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When 19-year-old Emma wakes up one morning, she has an amazing clarity that allows her to reflect back upon her full, rewarding life. She revels in reminiscing and cherishing memories about her family and planning for her future. But when the clock doesn’t move off of 4:04 am and her long dead dog shows up at the back door, Emma begins to realize that she has begun a new chapter in her life.
Dealing with death is a universal experience. If we are lucky, our parents live long enough so that we must bid them farewell. But if you are a parent, it is assumed that you’ll never have to witness the passing of your own children. Donna Mebane’s Tomorrow Comes: An Emma Story tells the tale of a family who is coping with just that – the loss of their vibrant, healthy, sweet Emma – daughter, sister and best friend. Emma’s story will resonate with readers young and old. Chapters are told from the alternating points of view of Emma, her sister Sarah, her brothers Ben and Jason, her dad Rod, her aunts Carol and Patsy, the community and others. The book is filled with personal anecdotes specific to Emma and her family, but that doesn’t detract from the story at all. These stories are relevant and familiar to any parent who has had loving relationships with their own children or a child who has shared a special bond with their parents. Emma’s stories and memories could easily be your own.
This is a great read for people who have wanted to try Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones but have been hesitant because of the violent storyline involved. The books are similar in that they both trace a family’s journey through the grief process. The reader sees the various characters go through the stages of grief. But Tomorrow Comes: An Emma Story has a personal touch that Lovely Bones lacks. Author Donna Mebane is Emma’s real mom writing about the death of her daughter. It is a raw, moving, emotional reading experience. The story of this family’s journey will evoke both tears and laughter. Yes, this is book about the death of a vibrant girl, but at its heart it is about her family’s path towards healing. There are plenty of surprisingly funny, light moments. Mebane’s words will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Interview with Donna Mebane
1) You write from the point of view of Sarah, Ben and Jason, Emma’s sister and her brothers. You seem to capture perfectly how they felt about their sister. How much did you talk to them about their inner feelings and emotions before you took on the big responsibility of writing in their voice?
As you noted in your review, our family has always been very close, and we are also fairly non-judgmental. If you’re a Mebane, you can pretty much be who you want to be and do what you want to do. As a result, my children have rarely held back on sharing anything with me. (Sometimes, given this openness, staying calm and thinking through how to respond as a parent has been a challenge!) We are also a family of talkers, so sitting around the dinner table talking about anything and everything is always our idea of an evening well spent. Sadly, when Emma died, we didn’t really know how to talk about it. We couldn’t bear to use the past tense – what … Emma gone?… forever? And we certainly couldn’t speak of her as being present. For the first time it seems in forever, words failed us. Nothing in our lives had prepared us for a loss that cut so deep that we barely found the will to breathe, let alone talk. As I describe in the author notes, I decided to write the book within a few months after Emma’s death. I hoped it would provide a bit of a lifeline for me and, in a small way, it did. The surprise was how much the process of writing helped us as a family. It gave us a relatively safe context for keeping Emma part of our day-to-day lives. I’d call Sarah every night and read her what I had written. We would cry together, and she would make suggestions of things to add or new directions to take. Emotionally, Ben wasn’t able to read each chapter as I wrote it – in fact, he still hasn’t read the whole book – but he was very involved when I needed specific help such as with the Facebook chapter. Because he lived with us at the time, I was very connected with him on a daily basis. I did speak with him very specifically about how I was approaching his chapters, and he read them and did some light editing. But he was generally very comfortable that I captured him well. Jason was different still. Although Jason is much older and hasn’t lived with us for years, he and I have a strong bond in part because I was a single parent to him during his early years. He certainly knew I was writing a book but was not involved in it at all. Although I was quite confident that I had spoken in his voice, his chapters were the ones I was most concerned about as they evoke some challenging emotions. He didn’t read the book until it was completely finished and his only negative comment was “Michael Jackson? In the basement? Come on, Mom.” I am delighted that he is very proud of the book and has worked hard to help get Emma’s story out.
2) One way that Emma copes with her own death is by reading the posts her friends have left on her Facebook page. In the Author Notes you say that you also read those same messages as a way to cope with your daughter’s death. How has technology changed the grieving process?
Of course it’s a cliché to say, but I’ll say it anyhow: technology changes everything, even such fundamental things as how we define, make, and keep friends. When we asked for and were reluctantly granted “friend” status, Facebook gave us an intimate look into a whole dimension of Emma we had never experienced, and we saw a side of her that was quite different from the daughter, sister, granddaughter, and niece that we knew up close and personal. This window stayed open after she died, and we were surprised and comforted at the ways Facebook entries honored her life and her death and the poignant ways friends, teachers, and even strangers articulated the impact of knowing her. In a funny way, the anonymity usually associated with technology was completely reversed during the grieving process. Face to face, people didn’t seem to know what to say. On Facebook, friends, family, friends of friends, even people I had never known shared their deepest feelings of loss and pain with Emma and, because of the very public nature of Facebook, secondarily with all of us and with each other. The other thing that technology enabled was creating deep connections with strangers who became friends and with friends who had become strangers. My college roommate “friended” me, for example, because she somehow learned of Emma’s death online. I responded and learned that her only child had committed suicide 13 years ago. We have since rekindled our relationship in a new and deeper way than we ever could have had as naïve, fresh-faced college kids.
3) Dreams play a big role in how Emma reaches out to her loved ones after her death. Did you do any research about dreams?
Beyond the description in Chapter 19 (during which Emma tries to figure out how to reconnect with Sarah), I did not conduct research. I did what I thought Emma would have done – cruise the internet for ideas. While wearing my Emma hat, I googled “communicating with the dead” and was intrigued by the work of Edgar Cayce who apparently was a famous psychic and dream interpreter. I spent some time reading through his work, though I wouldn’t call it research!
