If inspiration hits Christine Grote when she is driving, she has to pull off and scribble something in her notepad. With a passion for people, relationships and her family very evident in her work, Grote has written a couple of very moving memoirs. Today she talks with us about "Dancing in Heaven," a memoir she wrote about her sister Annie, who had cerebral palsy.
Give us a short summary what "Dancing in Heaven" is about
Dancing in Heaven is my memoir about, and legacy for, my sister Annie.
Annie never outgrew the needs of an infant. She didn't walk or talk. Our parents fed her, changed her clothes, and carried her in their arms from bed to chair and back every day of her life.
When Annie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy in 1959 as an infant, doctors gave her eight years to live. Through their untiring devotion, our parents gave her fifty-one years of life.
Dancing in Heaven starts when Annie is 51 years old and has become gravely ill. "Annie may be out of miracles," Mom said, with tears flooding her eyes, as we waited for results from a series of tests at the hospital where Annie had been admitted. In Dancing in Heaven, I weave my childhood memories of growing up with a severely disabled sister, with an account of the last few weeks of Annie's life.
This is a story about strength, compassion, determination and unconditional love as our family, and, in particular our parents, adapted to Annie's limitations and surrounded her with genuine love. But more importantly, Annie's story is a testament to the basic intrinsic value of human life.
Your parents' lives seem to have been very inspiring to you, as you wrote more than one book about them. Why do they inspire you?
My parents died in January of 2013. Each passing year gives me more distance and a new perspective of my parents. I can't say that I was overly inspired by them when they were still alive. I appreciated their commitment to Annie and unfailing devotion to her, but I think I took some of it for granted. It had always been that way from my earliest memories.
Now that they are all gone, sometimes I feel stunned by what my parents did when I reflect upon it. Truly.
What are your 3 favorite books - and why?
That's a tough one. I love so many books. On any given day I might answer this question differently than the day before. But Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte would likely always make the list. I wish I could read it again for the first time. I also loved Wuthering Heights by Charlotte's sister Emily. More recently, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini had a huge impact on me. I like books about human relationships with a lot of character development. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman was another good one. And Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese was really good. There are a lot of excellent books out there.
Doctors only gave Annie eight years to live - how did she manage to outlive their expectations?
We don't really know, but my parents, particularly my mother, took excellent care of her. They really did. In many ways their lives were centered on Annie and her care. And both of my parents were excellent problem-solvers, so they were able to figure out what they needed and were creative enough to make it happen. My dad built supportive chairs for Annie before they were commercially available for her size. The chairs supported Annie in a reclined position, enabling her to sit up instead of lying flat on her back—which I think can be a problem for longevity. And my mother came up with a system of feeding Annie that ensured she got the nutrition and calories she needed to sustain life. This was extremely important. It was challenging. My mom kept her alive in that way. My parents made every effort to make sure Annie was comfortable and happy.
How would you describe Annie's personality?
Annie was happy. She loved us and was always happy to see us. She laughed easily. I never saw her cry. I don't think she ever did. She was tolerant of what discomfort life had dealt her. She never became irritated or agitated. She was simply a joy.
Me, Annie and mom in 1980
Annie touched everybody who crossed her path. Can you give us one example?
My parents had taken us to an amusement park on vacation. I think it may have been Cedar Point. We were walking down the games concourse and a woman came running out to catch up with us. "I'd like to give her something," she said. "What month is her birthday?" Mom told her May, and the woman returned to her booth and came back with a little ceramic statue of an angel for May. People were always giving Annie little gifts. Perfect strangers sometimes. One time she got a huge stuffed Snoopy dog. I have a picture of that in the book. That's one of the gifts Annie gave us. She showed us how compassionate and kind people could be, through their responses to her.
As a child growing up, how hard was it to have a sister who always required a lot of attention? How much did it teach you about sharing and compassion?
My sister Annie was born a year after me. When she was one and I was two, my parents found out she had damage to her brain. I have no memories of life without a disabled sister. That was my normal.
