Shiny Happy Pediatric Cancer
As a novelist, I don’t ordinarily write about things that resemble my own life. I’ve written novels from the point of view of a fish, and adolescent females, but never a man resembling myself. But when my then 7 year old daughter Harmony was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma in February of 2016, I started seeing the lives of my family, responding to the unwelcome guest of cancer, as a story unfolding before me.
The resulting novel, Echo’s Sister, is not my family’s story precisely, but it is very much informed by it. Our cancer story concluded on May 2nd of 2018, when Harmony took her last breath and left her body. But the first draft of Echo’s Sister was finished in June of 2016, when Harmony was very much alive and her prognosis looked good. I think the ambiguous ending stands. We are always somewhere between birth and death, and the important thing is how we live and love in between. That’s the lesson taught me by the little girl on whom the book is based. In truth, this same little girl has led me onto a path of curiosity where the ideas of birth and death no longer mean what they once did to me, but that’s another subject, another story.
The response to the novel so far has been encouraging. There are six critically important reviews for middle grade books, and of the four that have come in for Echo’s Sister thus far, all have been positive, including a starred review from Booklist. But one of these important reviews thought that a flaw in the novel was the overly supportive community represented in Echo’s Sister, which they said bordered on optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale. I have also seen reviews on Goodreads from individuals which, while positive, thought that somehow the tone was overly sunny.
I set the novel in lower Manhattan to distance it from my own life, which takes place in central Phoenix, in the Coronado Historic District. In actuality, the support my family received is downplayed, understated, grossly minimized versus what we actually experienced. The Coronado Historic District and the greater Coronado neighborhood is an eclectic mix of people, and as we like to say, we aren’t as swanky as Palmcroft, but we lead the city in love. When I read the review characterizing the community support as optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale I laughed, and could not wait to share it in front of the assembled community at the book launch, where indeed they laughed as I thanked them for being literally unbelievable.
The neighborhood, and the surrounding community of which we are a part, was already special , but Harmony made us all better. She continues to do so. I wish that everyone experiencing something similar can have the sort of support that my family has experienced. I wish that nobody ever went through what we have, but for those who do, I hope they are surrounded by an army of love. I wish that our healthcare system was such that families didn’t have to worry about bankruptcy, and hunger, and homelessness, but as long as our system remains flawed, I wish that everyone could be surrounded by people of the sort my family is surrounded by, and loved by.
Whenever I write, I am guilty of trying to find the beauty in the lives we are suffering through. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write differently.
Echo’s Sister ends up being two kinds of love letters: one, to a little girl with an incredible lust for life, who never let cancer get in the way of finding whatever enjoyment she could get in whatever moment she was in. If the first draft was finished two years later, we might have seen the character Echo hold open her eye– swollen shut with tumor mass — with one hand, so she could draw with the other. That’s the kind of lust for life displayed by my Harmony, our Harmony, and it will be my teacher as long as I walk this earth. Secondly, it’s a love letter and thank you note to humanity, for showing me how lovely it is capable of being. It’s been the silver lining of this experience for my family, and indeed all of my life, and any and all lives. It’s why the piano player walks the narrator of Echo’s Sister out of the subway station with the tune “Sunny Side of the Street.” In my neighborhood, in my community, that’s apparently both sides of the street.
Our community told us that they were amazed at the strength of my family as we experienced cancer. We told them we were only as strong as they made us, that our strength came from our community. They, in turn, said that they were only as strong as Harmony made them, that she inspired them to be their best selves. It’s been a beautiful, synergistic relationship. I hope that Echo’s Sister will be read widely not as an urban fairy tale, or optimistic fantasy, but as a document of what our best selves look like, and an inspiration to be that. You guys can be so amazing, and I’m never gonna stop trying to see you that way.