Coping creatively: Maryland author’s journey from widowhood to novelist

Michelle Paris, a podcaster, and author of "New Normal," a fictionalized account of her own abrupt widowhood at age 40. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)
Michelle Paris, a podcaster, and author of "New Normal," a fictionalized account of her own abrupt widowhood at age 40. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE -- Michelle Paris has turned the central tragedy of her life into a darkly comic romantic novel.

Her debut book, "New Normal," is a fictionalized account of her own abrupt widowhood at age 40. Written over 15 years, with the support of friends made in a Howard Community College writing class, it is a tale of friendships, mid-life dating, and the embarrassing missteps of daily life.

"This book is not specifically for people who have had a similar experience," said Paris, who grew up in Laurel, Maryland, and lives in Elkridge. "It's for anybody who wants to laugh and feel good and just enjoy the ride with a character who has had some real-life experience."

In 2004, Paris and her husband, Donald Mitchem, were settling down in their Florida home to watch a movie, when Donald suddenly said he didn't feel well and went to the bathroom.

Paris' voice still shakes with emotion as she tells what happened next, all these years later, with gut-wrenching detail.

"As crazy as this sounds, I remember thinking, 'I'm going to have to clean this up,'" she said. "I said, 'Get to the sink.' And he fell forward and hit his head on the mirror and passed out. I called 911 right away, and I gave him CPR until (medics) came. It felt like it was forever. To this day, it still feels like it was forever, even though it was probably just a few minutes."

When the first responders arrived, they told Michelle to go outside.

"It was February but it wasn't that cold in Florida," she said. "I didn't have any shoes on. And my neighbor came over and she stood with me and they wheeled him down our driveway. I saw his arm just dangle, and that's when I went, 'Oh God, this is bad.'"

Mitchem died of a heart attack at the age of 42. Paris was 40 at the time.

Adding to Paris' trauma, the couple had been in the process of adopting a child from China. She needed time to decide if she wanted to go through with it, but that's not what she got.

"I let the agency know that he had died, and a few weeks later, I got a call from them," Paris said. "I still remember this. I mean, it cuts me to this day. This young woman said, 'I hate to have to tell you this, but we're canceling your application because you're no longer married and we don't accept single adoptions.'

"I remember feeling like I was going to throw up. I had to mourn that as well."

Heartbroken, Paris moved back to Maryland in 2007, settling in Columbia and keeping her job as a meeting planner. To help her process everything she had experienced, she signed up for a non-credit writing class at Howard Community College in 2008, taught by local novelist Loree Lough.

"Many of them had ideas but they didn't have a clue what to do with them," Lough said of her students, who met in a Centennial High School classroom.

Paris definitely fit into that category. She wasn't sure if she was to write a memoir or a work of fiction.

"On that first day, Loree said something that really resonated with me," Paris said. "She said, 'If I give each of you the same scenario, each of you will write it differently. Everyone has their own style.' That has really stuck with me."

When the class ended, Paris and three other students -- Deliah Lawrence, Susan Yanguas, and Lisa Trovillion -- formed a writing club, meeting every few weeks to talk about their work.

"We started out focused on the writing, and we became friends," Lawrence said.

"New Normal," set mostly in Columbia and Baltimore, takes on the serious topic of grief, but does so with a light, even zany touch through the main character, Emilie -- Michelle's alter ego.

Describing a college-reunion encounter with a particularly pompous classmate, Paris writes:

"Emilie thought for a second. Maybe, just maybe, hearing about what she'd been through would shut him up. 'Well,' she said, 'in February, my husband died, and tonight we're going to shoot his ashes off in a bottle rocket.'

"B.T.'s mouth fell agape. He placed a hand on the back of his neck and shifted his stance.

"It worked. Emilie's comments rendered B.T. speechless -- albeit momentarily. He stared at her for a second or two before uttering, 'Oh, okay. Well, hmm. I didn't know your husband had died. I'm sorry. Bottle rockets. Cool. That's nice, I guess.'

"For a minute, Emilie thought she had made history with B.T., but the moment was soon lost when he added, 'When my father died last year, the Governor proclaimed June fourteenth as Brian Thomas Nelson Senior Day.'"

As Emilie goes to spin classes and hangs out in cat cafes, she works through her grief with the help of a therapist, and tentatively begins dating again, notching her share of less-than-optimal encounters.

Paris, an executive assistant with the American Psychological Association, is a witty and perceptive writer who gives Emilie and her supportive friends a realistic complement of neuroses and silliness. They Google-stalk one date, only for Emilie to find out that the super-hot online photo is several years removed from the considerably sparser-haired man she meets in real life.

Because it is a romance, "New Normal" has a happy ending. Paris also has a rom-com conclusion to her own dating life. In 2020 she married again after meeting her future husband, Kevin Porter, through a dating app.

Though they hit it off right away and dated for six years, there was at least one rom-com-worthy twist.

"When I met him, I felt like, 'Oh my gosh, I could talk to this guy forever.' You know, like, the very first night we met," Paris said. "And then he ghosted me for two weeks. And so I deleted his contact. But it turned out he was out of town and he got back in touch."

"New Normal" will be published on May 2 by Apprentice House Press. The Baltimore-based book publisher, run by Loyola University Maryland students, accepts 15 percent of the submissions it receives each year, said Kevin Atticks, director of Apprentice House. "We love Michelle's book because of how engaged and invested readers become with the main character."

It's a big payoff for the author after over a decade of writing her heart out.

"I likened the publishing process to putting myself out there, dating. You need calluses on your heart," Paris said. "I won't say I didn't shed tears, but I thought, these people don't know me. If they met me, they would give me a chance."

Paris believes writing about her grief helped her imagine a happy future for herself, and she hopes the book will have the same effect on others.

"What I really wanted when my first husband died was for someone to say it's going to be OK," she said.

photo Michelle Paris, a podcaster, and author of "New Normal," a fictionalized account of her own abrupt widowhood at age 40. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

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