4) Several times you mention a difference between the way adults and younger people grieve. Carol, one of Emma’s aunts, is puzzled by the behavior of Emma’s friends before her funeral. She notes that they are “so shocked and so honest in their sadness.” You bring up the thousands of Facebook posts generated after Emma’s death and point out that they express “a depth of despair not often experienced by people so young.” What is it about being young that allows our youth to grieve so differently?
This is a hard question for me to answer since I am far from young! I would say that in general young people just don’t think about death. And why should they? It’s supposed to be decades away. Young adults don’t have limbs that are starting to creak and memories that are losing the fine shading of details. No one they know – or can remember – has died yet and they even occasionally, during their most rebellious times, find themselves imagining the freedom the death of their elders would bring. They find it hard to imagine what next year will bring, let alone face the horror that standing on the brink of death would surely bring. Then someone they love dies. And that someone was the heartbeat of the various groups she was a part of and the one whose life they envied. Surely the shock of that loss is intensified a thousand times by the sheer absurdity of it all. A nineteen-year-old simply does not have pizza one night, spend the evening trying on clothes with a friend, kiss her family good night, and go to bed never to wake up again? How could that be? I think the other aspect is that younger people believe that they are invincible. Death does not happen to them or to anyone they love. It’s the headline in the paper, not a reality in their lives. I smoked as a teenager, and the thing that made me stop was not the fear of lung cancer, but the fact that I burned my best blouse with an ash.
5) In the story, you leave it open whether or not Emma finds God in her “AFTER” or if friendship and love are her ultimate guiding light. What do you think Emma discovers about faith in her heaven/afterlife?
God was the furthest thing from my mind when Emma died. I wasn’t mad at Him, I didn’t blame Him. I just dismissed Him. Faith has never been an important part of my life and the little grounding in religion I did have provided neither answers nor comfort. I was so angry when people even hinted that Emma was in some kind of “better place.” The idea of her suddenly being all-wise, all-good, all-knowing was repulsive to me. I wanted her to be Emma. I wanted her to stay exactly as she had been during the 19 years she was in this world. I was surprised at parts of the story – they seemed to write themselves. One of them was the part where Emma is in the church looking for God. She doesn’t find Him in Tomorrow Comes. Frankly, she may never find Him. But He has been much on my mind lately, and I don’t think Emma’s story will end without some further exploration. That said, I love that you articulated the importance of friendship and love as a kind of “guiding light.” Certainly, they are just that for so many people who, like Emma, are inherently sweet and good and kind, but who may not have developed a sense of spirituality in their lives. I don’t know if Emma would have explored her beliefs about God, or Buddha, or whatever. (Often times young adults do so during endless discussions that characterize college life.) But I do know that Emma always tried to make decisions through the lens of friendship and caring and love.
6) Can you tell our readers about Emma’s own “Book Abot Chaps” (available at starshinegalaxy.com and major online booksellers)?
Thank you so much for asking about this book. Emma wanted to be an artist, and she was always drawing. Although her talent developed over the years, her early “work” was not particularly distinctive or really even very good. Shortly before Emma died, after she made the decision to major in graphic arts, I came across a first grade project in which she drew all the chaps (shapes) that she knew. Sadly (but hilariously), they are mostly all wrong. After I found the project, I showed it to Emma and she couldn’t stop laughing. She showed all her friends, and they all wanted a copy of it. We included her hand-written book among the items at her viewing and, throughout the five long hours that friends, family and strangers, poured through the funeral home, there was always a crowd around it. I heard snatches of laughter from that crowd as I stood to greet what seemed like the entire town of Geneva. It brought comfort to know that, even in death, Emma could bring joy to others.
7) What have you learned about the self-publishing process (good and/or bad)?
The jury is still out on self-publishing. I think, when my husband, Rod, and I realized that there really was a book here, we assumed (hoped? prayed?) that a big publisher would swoop in and carry it to market. Then, when we decided that we would need to take the lead in getting a book out there, we assumed that it would naturally (and quickly) rise to the Amazon Top 100. But it is really hard work! It is especially hard getting noticed on a very competitive landscape when you don’t already have a existing platform of some sort. One thing that is probably different for us is that we are motivated by wanting to share Emma’s story, so we achieve important success with every single book that is sold or shared. Without knowing exactly how to say this, self-publishing the book provided a common focus for Rod and me as we struggled together to work through the loss of our child – a situation that many married couples do not survive. In retrospect, the practical, tactical aspects of writing and editing and deciding on fonts and page format and designing the cover gave us an immediate sense of purpose. With this in mind, probably the most honest answer to your question is that, through self-publishing, we learned that we could work effectively together to honor our daughter’s memory, and only time will tell if Emma’s story finds a broad audience. The sad irony is that Rod and I had long talked about doing a book project together, and it took a soul-wrenching tragedy that struck at the core of our family to finally make it happen.
8) This book came about because of a terrible tragedy – the loss of your daughter. But you have a wonderful way with words. You write beautifully. Is there another project on the horizon for Donna Mebane, author?
Thank you. I grew up wanting to be two things – a mother and a writer. My first son, Jason, made me a mother. My youngest child, Emma, made me a writer. Throughout the years, I have written a great deal – poems, remembrances, celebrations, short stories, and countless business publications. I have even started several books but, with all of them, I gradually lost interest, believing I didn’t have anything important to say. Now I guess I do. I have almost completed my second Emma story. It is tentatively called Tomorrow Matters. In it, the family does find a way to go on, and Emma begins to grow in ways I had hoped she would had she lived. I don’t know if I will ever write about anything other than Emma – I simply don’t want her story to be over – I have definitely caught the writing bug and am now sorry I didn’t finish any of those earlier books!
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