Three Things You Should Do Right Now

 

“Savor little joys now, travel now, and love now.”

—Donna Ellen Conrad

DonnaRussell

My friend Donna with her husband Russell.

Donna and I met in the early ’90s at the New Orleans Writers’ Conference. I was working for Peachtree Publishers as assistant to publisher Margaret Quinlin, standing in for her at the last minute. Among my duties—a public talk, my first (memorable because I learned a lot about what not to do).

Also, I conducted a morning session of speed dating for writers and publishers, with 10 minutes allotted for a book idea or advice.

Whereas most of the writers went by in a papery blur, Donna made an impression because she was so very well-prepared—with professionally designed storyboards, and a well-crafted pitch that she delivered in a soft New York accent (smooth on the edges, direct, probing). She had done her homework.

A year or so later, after I’d left my book publishing gig, Donna reached out to me about editing, and for a time we became very close friends and collaborators.

Then, of course, life happened and we lost touch, checking in with each other in quick, five-year to seven-year increments.

How I Sent My Hug Around the World

So I was thrilled when we reconnected on Facebook a few months ago, and I learned about Donna’s latest children’s book, How I Sent My Hug Around the World. The brightly colored illustrations were done by Balinese artist Monez Gusmang, no doubt a member of Donna’s extended family in Bali, a place she’s gone to restore herself–body and soul–for the past 25 years.

“When I go to Bali, I’m usually somewhat depleted and stressed out from American culture,” Donna summed up her love affair on a Skype video chat last week. “And by the time I leave Bali, my heart is full, and I’m healthy, and I’m joyful.”

In our time apart, Donna has been busy, writing and publishing literary and award-winning short stories and essays, not to mention See You Soon Moon, named one of Barnes & Noble’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year.”

Donna parchedBut it wasn’t just books and essays, I soon learned, as I read a Facebook post from Donna about Parched, an indie film that came out last year, now available via Netflix. It was shot by her husband, Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic, True Lies, Ant-Man …) and produced by and directed by their friends Aseem Bajaj and Linaa Yadav. I hardly ever watch present-day movies, but I was incredibly moved by this tale of friendship among four women; it’s not only beautiful to watch and well-written (Donna worked on the script as associate producer), it also addresses a hard topic: sexual abuse of women in a small village in India.

As Donna and I continued to get to know each other again, I pointed out  the different paths we had taken, and how in awe I was of her for having taken the literary high road.

“I became a writer because it was the only thing I could do during three decades of illness,” she said from the home she and Russell designed together in Santa Monica.

You see, when we first met 20 years ago, I had gone up to Boston to work with her on a manuscript. I stayed in her home—then just her and her young son, Zak. She was working, looking toward the future even back then, despite the fact that she was in the midst of a painful divorce and ending a 17-year marriage after she survived Hodgkin’s disease.

Later, Donna and Zak visited me and my little boys on Dog Island at my grandmother’s beach house. Sure, we got work done while we were there, but what stuck with me most was time spent walking and talking on the country beaches—we were both single moms with the weight of the world on our shoulders.

A lot happens over 20-something years—Donna lost her mom (whose home outside NYC I visited); Zak grew up and became a self-made, successful entrepreneur before age 30; and Donna fought multiple battles, over a 26-year period, with two cancers, a brain hemorrhage, and 16 surgeries for countless health issues stemming from excessive radiation.

Then she and Zak migrated to Los Angeles, where the assaults on her body finally subsided and she met and fell in love with Russell (I defy even one more person to tell me true love doesn’t exist! Donna told me that within five minutes of meeting each other for coffee, they both knew; within 30 minutes, their hands were touching across the table; they never parted).

After learning of all of that hell, I could see even over a tiny Skype video screen that Donna looked more at peace, happier, more beautiful than I’d ever seen her before. “I think I’m really growing younger,” she told me, glowing. “It seems I already had my old age.”

These days, instead of being a professional patient on a first-name basis with death, Donna is a new grandmother who lives just a mile away from her son, Zak, her movie-star gorgeous Brazilian daughter-in-law, Gaudia, and her five-month-old granddaughter, Ella, who crawled for the first time last week. Donna also travels to Bali about twice a year for a few months when Russell’s working on movies.

Donna with baby Ella.

Donna with baby Ella.

Donna’s antennae for people and situations remain finely tuned. Even as she fought to stay alive for three decades, she also nurtured that first novel manuscript we worked on together so many years ago. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it gets made into a movie when it’s finally done.)

After everything, Donna is happy, is in love, and is most definitely growing younger. In fact, I think I may have found the secret in one of her essays published in the Cup of Comfort book series:

“Because by surviving Hodgkin’s disease so young, I learned the difference between a life-thought and a death-thought, which re-magnetized every cell in my being towards life,” Donna wrote. “And because I had the opportunity to receive with grace, I learned to give with grace. And because I had no choice, I learned patience; and because I had choice, I learned not to worry when it made no difference to the outcome. And because my own death has long been palpable to me, I’ve chosen to savor little joys now, travel now, and love now.”

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Showing 10 comments
  • Dees
    Reply

    Lovely essay, Sibley.

  • Sibley
    Reply

    Thank you Dees!!

  • steve lillienstein
    Reply

    I’m a very casual acquaintance of Donna from the same home town, and with some common friends. Via Facebook, I feel I’ve come to know her a little bit better and I have developed both an admiration and affection for her. I want to thank you for this wonderful piece, through which I’ve learned a lot more about Donna’s history and humanity.

    • Sibley
      Reply

      Thank you Steve for taking the time to write and for your kind comments:)

  • Jamie Militana
    Reply

    Donna Conrad was always an outstanding and lovely young women when we were in High School together….(Same graduating Class) Besides being a Cheer Leader,She was active in so many activities but was never to busy to stop.and say hello…..
    No matter who you were…..I am not surprised by her overcoming more obsacles and serious health issues because she always had a very Winning Attitude and loads of self determination! She was and is a Beautiful women from the inside out. I consider my self to be a very fortunate person to be counted as one of her friends…I truly velieve She is on a path of literary greatness! Be well and much continued success and good health Dear Donna!♡♡

    • Sibley
      Reply

      Hi Jamie–thank you for sharing–I agree 100% with everything you said!

  • Donna Ellen Conrad
    Reply

    Dearest Sibley .. I am so moved by your article and by the loving through-line you found in my journey. Thank you to all the kind and generous people who took the time to leave such loving notes. xox Donna

    • Sibley
      Reply

      I’m so glad to have you back in my life! Hugs back:)

  • Rahkia Williams
    Reply

    What a wonderful soul filled story, Three things you should do right now. As I sit here in Atlanta on this beautiful Sunday morning, and this being my first read of the day. It has moved me in more ways then one. I absolutely love it!!!!!!!

    Warmest Regards

    Rahkia W.

    • Sibley
      Reply

      Thank you Rahkia!That means so much, especially from someone as inspiring as you. I Hope you have a lovely Sunday afternoon with your family!

      Sibley

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