In the past year, life provided me with a very special honor: to return a great soul to the world. Let me introduce you to Joe.
When I was growing up, my parents would open our home to strangers and friends who enriched our lives. One of these was Joe Wions, a New Jersey kid out of college who came to see the mountains (of Colorado) and met my mom working on Vietnam war protests. He became part of our family, instigating laughter in the kitchen and adventures to white water.
Joe grew up, got a career, started a family, and stayed in our lives. When he was diagnosed ALS it didn’t stop him. He simply turned his attention to a new problem to solve. As the years went by and he managed not to die, getting better in some ways as his body failed him in others, he became a writer. My son and I visited him in 2008 when I took my musical to New York. Even in his wheelchair, breathing through tubes, Joe was a robust character, and full of jokes. He showed me how he was writing his book—picking out letters on a screen with a joystick after someone propped his hand on it—and I grasped how crucial this lifeline of language was to him. I read every email hungrily and followed his blog for years, as he became a voice of a PALS (Person with ALS) who shared his research with others.
We were all pretty surprised when he finally died. I wrote a blog about how my husband had taught him the “cat climbed up on the roof” joke.
His kids tried to get his book, From Nightmares to Miracles, published for a few years, and finally gave up. But my mom and I are publishers, and I always had this feeling about Joe’s writing. When we reached out to Dan and Julie, Joe’s kids, it started a profound collaboration.
Editing a dead guy’s book is pretty intimidating. Especially a guy with such strong ideas and voice.Editing anyone’s book is challenging, but if they are alive you can ask them when you want to make a structural change. After I read the book for the first time, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. How could I ever work up the nerve to cut out a sentence that someone had written with a joystick? How could I ever delete a rambling paragraph? But I realized if Joe’s book was to become a real thing, the book had to pass through me; it was in my hands. I decided to trust my muses to fully engage with to the spirit of Joe. They were able to create an understanding.
The first thing I did was change the title. Because isn’t that what living longer is about? Fortunately, everyone agreed on that. Joe was very close to his kids, and they had their troubles. Working with the siblings, both of them passionate artists with Tourette’s, I wanted to make sure they both had ownership over the process as well, since they are the ones who will be bringing this book to its readers. I helped spectacular, sparky Julie struggle through the bruising emotional process of letting her dad go. (In a way writing a book about your deceased father is like having a baby… your intimate, entwined relationship takes on a life of its own, and then goes out into the world—no small thing.) And I helped Dan on his journey of taking responsibility for his family’s legacy—watching him become a writer, and an editor, and an enthusiastic publisher. He handled every tough task I threw at him, even soliciting and editing family and friends for 50 quotes about Joe to illustrate the book. Because it takes a village!
I drilled both of them for details, and pumped them for information when Joe’s adventures in self-healing needed more explanation, or more story detail, and our conversations sometimes took us down shamanic paths that are only hinted at in the incredibly rich material. I love crafting books and enjoyed creating a friendly and accessible design. But there was real magic afoot when the cover concept came to me. Because on the one-year anniversary of Joe’s death, a hummingbird—the symbol of a fragile kind of strength that seems to defy laws of nature—let her hold it in her hand.
The book is launching in January, but you can order your copy now. Dan and Julie, who because of their Tourette’s have a hard time being in the same room (long story), made this wonderful movie for the Kickstarter. I couldn’t be more proud of this creative effort. The reviews are starting to come in and they’re great. Soon my contribution will quickly fade into the background and the mind of Joe, now released into the world, will bring hope and insight and encouragement to others. His contributing stories of functional medicine, detox and chelation, and strategic thought may even contribute to the world’s work of beating that bully of a disease.