Hi Colleen and welcome to HJ! We’re so excited to chat with you about your new release, Before I Go!
A heart-wrenching debut novel in the bestselling tradition of P.S. I Love You about a young woman with breast cancer who undertakes a mission to find a new wife for her husband before she passes away.
On the eve of what was supposed to be a triumphant “Cancerversary” with her husband Jack to celebrate three years of being cancer-free, Daisy suffers a devastating blow: her doctor tells her that the cancer is back, but this time it’s an aggressive stage four diagnosis. She may have as few as four months left to live. Death is a frightening prospect—but not because she’s afraid for herself. She’s terrified of what will happen to her brilliant but otherwise charmingly helpless husband when she’s no longer there to take care of him. It’s this fear that keeps her up at night, until she stumbles on the solution: she has to find him another wife.
With a singular determination, Daisy scouts local parks and coffee shops and online dating sites looking for Jack’s perfect match. But the further she gets on her quest, the more she questions the sanity of her plan. As the thought of her husband with another woman becomes all too real, Daisy’s forced to decide what’s more important in the short amount of time she has left: her husband’s happiness—or her own?
Fun Facts about BEFORE I GO:
1. Jack and Daisy’s dog (Benny) and guinea pig (Queenie) in the book are based on two of my favorite childhood pets, a terrier mutt named Barkley and an Abyssinian guinea pig named Honey.
2. The setting Athens, Ga. is where I went to college (Go Dawgs!) and it’s one of my favorite cities.
3. My first house was a 1926 Spanish casita and I loved it so much, I had to resurrect it in the book. I have a painting of it hanging on my wall.
4. I wrote four pages of the book — the scene where Daisy decides she has to find Jack a wife— when I got the idea five or six years ago, and then put it away and didn’t touch it for three years.
5. I wrote the very last scene late at night, while lying in bed next to my snoring husband, with tears streaming down my face. At one point, he woke up, looked at me, and became very alarmed at the state I was in. “It’s the book!” I said. I think it alarmed him even more that that’s what I was crying over.
Was there a scene in this book that was harder to write than others?
A lot of them were difficult for different reasons, but one of the hardest was probably when Daisy gets her diagnosis from Dr. Saunders. For one, it’s a important scene and I knew I needed readers to grasp the gravity of the situation, so I really wanted for Daisy’s emotions to resonate authentically. And two, there are so many “You have cancer” scenes in books and movies, it was a challenge to write something that didn’t come off as cliché or something you’d seen or heard before.
Dr. Saunders is sitting in a large leather captain’s chair. He doesn’t look at me.
“Daisy,” he says, taking off his glasses and setting them on the desk.
“Dr. Saunders,” I reply, sitting down across from him.
Then, his eyes make contact with mine and I see that they’re sad. They’re sad in the way that other people’s eyes are blue or brown or green. Dr. Saunders’ eyes are the color of sad. And that’s how I know what he’s going to say before he even says it.
“It’s not good.”
I feel heavy, as if all the clothes I’m wearing have been soaked in water.
He turns his computer screen toward me. “This is a normal PET scan,” he says. The image on the screen looks like a dark blue neck pillow with a few blurry patches of yellow, green, purple and orange. It’s like a Rorshach test in color. Dr. Saunders picks a pencil up off his desk. “Picture the human body as a sliced loaf of bread — the PET basically shows us images of each piece. So this one happens to be a cross-section of the lungs.” He uses the pencil as a pointer. “Here’s the spinal cord, the lungs, the breasts.” He hits a few buttons on the keyboard in front of him and the image changes. “We can move up and down through the body section by section. See how the heart is glowing in this one? All the cells in your body eat, typically some form of sugar. The hungriest ones eat the most, so the sugar molecules we injected in your body congregate where the hungriest cells are — like the heart, kidneys, and any areas where there are tumors or cancer cells.” He pauses and looks at me to make sure I’m following. I don’t say anything.
“So like I said, this is a normal PET. The heart is orange and yellow, but there’s not much in the lungs, liver, brain, etcetera.” He manipulates the keys again and another image pops up. “This,” he says, “is your PET scan.”
I stare at the screen. It looks as though it’s on fire.
“Daisy, the cancer is everywhere. You’ve got mets in your liver, a few in your lungs. Your bones. And even…” he falters for a minute, and this sliver of emotion reminds me that he is delivering this news to me, about me, and not just teaching a class on PET scans. He takes a deep breath, punches some more keys and the image changes into a clear cross-section of a brain. There is a large glowing orb at the bottom of the picture. “You have a tumor in the back of your brain the size of an orange.”
My hand reaches up to the back of my skull. I prod the skin beneath my hair, looking for a piece of fruit. I don’t feel anything.
“I don’t understand,” I say, sluggishly. My mouth feels like I’ve been chewing molasses. “It’s only been a year. All my six-month checks were clear.”
