By Camille Pagán
You don’t know what a bad day is until you’ve had the one that Libby Miller had.
First, the surgeon who had told her that the golf ball-sized lump in her stomach was probably just a fatty tumor and surgery just a precaution, now tells her the lump was malignant. A subcutaneous panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma, to be precise, extremely rare — and aggressive.
For Libby, who at age 10 watched her mother die of cancer, leaving her, her twin brother Paul and their father bereft, this is terrible news. When her surgeon starts talking about treatment, she declines and leaves.
What she wants more than anything is to go home to her husband Tom, an urban planner, for a hug. But as soon as she walks in the door sobbing and wailing, “Tom, how could this happen?” Tom asks, “You know, don’t you? . . . Oh, boy. I didn’t want you to find out this way. Did O’Reilly spill the beans?”
It turns out Tom has news, too. He’s been seeing a new therapist and he thinks he’s gay.
Libby has loved Tom for nearly 20 years. This was not news she expected. Her response is to stab his hand with a fork and tell him to get out.
While Libby can talk to her brother and her father about Tom being gay, she can’t break the news to them that she’s dying of cancer.
Fueled by anger about what is happening to her, Libby quits her job with a monster of a boss; orders her husband to move out; empties most of their joint savings account (the majority of which she earned) into a new account solely her own; and puts the condo she mostly paid for up for sale.
Then she buys a ticket and rents a cottage on Vieques Island in Costa Rica for six weeks. She’s met in San Juan by the pilot of the small plane that will take her to Vieques. As they start to land, a flock of birds fly into a propeller and the pilot (Shiloh) has to make an emergency landing.
As the plane careens toward the water, Libby realizes with every fiber of her being she doesn’t want to die. As they wait for rescue, she tells Shiloh about her diagnosis. He’s the first person she’s told since she learned the news.
This book is funny and poignant by turns. It is partly a story about facing death, and partly a story about facing life. It’s a love story and it’s a story about not throwing in the towel when you think things are hopeless. It’s about not giving up on dreams.
LIFE AND OTHER NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES is a warm and uplifting read, the perfect antidote to pandemics, politics and current events. It is reminiscent of RULES FOR VISITING in its gentle focus on connections with others.
The book has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films.
The Author: Camille Pagán
Camille Pagán wrote her first novel, THE ART OF FORGETTING, at night after her infant daughter went to bed. A close friend was battling terminal cancer and “I guess you could say life’s big questions were on my mind.”
Noting that her fiction focuses on “love, loss and making the most of this wonderfully messy life,” Pagán says she writes to figure out how she feels about the world and to connect with others who are thinking about the same things.
A cross-country move, the birth of a son and a case of self-doubt left her on the verge of quitting writing. She decided to write a story just for herself. That became LIFE AND OTHER NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES (2015). Its sequel is DON’T MAKE ME TURN THIS LIFE AROUND (2021).
It was followed by FOREVER IS THE WORST LONG TIME (2017), WOMAN LAST SEEN IN HER THIRTIES (2018), I’M FINE AND NEITHER ARE YOU (2019), THIS WON’T END WELL (2020) and EVERYTHING MUST GO (2022).
In addition to writing novels, she is a journalist specializing in health. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parade, Time and WebMD. She has been a staff member at several publications and websites, including a recent stint as health editor at Real Simple magazine.
Pagán’s husband was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She and her family currently live in Ann Arbor, MI.