On an August day in 2008, Madeira Beach Elementary School principal Sue Kotchman was busy preparing for the new school year when she developed a pain in her neck that steadily worsened.
Kotchman, then 55, was suffering a brain hemorrhage, and it was so severe that doctors gave her only a 50-50 chance of surviving.
But after two weeks in intensive care, Kotchman recovered. She went home changed by the experience and determined to pursue her dreams.
"I know I am extremely lucky,'' Kotchman said in a recent interview. "Me being here right now is a miracle. ... Something like that really makes you want to do the things that are important to you.''
Kotchman, who is the mother of Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman, 28, had always dreamed of writing books. Today that dream is reality. Kotchman wrote With Love, From Grandma, a children's book about a young girl stricken with grief after her grandmother dies.
"I had always wanted to be a writer, and I realized it was time to do it,'' said Kotchman, who self-published the book through AuthorHouse. "I also had the subject of death on my mind. I had lost my mother seven months before my brain hemorrhage.''
Kotchman retired soon after recovering from her medical emergency, but "I wanted to continue helping to promote literacy in this school district,'' she said. So she pulled out an old manuscript she had started writing in 1984.
With Love, From Grandma focuses on the experiences of Christal, an 8-year-old girl named for Kotchman's daughter. The character is close to her grandmother, who smelled like a "sweet perfume,'' and loved homemade chocolate chip cookies.
In the book, Christal cherished meeting her grandmother at the train station when she came for visits. They'd take outings together and feed the ducks in the park (which resembles Seminole City Park in the illustration). Christal would listen to her grandmother's stories of life in the big city.
But when the grandmother dies, grief-stricken Christal retreats to her room.
Kotchman wants the story to show kids that ''you can be sad, but you can't be sad all the time.'' She believes many children can benefit from the book.
"As a principal, I saw many grandparents stepping in replacing the parents,'' said Kotchman, who worked for Pinellas County schools for 32 years. "Actually, 2.9 million grandparents are raising their grandkids in this country. Think about how young they will be when their grandparents die.''
Kotchman chose a book cover that has whimsical shades of pink and purple to create a more cheerful appearance for an intense topic.
"I wanted to write a book for kids to help them understand it is okay to grieve,'' said Kotchman, 57. "An artist friend taught me that the colors we use are important. Pastels are calm and soft and create feelings of joy and love.''
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The book has generated interest in some classrooms. Dr. Susan Graham-Taylor, the principal at High Point Elementary, purchased about 50 copies.
"Along with helping kids process death, what Sue's book does is show kids that everybody has a story to tell. Sometimes we make writing out to be much harder than it has to be,'' Graham-Taylor said.
She also invited Kotchman to speak to the third-graders at the school about writing.
"That age group is getting ready for fourth grade, in which they'll take the Florida Writes test, and her book is a way to help them get ready for that,'' she said. "Sue is able to show the kids that writing can be as simple as sharing their own experiences, as simple as Grandma's visit.''
With one book under her belt, Kotchman is aiming to publish a follow-up, With Love, From Grandpa, in the next eight months.
Kotchman's family members — husband Tom, daughter Christal and son Casey — are happy she has finally been able to realize her dream of becoming an author. Her son remembers hearing her talk about it.
"I knew she wanted to do both — be a principal and be a writer — and to see the book come to be makes me so happy for her," Casey Kotchman said.
He was playing for the Atlanta Braves in 2008 when he got the call that his mother had been hospitalized and might not survive. He calls her journey "remarkable."
"To see her recovery is incredible," he said. "It's God's grace that she is here."
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.