gone for 47 minutes.

The first thing I do is (as promised!), is drop all my clothes and tear into the bathroom, because although I have been gone for under an hour, I have a rockin’ kidney transplant. (Hats Off, McIntyre!) This does not deter my steadfast hound. He chases me into the bathroom. As I take my rightful place upon our ceramic throne (Pee. So. Good), his head collapses against my leg. He stares. Sheer adoration oozing from his hazel eyes, as if to say,

“I’m not sure how I survived, but please never, ever, ever go away again.”


“Please feed me.”

I hold his furry face in my hands—frosty face, all white now—and thank him.

“Thank you, Wahlter. I can’t get through this without you.”

And he looks back at me as if to say,

“You will never have to.”


“Please feed me.”

Or both.

I feel so alone in this, because I am alone. No one can be in my skin with me. So somehow these moments must be found. Moments when the sick can be transported above their physical burdens. When they can feel lightness and laugh and remember than Life is worth it.

Sometimes I find this release in prayer. Or in the empty space before a new intervention begins —a new pill, change of diet, CBD oil, photo-therapy, or desensitization treatment. An uncharted period where hope still reigns supreme. A blank page where the result has yet to be written.

Or with this guy.

My bud who does battle with my husband every morning in the form of a gigantic “GRRR…” as Kevin bends over to kiss me goodbye. My muse who lay next to me all summer as I finished my book—following me from one location to the next: From the patio, to the dining room table, to the couch, and on rough days, his favorite location and mine—the bed.

The bed. Where I experience those moments of grace, however brief, every day. The ignorance of morning and my nighttime prayer.

"Maybe tomorrow it will stop."

I am speechless at the power of your prose. You have helped those of us who do not live in your skin understand and, perhaps, show more compassion to those around us who suffer things we can never imagine.

— Alix Godbout
Simply beautiful.

— Michelle Stevenson
You’re a beautiful writer, Henriette. The way you express your journey is inspiring, but also showing your human frail side. It’s a story many should read.

— Leslie Stamp
My heart is always so touched by your words.

— Mary Anderson-Harris

You Give Good Kidney


That I can ever forget is absurd. But much like the fires that engulfed our neighborhood, life can consume me. From bills, to The Book, to my burning skin, I forget. That there once was a time I struggled to walk, could barely hug you back, and urine was an elusive nectar my body no longer offered.

When I walked into Cedars today, I remembered. That after my blood was drawn, endless hours would pass when it would be impossible for me to breathe. Flashbacks of biopsies and ultrasounds and dialysis flickered through my mind. Until the transplant coordinator dissolved them all with a single call.

"No changes. We'll see you in a year."

After I wipe away the tears, I get to walk up to you, hug you, and then pee.

Because sweetheart, only you get that pee is the thing. The only thing.

Damn, McIntyre. You give good kidney.

Henriette! That was so moving. I’m so glad you’re okay!

— Diana Ardzrooni Benjamin.
A wonderful writer. You are the best.

— Ann Lantello
You touch my heart, with every, single, word. Love to you, sublime survivor.

— Shannon Gosch
So happy for you Henriette. And I so admire your absolutely unique ability to allow me to share the depth of your emotions, your feelings. Not just thoughts; those are easy to put to paper. But the FEELING. To have me experience that.......whoa!!!

— Stephen Rice

I Wrote a Book


And just like that, I wrote a book.

#inpillnessandinhealth #29chapters #400words #addiction #opiates #barbiturates #benzodiazepines #immunosuppressants #kidneytransplant #marriage #memoir #writer #sobergirl #nomatterwhat #nopainnogain #dreamscometrue #justdoit #mayyoufindhimnow

And I cannot wait to purchase a copy and have you autograph it for me! — Tanya Gregory Tomlinson
Congratulations, Hen! I’ve enjoyed the excerpts and hope it’s a mammoth success!! — Joe Foley
Can’t wait to read it! — Missy Russell
Can’t wait to read it! — Tamra Martin
Can’t wait to read it! — Debbie Trujillo
Hooray! Very happy for you, and I already know it’s good. — Fred Rubin