It is the evening of Sunday, May twentieth, two thousand eighteen. I am standing in the courtyard of The Hive, where we have had so many good times together, and am surrounded by your family, friends, and neighbors. After a warm day, the evening is fittingly beautiful for a celebration of your life.
But this is stating the obvious, or telling you something you already know. For I feel you are here with me, with all of us.
In the days since you left your body, I have frequently visited your Instagram profile. Harmony Guacamole. It features photos of our dog, Oreo, along with other animals, family, and friends. You describe yourself as a piano player, which has been your persistent ambition, though your lessons with Mr Jay Melberg at Phoenix Center for the Arts were frequently interrupted by treatment and hospital stays. Your wonderful friend Cali also gave you lessons.
You describe yourself as an animal lover, which is certainly true. We have a rich photographic history of you adoring every variety of mammal and reptile, and especially your beloved Oreo. You even persuaded Mommy and Nana to give up eating fish, their last obstacles to becoming complete vegetarians.
On your Instagram profile you proudly call yourself a sis, and nobody has ever loved or looked up to their sister more than you have loved Eleri. And a dedicated guacamole lover, warning guac haters that you’re coming for them. As you are such a headstrong spirit, I would not bet against you making good on your word, so I encourage everyone in attendance to try some of the guacamole here this evening.
The one element of your Instagram bio that has given me pause is your calling yourself a cancer defeater. Frequently one sees obituaries that say so and so lost their battle with cancer. But I don’t know how often this is true, and I certainly don’t think it’s true of you, Harmony. After all, if I were to die of a heart attack tonight, you wouldn’t say Daddy lost his brief battle with a heart attack. All of us have to go sometime, we all must leave these bodies, our rides. But here’s the score: The cancer that attacked your body has been incinerated to ash. But you, Harmony, are very much present here among us.
When you had your first recurrence of cancer 18 months ago, you began visiting with Sangeet, the reiki practitioner who became our friend. The two of you immediately regarded each other as if you had known each other for several lifetimes. After meeting with you for the first time, Sangeet told the friend who introduced us to her that you, Harmony, would be a healer one day. That sounded interesting at the time, but we had no idea how true it would become.
The way you have brought people together, not only tonight but over time, and as a community– inspiring people to be their best, most loving and generous versions of themselves– has been a big part of the strange beauty of your 27 months being tested by cancer.
Why is this? Behind every door on the seventh floor at Phoenix Children’s Hospital is a child fighting for his or her life. But there’s been something special about your spirit, your courage, your lust for life, your endeavoring to find whatever fun could be found in every moment, your continued pursuit of the life you love as long as it was yours to live. You are the girl who in the last two weeks of this life held open your eye,–swollen shut with tumor mass– with one hand, so you could draw with the other.
In a strange way it was rhabdomyosarcoma that elicited this from you, Harmony. In the world we would choose, the world where the unwelcome guest of cancer never appeared at our door, you would be wrapping up your third grade year at Shaw Elementary, looking forward to a summer of adventure, just a funny, smart, talented, beautiful, kind-hearted nine year old. But cancer did come, and it tested you, it proved you, and you made a more beautiful display in 9 years and eight months than many of us will ever make, a firework exploding against a dark sky.
So, cancer defeater? Yes, I think. Nobody is having a party for rhabdomyosarcoma tonight, because celebrations are for those who have triumphed. And the triumph of your spirit is a monument for the rest of us to gaze at with wonder.
I avoid the use of the past tense in referring to you, Harmony. It’s not an instance of me being in denial– it just doesn’t feel accurate. It’s true that your bed is empty, it’s true that your physical form is now a box of ashes which I sometimes pick up and hold against my heart. But–
I’m a science-minded guy, and I’ve described myself that way for a long time. But I also don’t want to be guilty of ignoring evidence because of my inability to understand it.
In the last weeks of the life you shared with us, Mommy would read to you at bedtime from the book you loved so much, called “Goodnight, Rebel Girl,” which features short entries about women who have changed history. It was a heck of a thing for you, a nine year old, to express concern that you had not done enough to make a difference in this world. This tells me that, while you still spoke of your hopes for a future, you had a strong sense of what was happening to your body.
