08/23/2011 05:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Marie Lawson Fiala: Mothers and Sons, Prayer and Healing

"You need to come home; Michael's been hurt," the voice on the other end of the phone said. It was my next-door neighbor, her voice frightened, but controlled. "What happened?" I asked. "Just come home. There's been an accident," she answered, then hung up.

My body tensed; every ounce of my being suddenly focused on what could be wrong with my 7-year-old. I told my boss that my son was hurt and I needed to leave work. Then I jumped in my car and drove as fast as the afternoon L.A. traffic would permit. I exited the freeway, drove another mile or so on surface streets, finally turning the corner to head down my street.

My heart sank as I saw a crowd of neighbors standing in a circle around a small, lifeless figure on my front lawn. Oh God, I thought. An ambulance was parked in front of my house. This was every mother's nightmare.

Several paramedics were tending to my boy. As I flew down my street, my neighbor told the paramedics, "Here comes his mother." With that, one of these uniformed angels whispered to my son, "We need you to sit up so your mother won't think you're dead." The men in blue gently helped him sit up just long enough for me to see that he was alive. I breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled up to the curb. Bless them for their kindness!

I told Marie Lawson Fiala this story when we sat down over coffee to talk about her book, Letters from a Distant Shore. I identified with her and knew first-hand some of the emotions she experienced when her darling boy was felled by an unexpected illness. She and I shared a common bond: we are both mothers with wounded sons. After reading her book, I wanted to meet this remarkable woman and learn more about what inspired her to write her story.

Why did you write this memoir about your son's brain hemorrhage and recovery?

"The pain of watching your child close to death is unimaginable. During the days and nights that I sat next to Jeremy's hospital bedside, I couldn't give in to it. I had to function, at a very high level, to keep my son alive.

"One of the first nights in the hospital, while Jeremy was still in a coma, I crawled on hands and knees on the dusty floor of his room, searching for an unused phone jack , plugged in my laptop, and sent out an email updating family and a few close friends on his condition. Something about the process of writing that message brought me respite.

"After that, I couldn't stop writing. The words poured out of me. I wrote on my laptop late at night, when Jeremy was asleep. I kept writing after Jeremy came home from the hospital. By the end of the first year I had almost 600 pages of material.

"Five years later, Jeremy had left for college, and our daughter was getting ready to leave the next year. I suddenly saw a empty space opening up in my life, so I applied for, and was accepted to, an MFA in Writing program. The degree requirement included writing a book length work. So I dug out my rough text and worked on turning it into a memoir."

What advice would you give to readers who are experiencing a serious illness or injury with a loved one?

"Don't take everything the doctors tell you as a firm prediction. Doctors deal in probabilities; they don't know what will happen any more than you do. Never stop hoping.

"Educate yourself about the medical condition. Learn enough to ask your doctors good questions and to be an active participant in your family member's medical care. Don't be afraid to advocate for the patient if you have doubts about his or her care.

"Do whatever you can do to be in the hospital, especially if the patient is a child. Even the best hospital staffs can't give your loved one the comfort and attention that you can.

"Don't let the huge challenges you're facing overwhelm you. You may not be able to run a marathon all at once, but you can take one step. And then another step, and then another one. Just keep doing the next thing you can do. Just keep walking.

"If you believe in God, pray. And even if you don't, pray. What can it hurt?"

In the memoir, you discuss the power of prayer and how you believe it affected Jeremy's healing. Do you believe a miracle occurred for him?

"I've tried not to interpret these events for readers, because there's no way to know what happened. It could have been simply coincidence that Jeremy experienced dramatic recoveries immediately after intense prayer events. As I wrote in the book, I don't claim to know the mind of God, and I don't expect other people would take my word for it if I did.

"On the other hand, the power of prayer to bring about healing is well documented. Extensive and rigorous research has proven that prayer has great benefits for everything from surgeries and serious illnesses, to in vitro fertilization. The positive effects of prayer are dramatic. No one knows how prayer works, but it's demonstrated that it does work.

"So it's not hard for me to believe that Jeremy's steps toward recovery were brought about because so many people were praying for him in an intense and concentrated way."

What were the after-affects of living through this difficult time for you?

"The months after Jeremy's came home from the hospital were a very dark time for me. I couldn't get out of bed in the morning without a huge effort of will. The sun didn't shine for me. It took years before I felt mostly stable again. The truth is, I have never fully recovered. I was broken into pieces by what happened to our son, and never put back in quite the same way. I lost my illusion of safety. Most of us mask the reality of how fragile life is in order to be able to live with a sense of comfort. We do all sorts of things to make ourselves feel safe. We over-protect and over-manage our children, we try to control all the inputs into their lives, we're 'helicopter parents.' That feeling of that we're making life safe is an illusion, which I lost the moment my son fell to the kitchen floor, and then into a coma. I've never really felt safe again since that day. It takes very little to bring home the reality of how tenuous life is, and how quickly it can end.

"Sometimes that feels frightening, but the benefit has been that I take very little for granted. I'm able to live most days with a very full sense of how amazing life truly is. Even my backyard is filled with wonders. I'm knocked over every day by the beauty of little things -- the sun reflecting off water, leaves rippling in a breeze, the smell of the air when the seasons change. It's a very great gift, and I'm grateful for it.

"We are also an extraordinarily close family. Our children have never turned away from us; we never even had any bad teenage years with any of them. I think for all of us, we're never as happy as when we're together. Even today, my young adult children love being at home more than anyplace else. I guess, in that way, we've succeeded in creating a safe place for them after all.

Thank you for sharing your story, Marie. I felt such a kinship when I read your book; I feel even more so now.