Diana Kupershmit, EMMA'S LAUGH

Diana Kupershmit, EMMA'S LAUGH

“It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to write a book.” When Diana Kupershmit’s daughter Emma was born with physical and mental disabilities, she did not believe she could be the mother Emma needed. But during the brief 18 years Emma was alive, she offered Diana countless lessons on finding her voice, strength, and ability to take full advantage of the second chances life can offer.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Diana. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Emma’s Laugh: The Gift of Second Chances, your memoir.

Diana Kupershmit: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Diana, I know that we met at Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. I got to know you that way. Your book was so beautifully written. I’m so glad that we connected. The way you wrote your poignant, beautiful story, it was just amazing. Bravo to you. Well done.

Diana: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: I know there was a lot of pain involved and a lot of emotion, the story of your beautiful daughter Emma and how you took care of her and all of the stuff in her eighteen years. Oh, my gosh, I am so sorry for your loss. I’m just bowled over by this book. Thank you.

Diana: Thank you. I’m happy it touched you. I didn’t set out to write the book, obviously. I didn’t aspire to write a book about losing a child. I found myself in the wake of her passing, starting to write as a way of processing the grief and the loss and making sense and meaning of what happened and of the last eighteen years. I realized that I was grieving her for the second time, but in a bigger way and in a much more devastating way. When she was first born, I grieved her birth because she was born with a rare genetic condition that left her physically and intellectually disabled with myriad medical conditions. I unraveled. I grieved the loss of the dream of a healthy child. I grieved the life that she would never have and the life we wouldn’t have with her. I was not dealing well with the information. Here I am a social worker myself having worked with special needs kids. Yet I did not think that I could do right by her, that I could give her the life that she deserved. When the hospital social worker broached the subject of alternatives to bringing her home, I did not storm out of the room. I stayed. We listened. She offered that there are families that are willing to adopt special needs kids like Emma. I was so overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I thought, if I don’t think I can take care of my own child, who would want that? What would take that on themselves? She said, “Some people have a calling in life.” It’s the only way she could explain it.

We went home. My husband and I talked about it. We decided that if we were to find a good home for her, that we would give her up for adoption. That’s exactly what happened. We found this beautiful Jewish orthodox family. They had three down syndrome adopted children. They wanted a fourth child. We gave her up. She was about five months old at that point. I was already pregnant with my son. I told myself that this was a do-over. I wanted a do-over. This new baby would be that. I was going to get it right this time. Then things happened. I don’t want to give too much away. I’m home pregnant with this big belly thinking that I made a mistake but not being able to do anything about it other than just talk to the adoptive family. We had an open adoption, so we could check in and see how she was doing. She was never doing well. She was in the hospital with pneumonia and RSV. Just as I was thinking that we made a mistake, and I think I broached the subject with my husband, he told me that he found some things out about the adoptive situation because he’d been visiting her behind my back in the adoptive home and in the hospital. That was a life raft that he gave me with that information. We found out that the conditions no longer existed, so we were able to bring her home. She came home five months later. I had instant twins. Life took off after that. I don’t know if I’m saying too much.

Zibby: No, you’re not saying too much. You’re so open in the book about your complicated feelings about raising Emma, putting her up for adoption, the fact that you were at St. Luke’s and trying to pretend like you weren’t going to give her up for adoption. Yet here you were dealing with these super complicated medical issues and having doctors ask you, “Oh, you must be in the medical field.” You’re like, “No, no, no, I just have had to learn all this,” and the shame that you had when you admitted your feelings of, A, disappointment, B, incompetence. There were a lot of medical issues, feeding tube, gastroenterologists. It’s a lot. Your honesty and all the things and the self-doubt and your relationship with your husband and how you two dealt with it as a team, it was just all so real. Also, I wanted to read a few passages or a passage or two because your writing style is just so beautiful. Let me see. I had so many that I dog-eared that now I can’t decide which one to read. Now I’m wasting time. By the way, I wanted to know what happened with your sister. That was a big thing in the beginning of the book. I feel like maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember what happened at the end. How is she now? What’s the deal with her?

Diana: She’s great.

Zibby: Yeah? She’s great? Okay, excellent.

Diana: She’s a mom of two. We’re very close. I think once you get older, that age gap, it kind of corrects itself. We’re friends and sisters now versus mother/daughter, which was not a healthy relationship, but it worked for us at the time.

Zibby: The reason I’m asking, in the book, you described how you basically took her in even though sister to be a parent to her. I was just always wondering what happened to her.

Diana: There’s themes of rejection and acceptance and forgiveness in the book, and belonging. There was a lot of that from the beginning just in terms of me accepting my sister, then rejecting her; our country of origin, Soviet Ukraine, rejecting us a Jewish people and then America accepting us; and then me rejecting Emma and then accepting. There’s a lot of those themes going on.

