Berkeley mother transforms despair into words

Marie Lawson Fiala: a lawyer by profession, she found comfort in writing

Marie Lawson Fiala can pinpoint the exact moment her life changed completely.

It was the Saturday evening of Labor Day weekend in 1998. Lawson was folding laundry in her Berkeley home and mulling over the best way to present closing arguments in a bank trial. Suddenly, her husband interrupted her reverie. “I think Jeremy is having a stroke,” he blurted out.

Fiala’s 13-year-old son, a boy who loved sports, school and barbeque, had collapsed in the kitchen and was lying on the floor, unable to move his right side. As Fiala knelt beside him, Jeremy looked up and said in slurred speech, “Mom, help me.”

Those were the last words Jeremy uttered for months. Rushed to the hospital, he clung to life, barely alive. Plastic tubes drained blood from his brain and a respirator pushed oxygen into his lungs. Fiala, an experienced litigator who had argued on behalf of some the country’s most powerful corporations, found herself unable to do much but pray for her son’s recovery.


“Nothing marks the last normal hours of your life as special, nothing that you look back on and say, ‘There, that was the turning point,” Fiala writes in Letters from a Distant Shore, a memoir about her son’s illness and recovery. “If only I had paid attention, I would have known, I would have treasured those hours. If only …’”

Doctors doubted that Jeremy would walk or talk again. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a congenital vascular defect in the brain. But Fiala refused to give up hope, and she shared her despair in a series of emails she wrote late at night in the hospital. Her friends and family forwarded those messages to their friends and, soon, an international network was rooting for Jeremy. After the group held special prayer vigils, Jeremy found his voice and regained the use of his right leg – an outcome the doctors had not expected.

Fiala had never considered herself a writer before Jeremy’s illness, but she found comfort in her email dispatches and the pages of raw feeling she scribbled late at night. She set writing aside when Jeremy returned home from the hospital and spent the next five years helping him learn how to feed himself again, dress himself, do school work, and write term papers. When he departed for Kenyon College, Fiala filled the void by writing. She received an MFA from the University of San Francisco and wrote an early draft of her memoir as her master’s thesis – while continuing her legal work.

Gretchen Rubin, who wrote the bestseller The Happiness Project, called Lawson’s book “lyrical, moving, and utterly absorbing.”

“In the tradition of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam, she details how ordinary existence can change in an instant,” said Rubin. “The reader learns how a family’s terrible challenge can bring great wisdom, renewed spiritual strength, and even moments of joy and beauty.”


The response to Lawson’s memoir has been powerful. Many parents of afflicted children were deeply moved by her book. Lawson is now writing a blog for Psychology Today. Her three children, Jeremy, Annelise, and David, are all in their 20s and are thriving.