“They were little people whom destiny had tapped on the shoulder and announced, “We interrupt this life to bring you a message of horror.” — Erma Bombeck
Erma Bombeck’s popularity peaked far before I’d ever dreamed of becoming a mother. For me, she was irrelevant — her columns aimed at an older generation.
But about a year ago I stumbled upon a compilation of her columns and found that I couldn’t put it down. The book titled, “Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America’s Favorite Humorist” revealed a woman who was surprisingly funny and relevant. I found myself wishing I’d known her.
I’m not actually going to review that book, but I wanted to give some context on how I became a bit of an avid Erma Bombeck fan 17 years after her death. After reading “Forever Erma,” I began Google stalking her to try and learn more about her. That’s when I saw an old interview of her talking about her book, “I Want to Grow Hair, I want to Grow Up, I want to Go to Boise” – a book that attempts to shine a light on childhood cancer and honor the children and families battling this terrible illness.
There really isn’t much written about kids with cancer. I mean, not human stuff. I have a couple of books that someone gave me with titles like, “A Guide to Childhood Leukemia” and “My Book About Cancer” which I barely glanced at. They read like cancer owner’s manuals or something and I just didn’t feel very connected to them.
This is one of the reasons I wrote DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO and created the character of Grace. I thought it was time kids with cancer had a hero they could relate to. When I started the book, I hadn’t yet stumbled upon John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” But Hazel Grace (from TFiOS) is sixteen and dying. She’s hardly a beacon of hope. My Grace is only 11, and she’s all about hope.
“I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise” was published in 1989 – way before the internet and social media enabled families to reach out to the larger world and let them into the world of childhood cancer. It’s out of print. I couldn’t even buy it for my Kindle. I ended up getting a copy for $2.00 on eBay.
Cancer was very insulated in 1989. People still whispered the word and avoided talking about it. I guess it still is to some degree — but personal blogs, social media and web sites like GoFundMe are allowing families to open up about their struggles with cancer just as they give them a way to ask for help and support.
Even so, cancer — particularly childhood cancer — ranks up there with a parents’ “worst nightmare” and of course I should know. Cancer scars families. It scars children. It’s easy to sink into despair. It’s hard to remain hopeful. Cancer is unrelenting and cataclysmic. No one should ever have to see their child go through it.
But the thing that we can forget in the midst of this crisis, is that children do survive. They grow up. They go on to have their own children. And that’s really what this book is about.
The overarching message in Ms. Bombeck’s book is one of optimism and hope. She writes:
“Inside these little bodies that house a full-blown major catastrophic disease are children fighting to get out. And children exist on a diet of optimism: the rain is always going to stop just before the Little League game begins. The lost library book will always turn up just before it is due. An Act of God will close the school when the term paper isn’t finished.”
It’s easy to forget about this optimism when you’re just trying to get through the day (or the hour). But it’s just so important to remember the innate optimism of children. They follow our cues, Ms. Bombeck is saying, lead them through this forest.
“I Want to Grow Hair…” honors all of the players in the epic story of childhood cancer; parents, siblings, doctors, nurses, friends and, most of all, the children fighting the disease. She writes with such love and respect (just as she wrote all of her columns), that you forget to be afraid of the disease (maybe, just for a minute). That’s exactly what those of us who’ve lived through (or are living through) this horrific illness really need.
This book reminded me of the power of hope. It reminded me that I’m not alone — other mothers have come before me in this fight and others will come after me. She writes:
“Mothers are programmed to bring a child to maturity and by all that is holy they will use everything they have to bring this about.”
It makes so much sense to me now — why I’ve been so obsessed with learning everything possible about cancer and why it’s important for me to honor my daughter’s incredibly difficult struggle with the disease by writing a book about it myself.
One of the most powerful passages in the book was about patients dealing with relapse, which is something that my own daughter may be facing. It’s not easy to read.
“When forced into a second battle with the disease, it is not unusual for children to consider suicide. Relapse patients mention the word often. Do not think that what you are about to read is a sign of weakness. You are looking despair in the face. You are meeting people who thought they were going home and are being sent back into combat — one more time.”
This is such an incredibly insightful passage because it really captures the devastating fear of relapse, as well as those in-between times when we wait for test results and pray that they’re normal.
So, my first book review is for an out of print, hard to find book. But it’s a book that deserves to be honored for its thoughtful and uplifting approach to chronicling childhood cancer.
In the words of Ms. Bombeck:
“Cancer and optimism were not considered compatible on this planet.”
But maybe they should be. These are words I’m going to hold close to my heart as much as I can.