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Finding Hope After Tragedy

Eleanor Vincent's life changed forever on April 2, 1992. The day before ended with good news, as Vincent's daughter, Maya, discovered that she had been accepted into the theater program at University of California, Los Angeles. Then the other shoe fell; the next day, Maya was fatally injured while horseback riding. She was 19.

Maya was riding a horse bareback with friends near Mt. Diablo when she fell off and hit her head. She was taken to John Muir hospital, and was in a coma after having brain surgery. The doctor said to Vincent the prognosis was not good. Maya died four days after the accident.

Although she was shocked and grief stricken, Vincent donated Maya's organs to waiting recipients because she wanted good to come out of something so tragic. Years later, she turned that tragedy into the basis of her memoir, Swimming With Maya.

Vincent graduated from Mills in 1995. Her thesis, Kinship, was the beginning of Swimming. On Sept. 28, the Place for Writers invited Vincent, back where she read several passages from her book and answered questions.

The book has changed drastically since her thesis days. "I wrote my thesis three years after Maya died, so it was still so raw and I was still in mourning. After some time, I could get some distance." She said that she feels she is not the narrator of the book anymore.

"The narrator is not me. She is a version of me. By the time this book was completed, I had more life experiences because I had lived more," said Vincent.

Mills helped her healing; working full time, she felt that coming here saved her. The beauty of Mills was healing as well. "I think it was the entire Mills environment that was so healing for me, the trees, the creek, the little footbridges, the architecture - it was a haven in the midst of my very busy world. It almost felt like a place outside of time and because I was only on campus once a week for my class or workshop, it was very special."

Vincent credits the professors at Mills who helped her: Elmaz Abinander, Chana Bloch, and Marilyn MacIntyre. It was taking MacIntyre's Medicine and Writing class that helped her to grapple the outcome of Maya's death, and to inspire her to find the person who had Maya's heart.

After checking with the Donor Network who gave Maya's organs away, she met Fernando, who received Maya's heart, in 1996. He is in his sixties and lives in Chile with his family. He is now a friend of the family and Vincent's other daughter Meghan often visits him in Chile. Both of them were helpful in writing Swimming with telling their own stories about what happened, especially Meghan with the early days right after Maya died.

At first, she said, she wrote poetry to help her, because "the poetry was so painful, but fun because it was so short. It was satisfying! You can finish it! It's not a 350 page manuscript!" She also recommended for people writing non-fiction to write poetry: "There's something about the pungency in the poetry for the memoir. It forces you to get to the essence."

She also went to a facilitated writing group where "it took a quantum leap," and she recommended facilitated writing groups for all writers.

Now that the book is written, Vincent is spending time with Meghan, who is now 24 and a graduate from UC Santa Cruz. She is currently working on other essays, some which are related to Swimming, some not. She has started work on a novel. "A novel is a different undertaking than a memoir. You have to get distance and factual issues (with a memoir) Novels are imagination and have free rein."

But mostly Vincent is promoting Swimming, and at the end of her reading, she said, "We need to feel the anger and finding the outlets to do it... it's a book about being human, about being alive."