June 9, 2015 was the sort of summer day Chicagoans dream of: Clear, sunny, and warm with the gentle lift of scented breezes to rustle leaves, carry birdsong, and flutter sundresses. Taxiing through it on the way to the airport for a much-needed Hawaii “babymoon” with her husband—Lake Forest native David Levy—Allison Pataki looked over to watch him studying a just-taken snapshot of her, five-months pregnant, baby bump proudly showing, with the Chicago River flowing behind.
“I glanced sideways at Dave and thought to myself, ‘I am so lucky,’” says Allison. “I remember so clearly … the taxi, the rush-hour traffic, the sunny June day, and thinking, “I am so lucky to have Dave.”
And then it happened: After boarding the plane, 30,000 feet in the air, her young, brilliant, athletic husband—a third-year resident in orthopedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center—had a stroke.
Not a hemorrhagic stroke, the kind that can cause loss of speech and paralysis, but a much-more dangerous, often fatal ischemic midbrain stroke. It was a stroke so unheard of in a strong, healthy, 30-year-old, that no case studies existed on such a thing, no medical literature, no survival statistics or recovery rates.
“We entered the no-one-knows zone,” says Pataki. “A place we would stay for a very long time.”
It was then that Allison Pataki opened her laptop and began to write. Not the fictional accounts of unsung historic heroines that had won her acclaim as a New York Times bestselling author, but Beauty in the Broken Places—a very real, very raw, work of nonfiction written and informed by more than a year’s worth of her “Dear Dave” letters.
“When Dave woke up from that near-fatal stroke, he could not carry memories from hour to hour, much less from one day to the next,” Pataki explains. “I knew that I needed to write these letters so that if Dave ever came back to me, he could read them. I would provide the memories that Dave could not make on his own, so that he could know what he went through. What we went through. And we could hopefully heal together.”
That last wish—the “hopefully heal together” wish—has been granted. Meeting with Pataki while she was in Lake Forest to launch her book, healing and recovery were in evidence: Six months pregnant with a new baby on the way, she sat next to her healthy, smiling husband, their daughter Lily running back and forth giggling between Daddy, Mommy and grandma Louisa Levy. Here’s what Pataki had to say.
You came back in Lake Forest to launch your book, Beauty in the Broken Places, a story full of references to David’s childhood here, and your time here with his parents, long-time Lake Forest residents Nelson and Louisa Levy. How did it feel to be back for this launch?
We dedicated Beauty in the Broken Places to Nelson and Louisa, who truly were there for us at every step of the way. There could not have been anything more meaningful and poignant for us as a family than to come home to Lake Forest to speak about our story here. Being here allowed us to share the book with the same community in which so much of our story played out. Dave grew up here. I’ve been visiting with Dave here since we were 19 years old and dating in college. When we were newlyweds living in downtown Chicago, Lake Forest was our refuge, when we needed someplace quiet and green. After the stroke, when Dave was transitioning from inpatient rehab to outpatient therapy, we chose RIC in Northbrook because that allowed us to stay with Nelson and Louisa in Lake Forest for a few months. The Levys are an incredible family and their network of friends in Lake Forest showed up to support them, and us, at the book launch. The crowd that turned out for the Lake Forest Bookstore event was the largest crowd we saw during our entire book tour nationally. Talk about hometown love and support!
Can you share any details about the launch of this book, your first nonfiction, compared with the launch of your various works of fiction? Has it been scarier? More difficult? More rewarding?
Writing this book was something we never intended to do, just as we never imagined that we’d be living through a “story” like the one we did. But in so many ways, this has been the most meaningful book I’ve worked on. It’s certainly the most personal, and has allowed me to connect with readers in a more personal way as a result.
You are so honest, transparent, and real in this book. How did you have the courage to do that? What are your feelings about this and what reactions have you received to this story?
Lee Woodruff, who wrote the foreword for the book, wrote to me early on to say: “I’m here as your friend to welcome you to ‘The Club of the Bad Thing.’”