There were a couple of occasions when I felt sad that my mother couldn't do something with me or for me, or go someplace with me, because of Annie. But, as I discuss in the book, feelings of resentment never lasted long. I usually got over it pretty quickly as soon as I realized how lucky I was compared to Annie. The other important point is that my parents made every effort not to burden us with Annie's care. In our teenage years we did babysit for our parents, but they paid us, and they never infringed on our own plans.
Regarding sharing, I was the third of five children (two of my siblings requested that I not include them in the book). Being the middle child in any family that size probably teaches one how to share. Regarding compassion, as an adult I realize that I am more aware of, and in tune with, the needs of others, especially someone who may have a disability of one sort or the other. I imagine learning as a child to be aware of Annie's needs taught me that. For example, even with the special chairs Annie had, she couldn't hold her head erect very well, and sometimes her head would fall to the side. We all learned to watch for that and go "fix" Annie when it happened.
I have always considered Annie to be the person in my life who had the most influence on my character.
Why did you pick this title? "Dancing in Heaven"?
Sometimes I regret it when I see how often the phrase is used in obituaries. People like to write that their loved one is dancing in heaven because they are happy now. My title carries a lot more meaning for me, with a different twist.
When I was a choir member as an adult, there was a song we used to sing in church, based on scripture—Matthew 11, I believe. "The blind shall see and the lame will walk." I struggled to get through that verse without crying because all I could think about was Annie, and that when she died, her disabilities would go away. She would be able to dance. So she wasn't necessarily dancing in Heaven because she was happy. She had been happy here. She was dancing in Heaven, because now she could.
How hard was it for you to share personal details from your childhood with the world?
Sharing is not the hard part. Writing it is. I cried writing much of the book, even parts the reader might not find sad. Answering the above question was also a little rough.
Where I write
How has the reaction been to Dancing in Heaven? Did anybody reach out to you who had a similar experience?
Most people seem to like it. I think they are touched by it. A lot of people have reached out to me with similar experiences. One that stands out in my mind is a message I received on my Facebook page where a mother wrote:
"I just finished reading your book last night and I cried and cried.... All through the book I kept thinking, 'I wish I could talk to her.' I have a few things in common with you. I have a daughter who is 14 and has severe Cerebral Palsy. . ."
We became friends on Facebook, but tragically, her daughter died suddenly a year or two later.
Is there something that compels you to write? Does writing help you to get clarity about things in your life?
When I am struggling with strong emotions, I feel compelled to write. Sometimes I am driving when that happens and I'll have to pull over and find a scrap of paper in my car to scribble on. I started keeping a small tape recorder in my car for that purpose. A section in chapter 6 of Dancing in Heaven was written this way, at a rest area on I-75 as I was making the trip home from my parents.
Are you working on a new book right now? Do you have a sneak peek for us?
I am. But it is going slowly. I am writing the stories of three birth mothers who gave up or lost their children to adoption. They are all busy women and it is a challenge to find the time to get the stories I need from them. If I can pull this off, I think it will be a worthy project.
Where can our readers interact with you or discover more of your work?
http://www.christinemgrote.com - This is my author website. It is relatively new and is still a work in process. But you can find excerpts from and reviews of my books here. I also blog about things related to writing. If you follow this blog, you will receive notifications of Countdown deals, etc. I respond to comments on all the pages.
http://www.randomthoughtsfrommidlife.wordpress.com - This is my original blog I started about five years ago. It covers many random topics. I have a series about bilateral knee surgery that is popular. I also like to post pictures from our travels, of our gardens, and the wildlife I see in our wooded yard, including our little white peek-a-poo Arthur. Again, I respond to all comments.
http://www.facebook.com/Christine-M-Grote-201286486589190/ - This is probably the easiest way to interact. You are welcome to contact me here. I love hearing from readers.
"Dancing in Heaven," is available today at 99 cents for a countdown period of only 36 hours. The price will then go up to $1.99 before it returns to its full price. Grab this deal while you can!