TWO YEARS AGO this spring, Laurel Lee was a married housewife in her early thirties with two small children living in Portland, Oregon. Her life was marked neither by illness nor by celebrity. That has changed now.
In quick succession Laurel Lee became pregnant with her third child, developed Hodgkin's disease, submitted to radiation therapy, delivered a healthy child, underwent surgery, more radiation and finally a divorce. During all of this Laurel Lee kept a notebook with reflections on her experiences intended to let her children know in future years where she had been when she was sick. This notebook found its way to her doctors and then to New York and finally to a publisher. The result is Walking Through the Fire: A Hospital Journal.
The unavoidable centerpiece of Walking Through the Fire is Laurel Lee's cancer. The topic is clearly a compelling one that invites the use of melodrama and cliche. One out of four of us will suffer from cancer during our lifetimes. Virtually every American family has a firsthand experience with cancer and the threat hangs over all of us. Cancer makes easy copy and the temptation for anyone writing about it is to resort to the sentimental and the trite.
Laurel Lee has successfully avoided those pitfalls in a work that reads as a heartfelt, terse, single draft. Her sentences are short and her ideas directly expressed with little ornamentation. Her journal is like a watercolor - vivid despite its economy. The text is interspersed with her own sketches of the events of her life as she describes them. These drawings will surely bring her book more alive for her children as, indeed, they do for the rest of us.
Walking Through the Fire, though, is more than a book about an illness. It is the story of a human being, a young, vital, fertile person attacked by a killer. The pain, the paradoxes and perhaps even the joys of a young person afflicted with cancer are special and quite different from the issues confronting an older person with a terminal illness or a youth with a passing sickness. hers is not the story of a septuagenarian struggling with death surrounded by grandchildren and accomplishments. Rather it is the tale of a young woman in the midst of her creativity suddenly overwhelmed by disease and faced with the possibility of sudden, unexpected death.
The resident physicians who care for her are her peers and treat her as such. She fights to retain her identity and function as mother despite her frequent hospitalizations. She describes the agonizing though humorous scene of her children eating cereal off the table and, eventually, off the floor because she is too weak to get up from the couch to discipline them. She tries to nurse her infant. She wrestles with her own abandonment by a husband who cannot cope with her illness. Sexuality and sickness make awkward bedfellows.
Because of her debility and her obligatory concern with death, Laurel Lee discovers a new understanding for the elderly - a rare commodity in our youth-oriented society. A century ago the phenomenon of death in the midst of biological youth was undoubtedly more common than it is today. Now the battles of people in their twenties and thirties are most frequently about the quality of life and not about life itself. In the midst of our preoccupation with the passages of mid-life, with divorce, sexuality, careerism, parenting and the like, Walking Through the Fire reminds us that life and breath are precious.
Laurel Lee concludes her tale by saying, "My book went to New York. It was like a piece of paper a child floats out into a stream. It was soon out of sight. It will get caught in some weeds, I thought. There are holes in it. It will fill with water and sink."
Happily she was wrong.