What would you do if you found out you were going to die in six months? It's a question many people contemplate at some point during their lifetime but few actually face. For Stephanie Williams, the question hit with urgency at age 31. She was traveling in Italy with the boyfriend she was hoping to marry when a phone call to her doctor brought bad news: chemotherapy hadn't conquered the breast cancer that had been diagnosed a year earlier. Williams had less than two years to live.
Rather than resign herself to a limited life, Williams, a magazine journalist, leaped into action. In the summer of 2002, while recovering from surgery, she began the novel she had always wanted to write. Working through pain and the blur of medication, Williams
enlisted a friend and fellow writer to visit each day so they could write their respective novels together. At times, the frail author slept 16 hours a day, waking for a few hours to write, then dozing again. But her mother Faye and sister Laurie are convinced that writing distracted Williams from her illness and kept her focused on living. "It's unfortunate that it took cancer to push Stephanie to write her novel, but it was so inspiring to everyone around her," Laurie says. "She never wavered over writing the book and getting it published."
Ellie McGrath, Williams' former editor and mentor, founded a publishing house and secured a printer on the writer's behalf. Meanwhile, Williams worked during weeks in intensive care, editing from her hospital bed. When Williams contracted pneumonia in May 2004, McGrath figured someone else would have to finalize the edits. "But as aggressive as her tumor was, Stephanie was just as aggressive," says McGrath. "When I handed her the galleys, she pulled off her oxygen mask and pointed out an error in the typeface." In June, Williams finally held copies of her novel, Enter Sandman, printed months ahead of schedule. At the book's launch party three weeks before her death, Williams, thin and weak and wearing an outfit belonging to McGrath's 9-year-old daughter, told a crowd of friends and colleagues that writing the book was so rewarding that the past few months had been the best time of her life. "I feel like I've already died and gone to heaven," she said.
Williams didn't live to see the Boston Globe call her novel "remarkable" and "compelling." Although she would have loved the accolades, the point was getting the book out there. "She couldn't marry the love of her life. She couldn't have a child," McGrath explains. "For a person dying so young, leaving something meaningful behind alleviated the anguish. This was her legacy." That legacy also helped family members cope. "It was easier to let go of her because we saw her living life to its fullest," says Faye.