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How to Walk Away
Author:Katherine Center

How to Walk Away

Katherine Center

For my mom, Deborah Detering, who is my personal superhero.

And to the memory of her brother and friend, my uncle, Herman Detering. We will always miss you, Bubsie.


This story required vast amounts of research, and I’m so grateful to all the people who helped me try to get it right. Hugs to friends who hooked me up with experts to answer my many questions: Vicky and Tony Estrera, Jennifer Hamilton, Eve Lapin, Mark Poag, and J.J. Spedale.

Much gratitude to all the health care professionals who took time to help me research Margaret’s treatment. Dr. Darrell Hanson met me for coffee and walked me through exactly the injury Margaret would have had, explained in detail the surgery and recovery, and taught me the world iliopsoas. Dr. Forrest Roth walked me through the treatment of burns and skin grafts. Robert Manning, PT, kindly took a morning to show me around the ICU and rehab gym at Houston Methodist hospital. Ross LaBove and all the guys at Project Walk in Houston let me spend a day with them learning about all the creative and inspiring ways they help people work to get better.

Thank you to Jeff Scott and Wesley Branch, who were both gracious enough to share their spinal cord–injury stories with me and to talk at length about the realities of life afterward. Also, I’m glad to have found two honest and inspiring narratives about life with spinal-cord injuries: Mark Hall’s book, Across the Street from Hell, and Pamela Henline’s book, Walk, Don’t Run. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation was also helpful.

Many thanks to Mollie Gordon, who connected me with her dad, Alan Gordon—who very kindly took me up in his Cessna, flew me to Galveston and back, even let me “fly” the plane for a little while. Then, once we were safely back on the ground, showed me the best way to crash that plane. Thanks, too, to John Marino, who met me for coffee and told me of his harrowing—and yet somehow very funny—experience of surviving a plane crash.

A quick shout-out to my friend Sam Nichols for the night at the Cherry Blossom in Fishkill, New York, when he just about killed himself eating an entire blob of wasabi on a dare.

I’ve been inspired for many years by the resilience of my mom’s friend Jan Myers, who, with her husband, founded a summer camp for children with health needs after they lost their young son John Marc to cancer. Camp Hope in this novel—its thoughtful and whimsical design and its determination to bring joy into people’s struggles—is inspired by Camp John Marc.

I also need to thank friends who’ve supported me, talked books with me, and gone out of their way to help me either get my writing done or get the word out about it: Brené Brown and Steve Alley, Chris and Connie Seger, Jenny Lawson, Sheryl Rapp, Vicky Wight, Faye Robeson, Andrew and Katherine Weber, Bryn Larsen, Maria Zerr, Tracy Pesikoff, and Dale Andrews. And thanks to my fun family for always being so excited about what I do: Bill Pannill and Molly Hammond, Shelley and Matt Stein (and Yazzie), Lizzie and Scott Fletcher, and Al and Ingrid Center.

My amazing mom, Deborah Detering, and my rock-star husband, Gordon Center, always rack up a million points for helpfulness and selflessness as I try to get my writing done. (Special thanks to Gordon for mangling the French language so beautifully and inspiring the phrase “my hams exploded.”) My kids, Anna and Thomas, also get a million points. Just for being sweet-hearted and hilarious.

Thanks, also, to all the folks at St. Martin’s Press who have supported this book and been so great to work with: Rachel Diebel, Lisa Senz, Jessica Preeg, Erica Martirano, Brant Janeway, Jordan Hanley, Olga Grlic, Elizabeth Catalano, Devan Norman, and Janna Dokos.

Last, but not least: Heartfelt gratitude to my agent, Helen Breitwieser, who’s advocated for and stuck by me now for a solid decade. And to my editor, the brilliant Jen Enderlin, who I don’t think I can ever thank enough for taking me on. Thank you both beyond words.

You get one life, and it only goes forward.

—Wesley Branch

There are all kinds of happy endings.

—Eve Lapin


THE BIGGEST IRONY about that night is that I was always scared to fly.

Always. Ever since I was old enough to think about it.

It seemed counterintuitive. Even a little arrogant. Why go up when gravity clearly wanted us to stay down?

Back in high school, my parents took my big sister, Kitty, and me to Hawaii one year. I dreaded the flight from the moment they told us until well after we were home again. The phrase “flying to Hawaii” translated in my head to “drowning in the ocean.” The week before the trip, I found myself planning out survival strategies. One night after lights out, I snuck to Kitty’s room and climbed into her bed.

I was a freshman, and she was a senior, which gave her a lot of authority.

“What’s the plan?” I demanded.

Her face was half buried in the pillow. “The plan for what?”

“For when the plane hits.”

She opened an eye. “Hits what?”

“The ocean. On the way to Hawaii.”

She held my gaze for a second. “That’s not going to happen.”

“I have a bad feeling,” I said.

“Now you’re jinxing us.”

“This is serious. We need a survival strategy.”

She reached out and patted my bangs. “There is no survival strategy.”

“There has to be.”

“No.” She shook her head. “Because if we don’t crash, we won’t need one. And if we do crash…” She paused so I could catch her drift.

“We won’t need one?”

A nod. “We’ll just be dead.” Then she snapped her fingers.

“You make it sound easy.”

“Dying is easy. It’s not dying that’s hard.”

“Guess you have a point there.”

She closed her eyes. “That’s why I’m the brains of the family.”

“I thought I was the brains,” I said, nudging her.

She rolled away. “You know you’re the beauty.”

Impossibly, we survived that trip.

Just as impossibly, I survived many more trips after that, never hitting anything worse than turbulence. I’d read the statistics about how flying was the safest of all the modes of transportation—from cars to trains to gondolas. I’d even once interned at an office right next to an international airport and watched planes go up and come down all day long with nary a problem. I should have been long over it.

But I never could lose the feeling that “flying” and “crashing” were kind of the same thing.

Now, years later, I was dating—seriously dating—a guy who was just days away from getting his pilot’s license. Dating him so seriously, in fact, that on this particular Saturday, as we headed out to celebrate my not-yet-but-almost-official new dream job, I could not shake the feeling that he was also just about to ask me to marry him. Like, any second.

Which is why I was wearing a strapless black sundress.

If I’d thought about it, I might have paused to wonder how my boyfriend, the impossibly fit and charming Charles Philip Dunbar, could be one hundred percent perfect for me in every possible way—and also be such an air travel enthusiast. He never thought twice about flying at all—or doing anything scary, for that matter, like scuba diving or bungee jumping. He had an inherent faith in the order of the universe and the principles of physics and the right of mankind to bend those principles to its will.

Me, I’d always suspected that chaos was stronger than order. When it was Man against Nature, my money was on Nature every time.

“You just never paid attention in science class,” Chip always said, like I was simply under-informed.

True enough. But that didn’t make me wrong.

Chip believed that his learning to fly was going to cure my fears. He believed that he’d become so awesome and inspiring that I’d have no choice but to relax and enjoy it.

On this, we had agreed to disagree.

“I will never, ever fly with you,” I’d announced before his first lesson.