He shrugs and slowly shakes his head. “I’m so, so sorry. Unfortunately this happens sometimes. A patient goes from six-month check-ups to annuals and the cancer sneaks in. Yours is particularly aggressive.”
Aggressive. The word triggers that football cheer and I can’t help but silently chant: BE! AGGRESSIVE! You’ve got to be AGGRESSIVE!
Brains are funny that way. The memories they conjure. The tumors they grow.
“Daisy, I know this is a lot to take in, but it’s not all bad. You’re asymptomatic, which is a good thing. It means you feel good, and you could continue feeling good.”
He’s wrong. I don’t feel good.
“And the tumor is in a good spot. Easily removable. Of course, neurosurgery has its own dangers, so you’ll want to talk to the surgeon and weigh the risks. Then, if you want, we could do radiation, make sure we zap any other cancer cells in the brain. For the rest, we can try chemo, see if anything responds to that. We’ll look into clinical trials —”
“You’re saying I can be cured, that you can cure — ” I wave toward the glowing screen “ — all this?”
He puts the pencil he’s been playing with back on his desk. “I don’t—” he stops. Tries again. “I’m not — ” Another break. He sounds like a skipping record. “No.” He scans his desk with his eyes, as if the words he wants to say are written on a piece of paper somewhere and he just needs to find it. “I’m saying we can … prolong things.”
“Prolong things.” I have become a parrot. “For how long?”
“It’s hard to say,” he says.
“How long if I don’t do anything?”
“Hard to say.”
“There must be statistics.”
“I don’t work in statistics,” he says. “You’re not a statistic.”
“Dr. Saunders.” I will him to look me in the eyes. “Tell me how long.”
He takes a deep breath and puts his glasses back on. “Textbook for stage four is twenty percent survival rate,” he pauses, glances at me, then back down at his desk. “Yours is fairly … advanced. If I had to guess … ” he looks at me again.
“Four months. Maybe six.”
I quickly do the math. June. Or August.
“But listen, people can live for years. It’s not unheard of. And of course there are complementary therapies, diet, meditation—”
I stand up and he stops talking. I need to leave the room, but my legs suddenly feel hollow, like two straws holding up a potato, and I don’t think they’ll support my weight. I sit back down.
I stare at Dr. Saunders’ furious eyebrows, while the last two words he spoke run on a loop in my head. Diet. Meditation. Diet. Meditation. Diet. Mediation. I tried that already, I want to say, but I don’t have a voice. So I think it, instead. I list out all the things I’ve done the past four years to prevent a moment exactly like this one. Yoga. I hate yoga. Roasting, broiling, steaming and sautéing every vegetable known to man. I hate vegetables. Breathing exercises. Preparing 1,467 smoothies. Give or take. Drinking 1,467 smoothies. Give or take. Eating blueberries. Eating pomegranates. Drinking green tea. Drinking red wine. Taking fish oil. Taking Coenzyme Q10. Avoiding second-hand smoke like the plague.
And yet, here I am.
I stand up again on my straw legs. Dr. Saunders stands, too. Reaches out to me.
“I need to leave,” I say.
“Daisy, let me call someone. Jack. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”
I shake my head. Jack. There’s not enough space for him in my brain right now, so I push his name away and try to focus on the information at hand.
So, so sorry.
“Daisy,” Dr. Saunders tries again. He’s now standing, too, and he reaches for the phone.
“Don’t,” I say. I glance at my watch. 5:52. This day is almost over, but there is still so much I need to do. I mentally force steel into my extremities, lift my chin up and sling my shoulder bag across my chest. Then, I meet Dr. Saunders’ gaze and say: “I have to go buy caulk.”
What do you want people to take away from reading this book?
To me, reading is about making a emotional connection. My favorite books are the ones that make me feel something — whether I’m literally laughing out loud, or sobbing to want to throw the book across the room in frustration. What would make me the happiest is just for readers to connect to the book in some way. If it gives them a different perspective or sparks an interesting conversation, even better.
Thanks for blogging at HJ!
Giveaway: A Print copy of BEFORE I GO
To enter Giveaway: Please complete the Rafflecopter form and Post a comment to this Q: The most obvious question is what would you do if you found out you had six months to live, but to go a little deeper, what would you want for your significant other or the other important people in your life that you’re leaving behind? Are there little things you might do to help ensure their happiness after you’re gone?
Meet the Author:
Colleen Oakley is an Atlanta-based writer. Her articles, essays, and interviews have been featured in The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, Marie Claire, Women’s Health, Redbook, Parade, and Martha Stewart Weddings. Before she was a freelance writer, Colleen was editor-in-chief of Women’s Health & Fitness and senior editor at Marie Claire. Before I Go is her debut novel.