Once upon a time on a Sunday afternoon, in the realm of Pennsylvania, a daughter was born to a young couple. It was said she came early to avoid a snowstorm. The mother was an artist, and the father had a musical soul. Eighteen months later, they welcomed another daughter. They lived simply and ate well. They read library books, raised guinea pigs, and visited the seaside once a year. The sisters pretended to be nurses, teachers, and superheroes. They attended Sunday school and sang (while wriggling) in children’s choirs.
When the elder daughter was nine, the family moved to the woods. There, the father built a house. The sisters climbed trees, built forts, caught newts and fireflies. They rode bikes in summer and ice-skated on the frozen driveway in winter. The elder daughter wrote stories about rabbits, spaceships, and knights. As she grew older, she wrote poems and waited to wake up beautiful.
Eventually, the elder daughter found her version of a prince. They married, had children, laughed a lot and cried a little. The younger daughter married as well, and the world seemed fine enough. As good as could be expected, with the world being what it was—and is—a broken old thing bespeckled with beauty. Sometimes the elder daughter daydreamed of writing … and life went on … and on …
And everyone lived happily ever after.
Except they didn’t.
Because like most stories, this one had its bad guy. My tale’s villain wasn’t an actual fire-breathing dragon, but cancer—and the princess it chose as prey was my younger sister, Kate.
When the diagnosis came, it was already too late. As I sat by her hospital bed one day, despairing of how changed and small she’d become, I thought, “What if, instead of wasting away, she were becoming something else, something magical and beautiful? What if she were becoming a mermaid?”
In spite of any wishing to the contrary, Kate was human. Her earthly days ended one rainy October afternoon.
But I hadn’t just been wishing. I’d been praying. I’d been clinging to God and my faith in His unchangeable goodness and immeasurable love. The Author of my life story was about to pen a few plot twists.
Typing through tears
Ten days after Kate died, I dove into my usual November activity. I set out to write 50,000 words in thirty days for National Novel Writing Month. Writing would provide a respite from painful reality.
I recreated 1870s America and sprinkled in some magic. There, one girl’s only sister could slowly transform into a mermaid. I added things I loved: fireflies, forests, bonfires, picnics with friends. Every day, I disappeared into fantasy and journeyed toward the sea with my characters: Clara, her mermaid-to-be sister Maren, and their best friend O’Neill. Consciously and unconsciously, I wrestled on the page with the anguish of watching a loved one fade away, grief’s many aspects, and my new identity as a sisterless sister.
God promises comfort to those who mourn (Matthew 5:4, Psalm 147:3). He used my imagination to console me. He planted parallels and symbolism in the story that I’d discover in bits and pieces later, little footnotes to show He was there as I wrote. As O’Neill loved Clara and stood by her as a faithful friend, so did Jesus accompany me through the valley of the shadow of death. With Clara, I was venturing into a new phase of life and becoming a new version of myself. As Clara learned to accept the Sea King’s will for the mermaid Maren, I’d eventually learn to take comfort in the Father’s ultimate healing of my sister in heaven. The book’s happy endings echo my faith in an eternity without sorrow (Revelation 21:1–4).
When I typed THE END, I was unaware of most of the subtext—but I knew that my grief was sewn among my words. I didn’t intend to ever read the manuscript, let alone share it. But as Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”
The big plot twist
To be clear, writing didn’t cure me of grief. In The Mermaid’s Sister, Clara spoke for me when she said, “I feel as if part of me is now made of sorrow, some new and tender organ that will pain me until the day I die.” The feeling is uncomfortable, but it’s probably good. Grief makes us long for Heaven like nothing else can.
After winter, spring came, and then summer. I cried less in the car and at kind librarians. I decided to read my November novel. The experience was strange, more like reading someone else’s words than mine—but it had potential. I spent months revising and editing, finishing in time to give my grandmother a spiral-bound copy for Christmas.
On a whim, I submitted the manuscript to the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Out of 10,000 entries, along with four books in other genres, The Mermaid’s Sister was chosen for publication. This was a perfectly timed, multi-layered miracle. God fulfilled my dreams of becoming a published author. With the prize money, He provided for my family during my husband’s unemployment. As only He could, God made something beautiful from tragedy, something that continues to bring joy to me and others.
If I write a hundred books, the book of my heart will always be the one written in the midst of mourning. As Clara says when she gives away one of Maren’s pearl tears, “It came from sadness, but led to joy.”
From once upon a time to eternity
As Jesus warned, our earthly journey is fraught with trouble (John 16:33), but He travels the terrible and beautiful road with us hand in hand (Psalm 73:23–26). Had I not previously tucked these and other biblical truths into my heart, the loss of my sister might have wrecked me. Writing fantasy can distract or pacify, but it’s no substitute for the living Word of God—which, by the way, contains the ultimate happily-ever-after.