It’s a club in which neither Lee, Dave, nor I wanted any part, but it’s not really a choice, is it? What Dave and I realized through this experience of the stroke and recovery is that everyone joins The Club of the Bad Thing at some point in their life. While the specifics of our story may have been unique, ultimately, there are truths we learned through this that are universal and timeless and that have allowed us to connect to readers in a new way. People now approach us to share their own stories of their own entry into The Club of the Bad Thing. The notes we’ve received, the emails, the messages … it’s been remarkable. Even people in our lives with whom we were already close—we are now learning about them in an entirely new way as they open up and share with raw honesty. Was it scary to write this? To put our lives and difficulties out there in such a public way? Yes. But writing about all of this has sort of been like a very big way of getting all of this off our chests. Dave and I no longer carry this story on our own. Now others carry it with us and interact with it on their own.
How has this entire experience, and writing this book, affected you as a storyteller and writer? What’s next?
I had never considered writing nonfiction prior to this, but am really grateful to have had the opportunity to write and publish this story. I did enjoy many things about writing nonfiction, and if the right story and topic came about organically, I would not rule out more nonfiction in the future. But fiction is my first love, and I can’t wait to jump back into historical fiction. I’m always on the hunt for fascinating and complex women in history whose stories have slipped through the cracks largely untold. I love to pull them out of the shadows and footnotes of the historical record and bring them to the forefront. That’s what I did with The Traitors Wife, (the story of Peggy Shippen Arnold, the woman behind Benedict Arnold and the plan to betray America) and the Sisi books (The Accidental Empress and Sisi: Empress on Her Own both about Austro-Hungarian empress Elisabeth “Sisi,” wife of Emperor Franz Joseph). And that’s what I intend to do next. I’m working on my next one, which I’ll be able to share more about soon.
I understand that you have also teamed up with a dear friend to write children’s books. Is that correct?
Yes! Writing children’s books is a totally new adventure and one I have been learning about and exploring while becoming a new parent, so it’s been really fun. And as you can imagine, it’s been a nice antidote to the heavy nonfiction content. We are very excited! My friend Marya Myers and I lived in New York together and have traveled together for years, so we wrote an adventure story about a little girl who loves to travel to visit big cities. New York City comes first, but we hope to expand the series to visit lots of cities. Simon and Schuster is publishing Nelly Takes New York in May 2019.
Beauty in the Broken Places closes with a lot of questions and unknowns around Dave’s healing brain. Now two years later, where are things in terms of his healing and recovery?
Neuronal plasticity—the brain’s ability to adapt and heal after traumatic brain injury—is such a remarkable concept. That was one of our biggest lessons through the entire experience. Dave had to regrow his brain from less functional than that of a newborn baby, to that of a mature and independent adult. When he first awoke from the stroke and coma, Dave could not swallow, breathe, or eat on his own. He could not tell you the date or where he was. He was in a state of complete amnesia. He had to relearn everything. Today, you would not know any of that, to speak with Dave. He had youth on his side, and his brain truly worked miracles to recover. He pushed himself hard every single day with the world-class doctors and therapists we had the privilege of working with in the Chicago area. We are not saying it was easy. It was not. In fact, it was excruciating. But the miracle of the brain did allow for hope, and we focused on that.
I know you and Dave are passionate about raising awareness about the difficulties of life for individuals who have had a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Can you say a bit more about what you are doing along these lines and if there are any organizations with which you work, that our readership might help support?
One of the primary groups we’ve shared our message through is the American Stroke Association (trokeassociation.org).
For us personally, Dave has been passionate about sharing his story both as a doctor but also as a patient and survivor. One of the most difficult aspects of the recovery is that brain injury is an “invisible injury.” There are often no outward visible indications that someone has had a traumatic injury. Recovery is not linear, and not concrete, which can feel confusing and nebulous for caregivers, family members, friends, and of course, the patient. It’s a harrowing road to walk, and we think it’s important that survivors, particularly young survivors, know that it’s not one they need to walk alone.
Each of us will at some point be in relationship with someone who is truly suffering. Can you offer some thoughts on what was most helpful to you going through this chapter in your life?
It’s a matter of saying, with your actions, “I’m here to help in whatever way you need, right now.” Shift the burden off the person in crisis—don’t wait for them to ask for help. Show up with dinner or groceries. Drop off your note or your card. Show up and watch the baby for a few hours so a tired parent can get a shower or a nap. Sit in the hospital room for a few hours so the primary caregiver can take a walk or tackle some long-neglected errands. These favors and acts of kindness come with no strings attached, no expectations, no need for a thank you or reciprocal favor. There is such a necessary mercy in the practical act of simply showing up for someone.