This is a guest post by author and Jewish Twin-Citian Amy Ariel, winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award (religion category) for her book, Friends Forever. She’s also a young hero (in our mind), a courageous survivor of leukemia and a recipient of a bone marrow transplant that saved her life. This article was originally published on Yotzeret Publishing’s blog.
“Absolutely!” I smiled, turning my laptop toward one of my many favorite nurses. I had just received the draft of the cover of Friends Forever from Sheyna Galyan, the owner of Yotzeret Publishing, and it was perfect. I loved the old look of it, and I loved the picture of the two girls holding hands just as I had imagined Abigail and Hannah as I wrote their story. As I scrolled to the image of the back of the book, Connie caught her breath.
“Wow. Amy,” she said, looking from my author picture to me and back. “Your picture . . . you’re beautiful.”
I looked over my computer at my reflection in the hospital window. I was still fairly newly bald, but seeing my shiny head rarely shocked me anymore. I knew I looked tired all the time, and even though she took it all in stride, I knew from my partner’s face after she held me close that my grayish skin smelled like the chemo that was helping my body by killing the cancer cells. I was so glad to have something to talk about besides the leukemia (AML) that had recently become part of my life, but didn’t define my life.
“Thank you.” I smiled at her again. “I promise, I’ll come back and visit when I have some color back in my face . . . and maybe some hair. In the meantime, though, you have a couple of daughters, right?”
“Yep. Eight and ten.”
“Well, they are exactly the right age for my book! The main characters, Abigail and Hannah, are nine. It’s about two Jewish girls who live in Saint Paul and become friends across time when Hannah appears in Abigail’s yard in 1912. It’s a time travel story. It’s set to come out in March. We are planning a book party with friends, congregants from my synagogue, and especially my students. My mom will be there, too, in charge of the hand sanitizer!”
“I’d love a copy for my girls.” Connie looked thoughtful. “You know, I bet other nurses would be interested, too. Is it okay with you if I tell them we have an author visiting our floor?”
And suddenly, I was transformed. In her comment, I realized that in her eyes I was no longer just another leukemia patient. Now she knew what I looked like before I got sick, she knew something about my life and what I cared about, and most importantly to me, she knew that the story of my life was bigger than cancer.
Over the many months I was in and out of the hospital, while I had (over thirty-five) blood and platelet transfusions, as the chemo brought down my cell counts, and as my body worked hard to make new, healthy cells, each of my nurses asked me how the final details leading up to the publication of my book were going, what else I had written or was writing, how plans for my book party were coming, and how it was, staying in touch with my students (to whom they knew I had dedicated my book) primarily by text message and on Facebook.
I was home between rounds of chemo the first time I held my book in my hands, and I read it—again—cover to cover, a little in awe that it had actually come to be. A few hundred people celebrated with me at the book party. I donated a copy to Mount Zion’s Purim Carnival Silent Auction with the promise to read it over the phone, chapter-by-chapter, to whoever ‘won’ it. I had expected to be reading to an elementary school student, but I smiled when one of my high schoolers texted that, having won my book, she was looking forward to bedtime stories. Leslie Martin, my unfailingly supportive editor, several good friends, and of course my mom also helped promote Friends Forever. Many of my nurses bought my book, some for their children or grandchildren and some for themselves. Never had I imagined my audience would include the oncology floor of Southdale Hospital.
It was around that time that I learned I was in the highest risk group for having the leukemia come back, and that I would therefore have to have a bone marrow transplant (BMT) at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. All of my hopes and plans for promoting my book myself had to be pushed aside as I refocused my energy on transplant. Only about 50% of the people who need a bone marrow transplant are able to find a matching donor; I was one of the lucky ones. Recipients and donors are only allowed to write anonymous letters to each other for a period of years after transplant, but without giving away who I am, when I wrote to thank my donor, one of the first things I shared with him was that I am a published children’s book author.
My BMT was May 12, 2011. BMT is an unbelievably intense experience. If there is a way to effectively write about it with brevity, I don’t know it. In the months that followed, I have struggled with acute graft vs. host disease, and then chronic graft vs. host disease. I have had some bad reactions to medications. I was on supplemental IV nutrition. I had my appendix out. I could go on. However, I am also still leukemia-free, and along with many other bright spots, every once in a while, I hear from someone who read and enjoyed my book, I get a great review, or I have a conversation with a friend or one of my students about what I might write next, and I am reminded that while leukemia, and now also BMT, are part of my life and always will be, they are far from the whole story of my life.
Maybe, after having a glimpse into my past eighteen months, it’s possible to have a feel for what it means to me for Friends Forever to have just won a national award recognizing it as a book that “helps children grow socially, emotionally, ethically, intellectually, and physically.” As a winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award, Friends Forever will be promoted throughout the year with additional activity and lesson plan resources. And this year, I have every reason to believe I’ll be able to promote it myself as well.
These days I have plenty of color back in my face, and although it’s still short I do finally have a full head of hair. One of these days soon, I look forward to bringing a copy of my book all decked out with a shiny Gelett Burgess award sticker to the nurses at Southdale for them to leave in the family and visitor’s room as a small thank you for their outstanding care of me when I was their patient, and with gratitude that this time as a visiting author I have no need to stay overnight.
*I’ve changed the nurse’s name as I was unable to reach her for permission to use her name in sharing this story.