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October 25, 2000
And They All Lived Hopefully Ever After ...

By Cherie Gingerich

The authorís friend, Lee, died of breast cancer this year. Here Lee is shown with one of the authorís four sons.

s a university instructor of children's literature, I've spent many an hour giving novice teachers the lecture on how to tell good literature from bad literature and from just plain writing. Only in fairy tales, I explain, is it acceptable to always have a happy ending; the real test of good writing is to leave readers with hope in their heart despite dire circumstances and fatal outcomes.

Art never reflected life more intimately for me than it did this summer as I watched my friend Lee die of breast cancer, which had been diagnosed only a year earlier. Lee left one child -- a girl of 15 -- and a husband who had received a serious brain injury several years ago in an industrial accident.

As the mother of four sons, I had been writing the fairy tale of my own life in my head for years: The Tale of Mrs. Many Sons, I call it. Story line: A woman who is blessed with many healthy sons, but harbors a secret desire for a daughter, wonders if life will send one her way. The one part of the story I could never figure out was how Mrs. Many Sons should finally obtain the longed-for daughter, the girl whom she could teach to embroider, dance, swim, and speak exotic languages. The girl who, in addition to accompanying Mrs. Many Sons on shopping expeditions, would walk with her on the beach all day from sunup until the evening colors exploded in the western sky, and then stay to name the constellations swimming slowly in a circle around the pearly moon.

When I met Lee, she already had no hair. None -- not even eyebrows or lashes. Chemotherapy had vaporized every strand, from the fine down to the long silk to the wire. I told her I was jealous because I'd always hated leg shaving and tweezing, and asked if I could come along for the next round of chemo for a leg dip. Lee never showed the slightest self-pity. Her mother had survived breast cancer 30 years earlier, and I think Lee believed what I wanted to believe too: Her mother had survived when research and technology were just starting to take off, so Lee's chances should be even better. She would beat the evil foe and live happily ever after.

The story did not end the way we wanted it to. Despite our raucous road trips to the cancer center in Boston, despite Lee's being a totally compliant patient, even despite our prayers, Lee's cancer spread after her total mastectomy -- first to her lymph nodes and then to her spine. On our last trip home from Boston, when it was time to stop at the book warehouse where we ritually ate fancy pastry and spent too much money on books, Lee couldn't get out of the car. "You go in, Cherie," she said. "I don't feel well. My back hurts. I'll just take a nap while you look."


Art never reflected life more intimately for me than it did this summer as I watched my friend Lee die of breast cancer, which had been diagnosed only a year earlier. Lee left one child -- a girl of 15 -- and a husband who had received a serious brain injury several years ago in an industrial accident.


I think it was at this point that the little light in my head snapped on: Something was amiss in fairy land. The bookstore was without its usual charms that day. The thousands of stories by thousands of people from thousands of faraway lands were not calling to me from the bookshelves that day. The cakes and pastries looked suddenly dry and stale -- they were probably bad for you, anyway. I felt a sudden urge to run, but I didn't know where to, so I headed back out to the car. Lee had shifted the passenger seat all the way back and down. "Do you mind driving the rest of the way? I feel so tired. Tell me a poem, Cherie."

Lee teased me a lot about having been previously employed as a full-time greeting card writer. On road trips we'd write cards out loud to people we loved or hated, the verses ranging from the sappily romantic to the X-rated. She found it hysterical that I memorized poems I liked, and she'd often introduce me to people and then say, "Listen to this! Recite a poem, Cherie!" But this was different. Something was upside down. I quietly recited "The Owl and the Pussycat" in the low, soothing tones my grandmother had used with me. A nonsense poem, by Edward Lear, king of the nonsense poets, seemed like the right thing for a situation that was making less and less sense to me by the minute.

In a matter of weeks, Lee was hospitalized and slipping fast. I silently thanked unseen doctors and nurses for providing her with an eye-popping supply of I.V. baggies filled with liquid morphine, which enabled us to laugh and eat chocolates and talk about our children again. She let her guard down only once, one rainy night when she tearfully told me what I'd already guessed was the ending to her story: The cancer was too advanced, and her death was imminent. We hugged and cried hysterically on her hospital bed. I didn't even care who heard.

The next day, I wrote her a greeting card verse, of the humorous type. I'd learned in the shop that some cards were intended only to cheer, since there might be no getting well, and I chose my words carefully. But I refused to give up hope for a fairy tale ending, and at the last minute I tacked on "Hope you'll be feeling better soon."

"That's a great poem," Lee said with a genuine smile when I gave her the printed verse. "Can you change the last two lines and read it at my memorial service?"

A week later, Lee's daughter called my house in the evening, asking me to come to see her at the hospital, right away, tonight. "I wouldn't dare," I told her. I'd caught a rotten cold and didn't want to jeopardize Lee's treatment in any way. When the girl answered, "It hardly matters, Cherie," I realized my friend's story was really about to end.

Why We Love Lee
By Cherie Gingerich

Lee is sweet as sweet can be
We all think she is love-Lee
She has a kind and pretty face
A smile no other could replace
On road trips, she can sing so loud
You'd pick her out in any crowd
At Foxwoods she was really funny
Even though we lost our money
We ate ice cream and walked the mall
She started dancing in the hall
Lee likes to do those twirly moves
When she boogies and she grooves
And she's been very good to me
Since we moved here to Wester-Lee
When hungry, she will make a plea
For chocolates to eat with her tea
Lee loves the smell of ocean air
And walking near the water there
I think now of her bravery
When she learned what was to be
Her graceful soul left quietly
Her peacefulness, exemplary
And though we miss you now, dear friend
Our memories will never end
I know you hear this poetry
We'll meet again in heaven, Lee.

I still can't talk or write much about that night, when my friend slipped into unconsciousness and then away, to never-never land, to once upon a time. It is not the ending I would have written for that story. But I now know that it is part of the story of Mrs. Many Sons, because now there is a girl who calls the daughterless mother for a ride to parties, or home from school, or to the store. There is a girl, a motherless daughter, who cries for the way her mother's story ended, and yet still wants to go to the mall and choose fingernail polish and talk about dates for the weekend. The story of breast cancer and its influence on our lives seems to me like the tales of Scheherazade: One tale begins where another has just ended. And like Scheherazade, we must keep on telling them if we also hope to go on living. While not all the stories can end happily, as in fairy tales, we can still try to make them end hopefully, for the next generation. It's a requirement, just like in all great literature.

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