WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Susan Spencer-Wendel made a career covering courts and criminals, so she's used to asking tough questions.
Now that she's the subject of national media attention herself, she appreciates journalists who tackle the hard stuff head-on — like the question she's been asked several times recently: "Do you think this is your last Christmas?"
Her answer is direct: "Yes. So by jove we're gonna enjoy it!"
Creating lasting memories from "last" holidays and celebrating joy in every moment has been Susan's quest since summer 2011, when she learned she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — Lou Gehrig's disease.
As the incurable disease began to wither her muscles, Susan took control like the resourceful reporter she is: She decided that if her time would be limited, she would squeeze every bit of fun out of it.
She planned bucket-list trips with her dearest loved ones, then wrote about two of them in The Palm Beach Post, where she had been courts reporter for 11 years.
Stories of her amazing trips — one to see the Northern Lights with her best friend, Nancy, and one to Budapest to celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary with her husband, John — got the attention of book publishers. HarperCollins paid approximately $2 million for Susan's life story, and Universal paid $2 million more for movie rights.
Susan typed her memoir, "Until I Say Goodbye," in three months on an iPhone with the one finger that has not forsaken her: Her right thumb. The book will be published in March and translated into 25 languages.
It is now available for preorder and has its own web site — susanspencerwendel.com — and Facebook page.
HarperCollins calls Susan's story "a powerfully emotional, inspirational and irrepressibly joyous look at the things that matter most. 'Until I Say Goodbye' is the fulfillment of her final wish: 'To make people laugh and cry and hug their children and joke with their friends and dwell in how wonderful it is to be alive.'"
Susan wrote an email update on her life — which has recently been full of interviews with reporters from People, the Today show, NPR and The Associated Press and more — to share with Post readers:
"I so enjoy meeting the journalists. Seeing what they create and how talented they are. People shared their stories with me for so many years, I consider it a privilege to share mine with them.
"We taped a lot of media these past weeks as my voice becomes more slurred everyday. All the content is due to be aired around March 12 — the book's release date. By then, my voice will be unintelligible.
"My decline is speeding up: each day I lose more steps and words. I now choke at most every meal, episodes which leave people around me screaming 'Should we call 911?' Ergo, I don't eat much anymore.
"I knew it would be this way. So for Thanksgiving we had our major holiday event. Our entire families — 40 in all — came. Was wonderful. Hectic, but wonderful.
"Thus, Christmas is a time just for John and me and our children."
The family enjoyed the day at their home in Lake Clarke Shores, where Susan's favorite writing spot is the big chickee hut in the backyard.
She planned special "forever" gifts for her family: Scrapbooks for her three children — large, leather-bound books with their names embossed in gold on the front and their lives catalogued inside. She had necklaces designed for the most precious women in her life — her daughter Marina, 15, her mother, Tee, her sister, Stephanie, and her best friend, Nancy. The necklaces feature two entwined circles with their names and Susan's name.
She had personal gifts made for John and her father, Tom, too.
And when they asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she asked for a ring, an heirloom that could be passed to Marina or the fiancee of one of her two sons some day.
This holiday season, Susan and John gave generous gifts to causes dear to their hearts: The Legal Aid Society, ALS research, and a $10,000 check to The Post's holiday campaign for needy neighbors, Season to Share.
"It was my privilege to once write 'Season to Share' stories and now my privilege to make this gift," Susan wrote in the card with their check. "I thank the journalists and editors who brought such giving to fore."
Through these tangible gifts and her intangible spirit, Susan Spencer-Wendel is making sure her last chapter lasts.
"Mine is a story of twinning good and bad fortunes, which I find profound meaning in," she wrote.
"I read every day a passage about joy and sorrow from Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet.' It is about how 'the deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.'
"'Is not the cup which holds your wine the very cup burned in the potter's oven?'
"I believe this. That in the long trajectory of my family's lives, a deep sorrow now will open worlds of feeling for them in the future.
"This comforts me, brings me great peace.
"And the ability to delight in today and today alone."
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