Twelve days before you passed, you said don’t worry, that you’d be fine. I hoped you meant that cancer would retreat and that you would live a long and happy life. But in my deepest, most fearful heart I hoped what you said– that you would be fine– would be true at least in some sense of the word. I decided that I trusted you and your words, whatever they would come to mean.
I still do. I trust that you are fine.
Three days before passing, you awoke and said, “This isn’t real.” This also is a heck of a thing for a nine year old to say, especially a nine year old with no religious, spiritual, philosophical or physics instruction under your belt. You were a blank slate with no spoon-fed expectations.
On the day that you passed, you were Harmony to your last breath. Your last utterance was “Ew!” when I noisily kissed your forehead. As your rate of oxygen absorption fell, Mommy, Eleri and I told you how much we love you, how proud we are of you, and we told you truthfully that you are a rebel girl who has inspired hundreds of people and made the world a better place. I promised that I would love Eleri as much as I love you, since you frequently expressed your worries about that. I told you that you’re so beautiful, that your beauty shone through the mask of cancer. We told you we would honor you on El Dia de los Muertos, and visit with you, and that you would always be with us, and part of us. You raised your beautiful, perfect eyebrows dramatically in response to everything we said, and squeezed our hands tightly to pass to us your abundant strength. You showed not a particle of fear. The last expressions we saw on your face were of joy and love.
We stayed with your body until the warmth had dissipated. Interestingly, and tellingly, the last warmth was located near and behind your right ear, corresponding to the parts of the brain which govern emotional understanding and emotional memory. I like to think that means you were feeling all the love we were pouring out, gathering it up to carry away with you.
I won’t talk about the unexplained phenomena since your passing. But your words, “this isn’t real,” have haunted me.
You speak to me most in the space between awake and asleep, and drifting into a nap one afternoon I was jolted awake by the opening words you wrote in response to a writing prompt: Imagine you are a tree that is about to be cut down. What would you think? Your response began, “I would think about all the things that might and might not happen.” This sounds very much like the quantum physics theory that everything which might happen is happening, that every instance of either/or is answered with “both,” resulting in the universe splitting into two copies where both possibilities occur, that every fork in the road is a quantum event creating new universes. It’s a very relatable idea to our lives, where there is the universe where I went to breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa and met Mommy at the restaurant where she was working as a server– 25 years to the day before the day you passed– and the other universe where instead I slept in. It’s easier to get one’s head around the idea that the universe we are standing in is expanding– and it is– than it is to fathom that the number of universes is functionally limitless, and ever expanding, which is also likely true.
If we back up in this family tree of universes, we arrive at the apparently original quantum event, the big bang. Physicists thinking about quantum physics get excited thinking about the hypothetical quantum computer, where the computing ability of all computers in all of the trillions of trillions of universes can be combined. I have no idea what one would compute with such a thing. But I think more beautiful than that, and more to the point of what you are trying to teach me, Harmony, is that all of our decisions are the quantum events which create new universes, which highlights the importance of how we choose to live our lives. If we dolly back, backing up in the family tree of quantum events, where our own consciousness goes from trillions of our own selves to just one, and further back to where there are not many selves, but just one self, I think it teaches me that we are all collectively the creator, split by countless quantum events into trillions of creation generators. This may seem like a mashup of listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” while thinking about Allen Ginsberg’s line “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” while taking a shower with Dr Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap and seeing the words “All One!” imprinted on the bar. And really it is all of those things. But it’s only all of those things because those people caught a glimpse of the same thing you have seen.
I believe that as you peered into the beyond and contemplated this building of universes, thinking of all the things that might and might not happen, your pure spirit is exemplified in your response to the writing prompt about the tree who is about to be cut down– your words, “I would want to be remembered as a good person-– I mean, tree” – I believe that what you saw taught you that it matters what we dream. It matters what kind of trees we are, and what sort of branches we grow.
Harmony, please stay by my side, please remain my strength and my teacher. Keep reminding me, and everyone here, to dream beautiful dreams. And together we can create universes with love and Harmony, and trees, and the best guacamole ever.