Today I heard that there is a celebration for a man who is one of the longest living with a heart transplant. Diagnosed at 21 with a fatal heart disease and given weeks to live, he received a heart transplant and 26 years later, he’s still going strong. This made me think of Lydia Langstaff, a young writer who I once knew. We were both part of the same writer’s group. Lydia and I began to do some individual critiquing of each other’s work on the side.
She was under thirty and was truly like a porcelain doll. Her skin was nearly translucent, a pale white, and her eyes were large. Lydia’s hair was blond and her rounded nails had a tinge of blue. In many ways she was as delicate as a fey being who spends a short time navigating the world of humans. You see, Lydia had a congenital heart defect. Her nails and skin were part of her condition. Her heart was such a tremulous thing that Lydia could never fly, nor even walk up a flight of stairs. The strain would have been too much.
She told me once her family called her their miracle because she had never been expected to live past birth. And yet she did. She
made it through her world carefully, and uncomplaining. Lydia’s husband, Jeff Langstaff, supported her and they were both aware of her tenuous hold on the reins of life.
For the brief while I got to know Lydia she was a determined writer. She never ever complained about her condition. She persevered and lived with it. And she was becoming a good author. She sold a few stories and possibly some poems. She and I were working on novels. I had read some of hers. And then one day we heard that Lydia had died suddenly, one night in the arms of her husband. They had always known it could happen any time, but it was still a surprise that she died so young, at 28.
After Lydia’s death, her husband Jeff asked me to look through her manuscript. It turns out she had finished the first draft of a novel and he wondered what it would take to make it publishable. I read it and didn’t charge him, in honor of Lydia. It was a mythic tale, of traveling back in time to Scotland’s early history, of accepting one’s destiny. I told him that it would take some editing to make it publishable but it wasn’t bad. I couldn’t do it for free but I would halve my rate. He told me he’d think about it because even an edited manuscript doesn’t mean it will be published. It languished in a drawer and I never heard from Jeff again.
It’s been about 16 years since Lydia died and I still have her manuscript. I don’t know what her maiden name is and attempts to find Jeff have not succeeded. I’m loath to throw out the manuscript as it seems to disrespect Lydia’s memory. Yet should I edit it and then self-publish it under both our names? If I did that, I’d have to split the proceeds after my cost; Lydia’s half going to heart research. But is that ethical? I feel stuck and wonder what would be right. I’d love to honor her memory and let her story see the light but I’m not family and yet, I can’t find them. What do you think I should do? And if you know a Jeff Langstaff, have him read this and contact me if he’s the right one.
There is a Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize that On Spec puts out (possibly sporadically) given to a writer under 30. I think it will be resurrected again. But I’d like to know what to do with Lydia’s manuscript and I’d dearly love to find her family. In the meantime, I have another part of Lydia’s legacy. She taught me to cherish each moment because time is ephemeral and I’ve had so much more time than she did. She showed me that one can accomplish a great deal, even with physical handicaps. I don’t always remember these lessons but I try to because Lydia gave it her all for her short time in this earthly realm.