YOU MAY REMEMBER Laurel Lee. She is well worth remembering. In 1977 her first book, Walking Through the Fire, appeared with much critical acclaim and good sales. The book was subsequently made into a television movie that aired nationally in prime time.
In 1975, six months pregnant, Laurel Lee discovered that she had Hodgkin's Disease, a severe though potentially curable form of cancer. Her physicians all recommended that she have an abortion followed by immediate intensive radiation and chemotherapy. Laurel refused, limiting severely the therapy that could be given her prior to the birth of the child. Walking Through the Fire is the story of those events and of her continued struggle against the disease while functioning as mother to the new baby and two other small children. The story is saddened and burdened by the departure of her husband who cannot deal with the snarl of problems that their joint life has become.
Signs of Spring is sequel pure and simple. It opens with Laurel having been given a temporary good bill of health -- a remission -- in spite of the prognostically bad tumor picture. She is destitute, weakened, husbandless, responsible for three small charges and haunted by the possibility of the return of the disease. She winnows out an existence on welfare that includes her son having to sleep on a shelf that passes for him as a bunk bed.
But life changes rapidly for Laurel and her family after a phone call from New York informs her that the hospital journal she kept during her illness has been accepted for publication. In quick succession lucrative paperbook rights are sold and the text is purchased for television. For the first time in many years Laurel and her children can live something other than a life of steerage.
They purchase and rejoice in a modest house. A house-keeper joins the family, and Laurel buys a compact car, although it takes many months before she passes the driving test and it becomes an operative part of the family.
Laurel goes on tour for the book, which gives her an opportunity to exercise her extraordinary powers of observation and sense of the ironic on the breadth of the American continent and parts of Europe. "[Conventions] are a phenomenon of business life hidden from people like myself who vacation in campgrounds. I met the Insurance Women of America in San Francisco. They wore polyester pantsuits and their business seemed to be the election of next year's convention site." In Dallas she crosses paths with the National Cemetery Association. She wanders among their booths observing the latest and most lucrative methods of disposing of the human body. "I felt that Hodgkin's Disease was a hound pursuing me . . . at this convention, its prints were everywhere."
She stops her promotional tour long enough for a visit with the television people. "The producer came in, and I was struck by the sight of his electric white hair and feet. His shoe leather seemed to be cut from a beast that was still in flight. He spoke with authority."
She stops briefly in New York and stays with her agent. She opens the door of the ice box and catalogues what she finds there, calling it "modern single-women food." "1 glass jar of raspberries from England. 2 bottles of champagne 1 can of almond-flavored macaroons 1 glass jar of marinara sauce an assortment of preserves an imported gold foil tin of English pudding a United Airlines napkin, wrapped around my old sandwich."
But Laurel is most at home in Portland with her children whose mischief and beauty and growth she describes repeatedly in spare and loving vignettes. Amid their celebration of life, however, there is the constant theme of the absence of a father. Laurel states flatly and accurately that "there would be few strong enough to cross the moat of my situation." At one point her 4-year-old implores her to use a bumper sticker approach. "Please MARRY OUR MOTHER. I WANT A DAD," her ad would have read. And indeed Laurel does become involved with a young physician she meets through her church. The children love him and, in her guarded way, so apparently does Laurel. When they consider marriage, at his insistence, he goes to the woods to mull the decision. When he returns he tells her curtly that he can adopt three children and love them or marry a woman with cancer, but that he cannot handle both. He exits, leaving them a sad, tight, loving quartet.
As with her first book, Laurel Lee has peppered Signs of Spring with drawings taken from her journal and pertinent to the text. Her writing and the sketches have a great deal in common -- they are consistently economical and poignant. In 118 pages she says more about living, loving and disease than others have in tomes. The book invites reading twice; once for the story and a second time for its wisdom.
While Signs of Spring is a spirited volume, it is not without fear and even despair. Late in 1977 a recurrence of the tumor is discovered and treated. Laurel is once again badly debilitated and is forced to farm her children out to friends and relatives for a period of time. The treatment is successful, although the physicians reiterate that she will not be considered cured until she has survived her initial diagnosis for 10 years. Laurel responds to the ordeal with typical brevity and guts: "I thought, it's the job of every sick person to keep fighting for life up until that moment when it's absolutely certain that acceptance of death will enhance one's final days."
As long as Laurel Lee keeps fighting for life this reader hopes she keeps telling us about it. We are the richer for it.