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Bozoma Saint John writes of love, loss and survival in 'The Urgent Life'

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Bozoma Saint John has navigated a high-flying corporate career, a Black woman who held top marketing positions at Netflix, Pepsi and other major companies. But over the years, she has also faced immense personal tragedy, and she writes about this all in her book "The Urgent Life."

BOZOMA SAINT JOHN: It was when my husband was diagnosed with cancer that my impatience and unwillingness to wait for things to just sort of happen, you know, wanting to go do things immediately, really started to take form and purpose.

KHALID: Her life, she told me, took on a new urgency. She went along with her husband Peter's wish to cancel their divorce. They had been separated for three years. And she decided to shelve the things that had once troubled her about their marriage.

SAINT JOHN: The good things were about the discovery of each other, you know, just as human beings. I think the idea of love sometimes can be so romanticized that you think it's just about the butterflies and the roses and, you know, the feelings of giddiness versus really getting to know another human being so thoroughly that you trust them, that you're vulnerable with them, that you know that they have the best intentions for you. And I think at some points during my marriage, our marriage, I lost sight of that.

KHALID: So what ultimately did drive you apart?

SAINT JOHN: Well, lots of trauma, you know, some of it very searing, others very much like everybody else's marriages, you know? For us, we had a really traumatic experience in losing our first daughter. I developed preeclampsia about 6 1/2 months pregnant and had to go into induced labor. And...

KHALID: Yeah, you wrote about that.

SAINT JOHN: Yes, wrote about that very deeply. And, you know, I think that besides the grief of losing our child, we blamed each other, you know, for all of it, some of it.

KHALID: For the loss?

SAINT JOHN: Yes, for the loss. And the thing is that, you know, without being very self-aware of how, you know, I was holding on to decisions that he made that I felt should have been different, you know, without forgiving in a situation that was completely impossible to decide between me and saving our child because preeclampsia, what happens is that your body begins to act like you're - you know, the pregnancy is a foreign body. And blood pressure rises, and the chances of having a stroke are very, very high, you know? And I was angry at my body betraying me. I was angry at Peter deciding on my behalf that we should induce versus, you know, let it sort of play out. There were just so many impossible decisions in it. And for us, that began a lot of what were the cracks in our marriage.

KHALID: You mention losing your first daughter, your child, when you went into labor earlier because of preeclampsia. You know, I was, I think, really touched by the degree to which you, in detail, outlined how traumatic the experience then of being pregnant was even with your second child. You know, I think that pregnancy can be rather traumatic for a lot of women, and it's something that we don't talk about publicly. I appreciated you discussing this here. And I was struck by why you did it, but also, I can't imagine it was easy.

SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Yeah. No, you're right. I wish we would talk about it more. You know, I had - really had no idea that pregnancy could be so scary. I really didn't. The women in my family have had lots of babies, friends who looked like they were glowing throughout their pregnancies - I just didn't hear of the challenges. And, of course, now we have a much wider discussion about maternal health and especially Black women's maternal health, you know, that we understand the risks. But at the time when I was going through it, I just didn't know.

And I wanted to talk about it and wanted to write about it honestly, you know, to bring people into my body, to bring them into the delivery room, to understand the trauma of understanding what was happening to me and then being somewhat voiceless in my own pregnancy - you know, not being listened to, knowing something was wrong and then, essentially, not being heard so that it ended in a situation that was extraordinarily traumatic for me. And I'll tell you that I'm not over it. And I think it is a discussion that we shouldn't hide from and one that we should not be ashamed of. I did carry some shame for some time, feeling like I had failed womanhood, you know, that somehow I didn't do it right and that I shouldn't talk about it.

KHALID: All throughout this memoir, you spoke at length, I think, about God, about your relationship with God. Talk to me about that.

SAINT JOHN: Well, I grew up in the church. My parents were both Christians. They served in the church many times. But as an adult, I had to find my own relationship with God. God is supposed to be this all-knowing being, you know, who does no wrong. But I found myself in a very complicated situation where I was praying for healing for my husband, you know, begging God to save his life, and God didn't do that. And I was angry. And I thought, how dare you? You know, how dare you? Peter was such a devout Catholic. And I thought, God, how could you fail him? How could you let him die when he begged you for his life?

And my relationship with God has changed somewhat in that I don't believe that there is no questioning God or being angry or any of those things. And I think for me, it's made God more tangible, you know, made my faith that much stronger in understanding that even when I ask for whatever it is I ask for, that it is not my doing which is going to deliver it, you know, and perhaps I don't know what the best thing is.

And I can't say as I sit here today that I think Peter's death was part of a good, great plan. I have questions for God at the end. I do. I will challenge that decision. But I do appreciate the fact that in my life now, I am much more at peace with knowing that horrible things may happen, but I will still survive, and I will still thrive in spite of it. So my prayer has changed. You know, my prayer is no longer demanding of healing or demanding of this next job or demanding of, like, put me on this path. It is not that. You know, my prayer is for peace. It is for comfort. It's for joy. It is the prayer that hopefully will take me through life's ups and downs and allow me to live a very full life, a satisfied life.

KHALID: Bozoma Saint John, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I really appreciate it.

SAINT JOHN: Oh, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.

KHALID: That's Bozoma Saint John. Her book "The Urgent Life" is out next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER96'S "ENTANGLEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.