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Healed Within

The hectic social whirl of Ecuador’s expatriate community could not disguise Susan and David’s foundering marriage. Divorce soon followed. Then Susan began to suffer mysterious dizzy spells. Shockingly, at the age of twenty-nine, she was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. An operation to remove it resulted in paralysis. What was the point of it all? HEALED WITHIN (pb Hodder & Stoughton) is the remarkable story of one woman’s discovery of God through despair and illness. It shows the tangible difference that faith can make in transforming sadness into hope, even in the most difficult circumstances. ___________________________

I had been writing for some years and had several books (now out of print) and numerous articles under my belt when Hodder & Stoughton approached me and commissioned me to write HEALED WITHIN. Its subject, Susan James, lived in a Cheshire Home not far from me, but I had never encountered her prior to the meeting that was set up between us. I don’t know how she felt on that first occasion, but I was decidedly nervous. People often seem to set authors on a pedestal, and I’m sure there may be some who deserve to be there. But I suspect that many, like me, have a shyness about them − which is either the reason they become writers in the first place (easier to communicate via the written word than vocally) or perhaps because introversion is the result of hours of your life spent closeted away from society. Be that as it may, Susan was a complex character, a mixture of softly spoken mild observations, gentle gestures and childlike, unaffected, humour, versus a formidable will. It was soon apparent that whatever listening and writing skills I might bring to the project of authorship, Susan had strong ideas of her own. Our sessions were short and frequent: Susan tired easily as a result of her physical condition, and her memory was not always what she would have liked it to be. Sometimes, I felt I would never get to the end of the story; that the little I’d gleaned had no cohesion; no focal point. But I had a signed contract to fulfil – and besides, like everyone else, I fell under Susan’s spell. You simply couldn’t help but love her. She was irrepressible. Incorrigible. And though I’m told, on good authority, that there were times, in my absence, when she would rail against me following some mild altercation or other about what should, or should not, be included in the book, when next we met she would be full of smiles and graciousness – as if we had never fallen out.

Susan’s story fascinated me. Before she was born, her sister had been one of a number of children killed by a stray German bomber randomly jettisoning his load over a local church in which the Sunday school were assembled. Naturally, following that loss, Susan, when she arrived, was the apple of her parents’ eye. And as she freely admitted, she quickly learned, with her pretty face and manners, how to beguile others to do her bidding. Marriage, and Ecuador − with its hedonistic, ex-pat lifestyle, the hand-made shoes, servants and colonial social whirl − was the fulfilment of everything she could have hoped for. Until tragedy struck!

But despite the pain and heartbreak, touches of humour lighten the narrative of the book, and bring a very human dimension to what could otherwise be a bleak and unremitting tale of woe. Like the account of fellow inmate Geoffrey, whose motorised bed took him to London, Ireland, and even Ascot. Or the dry run of Susan’s baptism, when she, the local minister and two doctors lost their balance and ended up sprawled at the bottom of the empty pool, convulsed with laughter.

There’s no doubt that Susan accomplished more from her wheelchair than many able-bodied folk do in a lifetime on their feet. A speaker and campaigner, writer of poetry and traveller, her tireless spirit reached out to embrace others. Despite the extent of her disability, she never let it get the better of her. I remember one occasion when I was privileged to be the one chosen to interview her for a TV programme. We sat in the open air on the cliff-tops, for Take after Take as she stumbled over the questions and answers we were supposed to have memorised. Until, eventually, we quietly, and without fuss, reached a decision. We both knew her story inside out! Like it or lump it, script or no script, the TV company was going to have to accept our version of the interview.

Living independently for the last few years of her life, Susan died, as she had lived, a party girl to the end. On the morning of her birthday, with a huge celebration planned for that evening, she passed quietly away. I wonder – did the festivities, perhaps, take place elsewhere?

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