The Red Ribbon book cover

The Red Ribbon

A Memoir of Lightning and Rebuilding After Loss
by Nancy Freund Bills

On July 23rd, 1994, a beautiful afternoon on the southern coast of Maine, an isolated thunder and lightning storm unexpectedly exploded while Nancy Freund Bills’ husband and younger son were kayaking. Later, at the local hospital, she learned the shocking news: though they had made land and found refuge, both had been struck by lightning. Her husband, Geoff, had died. Her son was in critical condition.

Bills’ memoir–insightful, moving, and full of intelligence and humanity–is a story of surviving the many and often devastating lightning strikes of life, and a gift of compassion and wisdom for readers who are struggling with their own losses.


A debut memoir that recounts a woman’s tragic loss and hard-won survival.

On July, 23, 1994, lightning struck Bills’ husband and their son—pseudonymously called “Geoff” and “Teddy” here, respectively—as they were kayakingoff the coast of Maine. The strike took Geoff’s life and nearly did the same to Teddy. The author and several members of her family, including Teddy’s older brother, “Simon,” and his wife, rushed to the hospital in the nearby town of York, Maine. It was initially touch and go for Teddy, but he came through. Then, as Teddy recuperated physically, he and the author faced psychological and spiritual recuperation—which sometimes seemed to be a matter of taking one step forward and two steps back. After this tragedy, death seemed to shadow the author for the next few years; her aged parents back in Montana passed away, as did her uncle and Geoff’s sister, who was such a rock for her after the lightning strike. These losses engender a book-long meditation on mortality. However, Bills does survive the ordeal, and an afterword lets readers know that today she, Teddy, and Simon are all doing okay. Memoirs of loss and survival are rather common, but what sets this one apart is Bills’ extraordinary perceptiveness and writing talent, as when she notes that “I’m a woman with an emotional thermometer always in her mouth.” Bills also raises intriguing questions, such as whether the obituary cliché “he died peacefully” is really ever true. Essentially the book is a collection of essays, but she uses fictional techniques when appropriate, and some chapters are given over to very impressive poetry. She poignantly evokes a happier past in her chapters about Geoff (they were separated at the time of his death) and their young family. And a chapter titled “The Myth,” in which she asks Geoff questions directly, is exceptionally and deeply moving. There are even moments of goofiness in a chapter on a graveside service (“Planting Iris”), which may take some readers aback, although it’s clear that the author understood the need for occasional levity.

A keeper of a book by a talented author.


About the Author

Photo by Julie Bishop

Nancy Freund Bills, a native of Montana, has lived almost all her adult life in northern New England. She is currently on the faculty of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, OLLI/USM, where she facilitates the fiction writing workshop. She is a retired clinical social worker; during her twenty year long career, she served both as a psychiatric social worker at Concord Regional Hospital in New Hampshire and at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine, and as a psychotherapist at Green House Group, a group private practice in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Out of six thousand entries, Chapter 19, “The Myth,” received first place in the memoir/personal essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Out of one thousand entries, Chapter 14, “Triage and Cows,” made the Top 25 list in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction competition in July/August 2016. Bills’ memoir, fiction and poetry have been published in Reflections, the Maine Review, the LLI Review, the Goose River Anthology, and in the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Collection.

Bills received an MS in twentieth century literature and art from the University of Rochester and an MSW in clinical social work from the University of Connecticut. She and her two Maine Coon cats live on the southern coast of Maine. This is her first full-length memoir.

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