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Laura Hillenbrand releases new book while fighting chronic fatigue syndrome
Eventually Hillenbrand was forced to leave Kenyon College. She relocated to Chicago where her boyfriend had been accepted to graduate school, but while visiting her mother in Maryland she collapsed and knew she'd never be strong enough for the flight back to Illinois. Washington became her default home. She and Flanagan remained apart until he could find a job in the area, at which point Washington became his default home, too.
"If you had asked the 21-year-old me, 'Would you like to be someone's caretaker for the rest of your life?' " Flanagan says, "I don't think our relationship was sufficiently evolved at that time." For years, they put off getting married; Hillenbrand wanted to be well before planning a wedding.
In the beginning, at least, "well" seemed like a reachable destination. It was ludicrous, really, to think things might not improve. "We didn't want to . . . adopt the attitude that she might not get better," Flanagan says. "When it became obvious she wasn't getting better, we'd been together for so long that marriage seemed . . . "
How much closer could a ceremony bind two people who had been through what they had?
When "Seabiscuit" became a bestseller, Flanagan threw open a second-story window and gleefully shouted the news to the neighborhood. The book was a rejoinder to anyone who had ever associated CFS with laziness. And it felt good, Hillenbrand says wryly, "being able to be something other than [Flanagan's] invalid girlfriend."
But the success of Hillenbrand's book also helped uncover a cache of emotions that Flanagan had been hiding about her illness. He was exhausted, terrified, frustrated, sad. But he feared that sharing any of this with Hillenbrand would only tax her health further, and so he was also isolated from the one person he wanted to talk to.
"I started to have doubts," he says, asking himself if he was with her out of moral duty. "I tried to persuade myself that I didn't love her."
"I thought, 'Now she's wealthy,' " he remembers. "Now I won't be the world's worst bastard if I leave."
He came to her one night in June with all of these confessions, but the resulting conversations only made their relationship stronger.
"I had to persuade myself it was possible for me to leave," Flanagan says, "before I could realize that I didn't want to."
They were married in 2008, during a good spell, at the Hay-Adams Hotel downtown. Hillenbrand was seated for the ceremony, and wasn't strong enough for the reception. She thinks the cake had alternating layers, chocolate and vanilla-apricot, but she doesn't remember because she didn't get to taste it herself.
No matter. It was, both agree, a beautiful wedding.
Point of departure
In the carefully calibrated world of Laura Hillenbrand, every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. On one day, she might agree to an interview but skip a shower. Energy is finite, and she typically has enough for one activity a day. She is constantly measuring herself, monitoring herself. She might write a bestseller - she might write two - but the ensuing fame will touch her only tangentially. She will not see her books in Barnes & Noble. She will not move into a bigger house; too much more space would be overwhelming.
People ask, sometimes, whether she would consider writing a book about chronic fatigue syndrome. She doesn't plan on it. She already knows what that life is like.
Before she got sick, she loved to travel. Now, when she is well enough, her favorite thing is to drive down to Reagan National Airport and sit in view of the runway. She loves the big openness of the runway, and the fact that she can see very far away.
It's a gateway to another world.