"Writing this book was my recovery," says author/cartoonist Suzy Becker in the acknowledgements of her new book, I Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse?
Author of the New York Times best seller All I Need to Know I Learned From my Cat, Becker's career as an illustrator took off in the late '80s and early '90s when she started a greeting card company featuring her designs and her wry but humane messages. She became the youngest ever recipient of the New England Business Owner's Woman of the Year Award. Becker went on to serve as a White House Fellow and, in 1999, was due to start a prestigious Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe College when she began experiencing seizures in the middle of the night.
An avowed perfectionist, an avid sportswoman and a hopeless Type-A personality, Becker didn't tell anyone her secret until one night her girlfriend Karen witnessed one of the seizures and insisted that Becker see a doctor.
The diagnosis was a brain tumor; and the treatment, immediate brain surgery.
"When the surgeon asked me [before surgery] what were the three most important things to me, I rattled off three things," she said in a recent telephone interview. "You take so much for granted. It never came up that my words might go."
Becker woke up unable to speak and frequently unable to remember simple facts like the date. Her ability to write was slow to come back, and she feared the worst: that she would lose her unique abilities as an artist.
The book, an unusual chronology of handwritten notes and drawings, a narrative of the months following surgery with some hilarious asides, began to take shape.
"It [started as] notes that I kept, things that I cut out, ideas that I had," said Becker. "The sketches were so rough; the text wasn't in the right place."
She stuck with the form, however, and plans to stick with it because "that's the way I think."
The resulting illustrated memoir is at once a riveting read, a hilarious look at family dynamics, and a portrait of a brave woman who's afraid she might not get herself back. Becker holds no punches -- her account is clearsighted, critical, insightful and completely void of sentimentality.
"When I did the very first draft, I wrote absolutely everything," she said, referring to the candor with which she treats her family members' imperfections. "I trusted that showing these imperfections wasn't gratuitous. I mean, I really love my family and they really love me and they've seen me through this. It wasn't like toxic parents or anything like that. Had I made myself perfect, maybe they would have had reason to complain, but I didn't.
"I hope it's healthy for other families to read about this," she added. "It's hard to read about all these perfect families then to say, oh yeah, what about us?"
Becker still speaks with a slight hesitation, representative of lingering minor language problems. But her sense of humor is fully intact. Asked how she's doing now, she doesn't miss a beat:
"I'm pissed that my hot water heater is broken," she said. "No, I am all better."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
I Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse?
An illustrated memoir by Suzy Becker
(Workman Publishing: New York)
Suzy Becker will read from and sign her book
The Tattered Cover, LoDo, 1628 16th St. (at Wynkoop), Denver
Wednesday, March 24, 7:30 p.m.