Survivors’ Hope

In 1999, an editor named Robert took a chance on me and published a nonfiction essay of mine in his literary magazine at March Street Press. Then he published my fiction story in the following issue. (No pay of course.) But seeing your writing in print those first few times is a thrill. 

Little did I know then but during this exciting next couple of years, when I would see my writing published, when I would be interviewed by the press several times and end up in my local newspaper- I would have no pleasure from it because my partner would become terminally ill and I would become his caregiver. 

I have published (for pay and without) in dozens of literary magazines, journals, and anthologies since then with Women From Another Planet (edited by Jean Kearnes Miller) being one of which I’m especially proud. 

My first book length work was a book called Reborn Through Fire that I (ghost) wrote for “Miracle Man” Tony Yarijanian. In 2006 I was doing a lot of corresponding with editors and fellow authors (still am today actually) and one such author/friend/peer steered me in Tony’s direction. She’d heard he needed a ghostwriter and thought I’d be ideal.

“I’m one hundred percent sure you can do this,” she said.

So I dove into the project! To a person like myself… to write is to LIVE.

I “lost” a cousin (who was close to my age) recently to a brain tumor. Though I only met her a handful of times, deaths in even extended families affect everyone in a kind of ripple. In memory of her, someone posted,

“She LIVED her life rather than ‘just getting through it.'”

This terminology: The LIVING of life, got me to thinking of Tony. He is the burn survivor who I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few weeks now. I was waiting for him to get back to me on whether or not I can post a book excerpt, but since he has not replied yet, I’m going to write about him sans the excerpt. 

 First this: I saw on TV the other day where Tom Cruise was attending a basketball game. The coach, upon hearing that Tom was in the audience was quoted as saying, “I wish I knew he was coming tonight, I’d have had some free tickets lined up for him.” After hearing the remark I was left thinking,

WHY give them to him for free?

Because I know Tom can afford tickets. Give tickets away to basketball fans; to kids who can’t afford the tickets… But that’s the weird way life is, right? You get to the point in your life where you can afford anything you want, as Tom did, and ironically people give things to you for free right and left.

Tony Yarijanian earned through hard work; everything he had. He wasn’t exactly as well off as Tom Cruise, but he was a self made man, an immigrant to this country who spoke 6 languages and built himself up from a humble impoverished background. He was “successful” financially and living a good life in California with his wife and two children: a boy and a girl. And then life got beyond weird. His ordinary daily plans turned upside down. In an instant his whole life-the good life- was changed forever. There was an explosion…

I saw a meme the other day that went like this: Want to hear God Laugh? Tell him you have plans. Tony’s plans to live his life were forever changed. 

It became my job to capture Tony’s point of view in the written word as if it was him speaking. I had a little trepidation after signing the contract to write Reborn Through Fire, but Tony and I started corresponding and in eight months we had a book in our hands. Ghostwriting meant a great deal of telephone conversations between Tony and I (no texting then), listening with an author’s ear to recorded audio files of Tony and his wife telling his remarkable story, video conversations, pages upon pages of e-mail interviews with friends, church goers, doctors and family close to the situation (I specifically asked Tony’s wife more than a hundred questions) and lots of note taking on my part; most of it in a crazy shorthand only I could decipher!

But I’ll let you in on something: I decided when I first got involved with this project that I was not going to write this book unless I thought the story was worth telling. The fact that Tony was a Guinness Record holder for “most burns survived on a human body” certainly piqued my interest. But the more he communicated his story to me, the more blown away I was.

He was a body builder.

He and his wife were attractive and well off.

Underneath the surface stuff and the possessions, they were hard working, church going people who owned several businesses in California. Tony’s automobile repair shop underwent an undercover sting by a local news station, along with several other people with similar businesses. Tony’s shop was the only honest one in the sting. Despite his material successes and good ethics, the explosion came anyway and Tony was burned so badly his own wife barely recognized him.

Bad things happen to good people.