Zibby: Wow. Here’s just one. This is at the end. You wrote, “Emma was the fulcrum upon which I teetered. She was my perfectly imperfect child, my teacher, my sage, and I loved her more for it. She elevated to the surface my worst fears and perceived flaws and shed light on them so that they no longer had the power to possess me, to threaten my existence. By casting the focus on her care and well-being, Emma relieved me of the burden of self-obsession, to be perfect and lead a perfect life. I was less a prisoner to others’ judgement and no longer succumbed to the anxieties that so mercilessly plagued my psyche in years past. It was as if by taking on my pain she freed me of my existential wounds just as I had wanted to do for her all those times she hurt.” So beautiful.

Diana: I’m like, who wrote that? That sounds so good when you read it. Thank you.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you upset.

Diana: No, it’s fine. It’s great. That’s what Emma did for us, for me.

Zibby: One more sentence. It’s just so much. “Emma helped me navigate the tangled pathways of my heart and rearranged it. From her, I learned that sometimes you find beauty where you least expect it. In her, I found beauty and wisdom and grace. This little girl, who in my youthful ignorance I believed was broken, had healed me because it was me that was broken all along.” Diana, this is amazing. I really am about to cry myself.

Diana: Thank you. Oh, my gosh, I didn’t expect to get emotional again. You think you shed enough tears. That’s what she did for us. I’d like to think that the book is a love letter to her because I made a mistake. I took a detour. The universe realigned and I was given this massive opportunity to make things right and to learn these important lessons. Even though our story was very individual and personal, maybe somebody can glean some universal important message or value in it that they can benefit from. Everybody’s lost. Everybody’s grieved a person, a relationship, a something. I think that if I can touch people universally, if people can be healed by my story, our story, they can find solace, if you’re a special needs parent raising a child with special needs — I didn’t seek out that community of parents. I regret that. I say that I had my village of family and friends and therapists and nurses, but I didn’t want to belong to that community of special needs parents because I didn’t want to live in the otherness.

Coming to America and belonging, assimilating into a new country and being accepted, I wanted to belong to the larger, typical world, and so I went about creating a sense of normalcy for our life and our family. Everything had to be normal. We did the same things that everybody else did. Just going back to the reasons why I rejected her in the beginning, we were young. I felt morally bankrupt. How could I give up my own child, and a sick child at that? Then I realized that in those early stages, I bought into the narrative that society feeds us that people with disabilities live dark, tragic lives. They’re to be pitied. I just saw myself existing in that realm or in those margins with her. I didn’t want to be in that space, so I kind of excused myself. I thought that somebody else can do a better job. Then when she came back, she gave us, too short, but eighteen years of silently teaching me those lessons. She was nonverbal, but she taught me to find my voice in the advocating for her and then learning that it was okay to advocate for myself and to ask for things that I needed. She helped me find my voice in her very silent way.

Zibby: How do you now pick up and just wake up each morning without this big — I felt that she had overtaken — not overtaken. That’s the wrong word. There was so much focus, and of course, you had so much focus on your other two kids as well, but on making sure things were okay. For a while, she was very stable. Her health got much more stable aside from little bouts with pneumonia and all these things. Even the cuddling of her and helping her through and getting the services, everything taken care of, and now obviously poured yourself into this book, which is an amazing way to cope and keep her memory alive, to be honest. What happens when you wake up in the morning? Is it the first thing you think about? Tell me about that.

Diana: It’s been six years since she passed, but she’s with me every moment of every — she’s on my screensaver. She’s everywhere. I feel her presence. I write in the book that I was able to spiritually connect with her because I went to a medium a month after she passed. There were so many signs. My husband and I, we’re on different end of the spectrums in terms of belief. I say he’s a devout scientist. I’m a spiritual person. I believe that this can’t be everything. This is not it. We are spiritual beings having a physical, human existence. When I connected with Emma with this medium, I just felt like had I not connected with her, I would’ve thought that this is the end of the story. This is it. Then I realized that it’s not the end of the story. I have to write the story. In the writing of it is when I came to terms with the fact that there’s a story to be told that maybe somebody can benefit from.

The last six years, I’ve been learning to be a better writer, to be a writer. This is not my background. I don’t have a background in writing. I had to learn the craft. I was that voracious kid, the teenager walking down the street from high school with a book in my hand reading. Then when I started writing, I realized I had to learn the craft. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last five and a half years. She’s always with me because I’m always talking about her or talking about the book. Now that the book is out, I’m getting a lot of wonderful feedback. It’s so nice to see that her story, our story touches people. In fact, what I started doing for selfish reasons, which was writing as a form of grieving and making sense, became something selfless, hopefully, that somebody can benefit from. Susan Shapiro tells her writing students, you take your worst experience and you make something beautiful out of it. I hope that I did that without aspiring to do it. I’m always making excuses and disclaimers and saying I’m not a writer. I’ve just been playing one for the last six years. People point out that you are what you do, and I wrote a lot of words.

