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Finding resilience in 'Last Things'

Widow creates graphic memoir to share story about husband's death

Within two weeks of the death of her husband, Harvey Stahl, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Berkeley author/illustrator Melissa Moss began writing about the medical crisis that had engulfed her family. More than 15 years later, the creator of the best-selling "Amelia's Notebook" middle-grade series and the founder of Creston Books, has published her graphic memoir, "Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love."

Moss will read and sign "Last Things" at a benefit for the ALS Association's Golden West chapter at Books Inc. in Palo Alto on Saturday, Aug. 26. Moss attended Palo Alto's Henry M. Gunn High School, and her parents still reside in the city.

In 2001, Moss and Stahl, a medieval art historian teaching at UC Berkeley, were wrapping up a sabbatical year in Rome, when they noticed his sudden shortness of breath during routine outings. After they returned home to the Bay Area with their three young sons, Stahl underwent various medical tests until he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. At that point, Moss says in her book, "our lives exploded."

"Last Things" chronicles the family's attempts to deal with Stahl's impending death. Suffering from Bulbar ALS, a form of the disease that generally progresses more rapidly, Stahl undergoes a swift transformation, physically and psychologically, over the course of only eight months. The children -- Simon, Elias and Asa, ages 13, 10 and 6 -- handle their parents' dire new circumstances as best they can, wanting to engage with their sick father while fearing and denying the daily evidence of his decline.

The book has been met with praise from general audiences and medical professionals alike.

In a telephone interview, Moss talked about Stahl's struggles with ALS, what she learned by writing and illustrating "Last Things" and how the experience changed her family forever.

Asked how she was able to recall certain emotion-filled events, Moss said, "Because I started two weeks after Harvey died, everything was super-fresh. I didn't have to search to remember. You're in this hyper-intense reality where you're in survival mode."

According to Moss, many of the conversations in "Last Things" are verbatim, "exactly what people said." That sense of immediacy combines with the simple, yet expressive, black-and-white illustrations to produce a memoir that's clear in its storytelling and devastating in its impact.

Moss said that she could not sell "Last Things" as a prose-only memoir.

"I was re-writing it for 10 years, because I would send it to agents, and they would say, 'Very strong writing. Can't sell it. It's too sad.'"

The switch to a comics format made a significant difference. "I realized, just a few years ago, that I was working against my own instincts."

Even though she had plenty of experience combining words and pictures in the Amelia books, Moss didn't immediately make the leap with "Last Things."

"I guess I thought that for adult books you couldn't do that."

She said the art helps tell the story more effectively. "It helps open (the book) up. It's not as claustrophobic. It's still sad, but it's not unremittingly sad. There's a lot you can do with art that you can't do with text."

As his health worsened, Stahl shut himself away in his home office, insisting that he needed to finish his book on Louis IX and became impatient with any attempts to draw him out.

"We have this overarching narrative in American culture that these serious illnesses make you into a nobler, better person," Moss said. "But I think when people are dying, they're often angry and cold and in denial the way Harvey was."

Moss now understands that Bulbar ALS patients like Stahl sometimes exhibit lack of empathy as part of their symptomology.

Moss said that one of the hardest scenes to depict was the time when Harvey coldly denied 6-year-old Asa's pleas to be allowed to unlock the door to his office at Cal.

"The problem for Asa is that he doesn't remember his dad as a good person; he only has the bad memories of his dad being an ogre," Moss said. "He's had to replace that with stories from his brothers and other friends, who tried to create a picture of who his father really was."

Asked how her husband's illness affected her, Moss said, "I learned how to forgive myself."

"Last Things" is a sometimes difficult read, but in its honesty and straightforwardness, it provides a means of grappling with frightening circumstances.

"I think the book is, in fact, positive," Moss said. "Because it ends up being a story of resilience and of how you can come through something like that."

What: Marissa Moss will read and sign "Last Things: A Graphic Memoir of Loss and Love" as part of a fundraiser for the ALS Association's Golden West chapter.

Where: Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto

When: 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 26

Cost: Free. A portion of proceeds from book sales will benefit the ALS Association's Golden West chapter.

Info: booksinc.net

Michael Berry is a regular contributor to the Palo Alto Weekly. You can reach him at mikeberry@mindspring.com.

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