I remember interviewing the man who found Tony’s smoking, charred body on the sidewalk. And the awestruck doctors who cared for him. Tony saw angels that day in Glendale. He is called the Miracle Man for a reason. Reborn Through Fire details these miracles. I will not give away here- the series of incredible circumstances that occurred  before, during, and after Tony’s terrible accident.

I don’t make a cent if you buy the book… my one-time ghostwriting fee was paid in 2006. Tony is someone who once was grateful to just “get through” his ordeal, but as you’d probably guess, he knows now what it is to truly LIVE life.

I learned to LIVE too. Tony’s life teaches that being wealthy doesn’t make you immune to misfortune. It teaches that the sky always was that shade of blue and the birds always did sing that sweetly. It’s a matter of appreciation and of noticing these humble things. Because to notice these simple things in life IS to truly LIVE. And it can be taken so swiftly. Really LIVING life doesn’t mean that one has to

have the status that is so impressive …people give away things to you that they know you can afford as if they are laying offerings at the feet of a holy idol. One doesn’t have to have a drink in hand,

be the life of the party, or be

surrounded by crowds of people to LIVE. 

Being immersed in moments and outside one’s self is a form of living fully. And truly, doesn’t everyone define truly living as something different? 

For five years (between 2000 and 2005) I watched my husband die slowly. Before I wrote my own book about that experience called Under The Banana Moon, I wrote a book called Reborn Through Fire for Tony Yarijanian. I worked on his book day and night on my old desktop computer back in 2006. I specifically remember writing it (newly widowed) in the same dimly lit room I’m writing in now. Only then, I was writing on that dinosaur desktop PC as opposed to the nifty laptop I use now- and with my (now deceased) cat Sweet Pea trying to sit on the keyboard, after my children had gone to bed for the night. I was newly single, a mother of three. Escaping into Tony’s book, into his story, was cathartic for me. As I deciphered the shorthand of my notes and listened to Tony’s voice on my computer audio files, the writing took me out of my own grief. It got me LIVING again. With a purpose. As I said, to me:

to live is to write.

 I wrote the following sentences about an event from Tony’s childhood which he’d described to me in his Armenian lilt. After answering dozens of my questions so I could write the scene as if I’d been there myself, I  wrote the chapter I named “Iran.”:

“…I noticed that each pitiful dog seemed uglier than the one alongside it. One had an eye stuck shut with sticky fluid. The next had bloody gashes matted into its hindquarters…”


A couple years before writing Tony’s book, I mailed my then friend Colin a faceless elf. He was remodeling his house and decided to build a small rustic door leading to an empty cavity between wooden beams and the whole thing, door and all would be concealed behind a finished wall. I was one of maybe a dozen people who contributed artifacts to be hidden behind the secret door. Since I was quite overwhelmed, powerless to control the fate of my doomed marriage, I created a small elf figure with no features. I used wood filler which dries to a hard knock finish- to smooth over his face where his features should’ve been. This was symbolic, I realize now, as to how I felt at the time. Somewhere in the U.K. today is an expressionless “elf” hidden behind a wall, behind a wee hidden door, in an unassuming little ‘flat.’

Writing Tony’s book gave me a voice. I expressed Tony’s story with my written words. I immersed myself in his miracles. I used the somewhat sappy metaphor back then, that before writing his book, my heart felt dry and barren; as dry as if it had a tumbleweed blowing across it. I set out to write the best book I could write. I believe that I did. The process quenched my dehydrated spirit. It’s Tony’s ‘never give up’ spirit that rocks this book!

51UV2mw2ypL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_p.s. My name is at the bottom of the back cover. My heart is throughout.

The Miracle Man website:

Buy REBORN THROUGH FIRE here and also see pictures of Tony’s burns (trigger warning):

Survivors’ Hope:

RIP Leslie

RIP Uncle R. 

RIP Uncle S. 

3 thoughts on “Survivors’ Hope

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