Zibby: Yes, you wrote a lot of words. You are a beautiful writer. You are absolutely a writer. It doesn’t matter when you start. I actually think there are a lot of non-practicing writers out there. There were many years I didn’t write a word, but that’s how I process things. I feel like now I want to do some sort of study on, what is it that makes some people writers and other people not? It’s not the quality. It’s not the quantity. It’s just some sort of part of your personality that sees and records and wants to share it, audio, written. You are a hundred percent a writer and just amazing.

Diana: Thank you. It helps to be a reader in the writing process. I’m such a perfectionist. Even in high school and college in my dark days when I would be going through some existential angst, I would keep a journal for a second. I would be still critical of what I was writing in my journal as if somebody’s going to read it and check my grammar. When I started writing the book, I was like, if I’m going to do this, I have to do this right. I took one workshop. Then I took ten workshops. I had a lot of people, a lot of eyes on my work, and a lot of feedback, a lot of words in my ear. This is a compilation of many people’s efforts. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to write a book. I’m so grateful for that opportunity.

Zibby: So literally ten workshops, or you’re just saying that?

Diana: I’m not just saying that. I’m telling you. Yes. I read many, many, many memoirs. That was five years of reading memoir and writing on the train and reading on the StairMaster. I think I read somewhere there’s a study that says when you’re active, when you’re moving, it sparks thought. I found that as I was on the StairMaster, I was reading, I would get an idea. I would jot it down. On the train, the same thing. Something about the movement of the train, the motion, I would get inspired. I would read and write.

Zibby: I love that. I always read on the elliptical machine when I actually drag myself downstairs to the gym.

Diana: Right. Same.

Zibby: I love doing that. It’s true. It does sometimes spark ideas. I don’t know if you even kept a list, but I love memoirs. I would love to see your list of what you read when you did a deep dive into memoir. That could be useful for other aspiring memoirists. I’m trying to write a memoir right now. I’m like, how did you teach yourself to do this? This is really good.

Diana: I heard. Congratulations. I have a list. I have a whole list. I could write up a list. It must have been — fifty is exaggerating. I read a good thirty, I would say, in the last few years.

Zibby: Maybe you could write a piece for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write about how you taught yourself how to write a memoir. Then put the list in the article so that other people .

Diana: I will do that.

Zibby: We could list each book.

Diana: I did a little Reel on Instagram, a thirty-second Reel. So you want to write a memoir? What do you need to do? You need to read. You need to take a workshop.

Zibby: I love that. I just cannot master these Reels. I just cannot get good at Reels.

Diana: I know. They’re hard.

Zibby: I can’t go back and forwards. I’m like, what did I already — I have trouble with Reels. Anyway, hats off.

Diana: You can figure it out. I’m technically very challenged. If I’m able to figure it out, you can too. It takes a little bit.

Zibby: Not as in tune. I can build entire websites. I can do lots of stuff. This one seems to be alluding me. I’ll try again. Are you still writing now, now that you have this skill?

Diana: I’m writing essays here and there. I just got a Huffington Post out I’m very proud of. It’s my first big byline. I feel so depleted at this point because I’ve been talking about the book, talking it up, marketing it. It feels like a very dirty kind of business. The subject matter that I’m talking about is a difficult one. I’m looking forward to the day where I could just put it down and not write anything for a while, not even a greeting card or a happy birthday card. You’re opening a vein when you’re writing. I’m sure I will write something in the way of maybe essays or shorter pieces, and not a book. I don’t think I have a book in me. I think this will be my one-hit wonder, if it’s a hit and it’s a wonder. I’m just happy to have it out in the world. I just want to see people touched by it. That would be the greatest gift of Emma’s story.

Zibby: Amazing. It’s just so beautiful. I really encourage everybody to read it and to get to know your daughter and your words. It’s very moving. I have so much respect for you and all that you’ve been through in life and the way you’ve just kept going and lived to tell the story and help other people. I know at the end you had a debate of how many kids should you say that you have and that you’ll always say you have three kids. I just think that is the most beautiful way to close the book. My heart goes out to you. I wish I could give you a hug. Not that you need it. It’s just amazing.

Diana: Maybe someday. We’re neighbors. Maybe virtual hug now, but we can cross — I’m on the West Side. You’re on the East. Maybe one day.

Zibby: Oh, no way. Perfect.

Diana: I hand delivered my ARC to you, actually.

Zibby: Did you? Oh, my gosh, amazing.

Diana: To the doorman.

Zibby: Oh, shoot. I wish I had met you. I’m out of town now. Let’s get together, for sure. I would love to meet you in person. That’s great. Yes, in-person hug coming soon. Thanks for coming on. Thanks for coming to that book club and introducing yourself and all of that and making sure I didn’t miss this special book.

Diana: Thank you so much. Thank you for your support. I’m just so honored to talk to you. This was lovely. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Diana: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Diana: Thanks. Bye.

Diana Kupershmit, EMMA'S LAUGH

EMMA’S LAUGH by Diana Kupershmit

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts