Human Relationships Are Complicated!

This morning I feel so full up of things to say that it’s hard for me to focus on one, but I’ll try. What with the looming crisis with North Korea, the Charlottesville tragedy, and my own media intake via audiobook and film, there’s just a lot of ground to cover. All, really, have to do with how we humans get along with each other–or don’t. Those pesky relationships!

I’ll start with the audiobook, because it focuses on the “Jerusalem” of human experience: those who are closest to us. (If you’re not familiar with the reference, it comes from the book of Acts in the Christian New Testament, in which the disciples are told to be witnesses of the Gospel “in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” So it’s a set of concentric circles, starting with where they are and moving out. I’ve heard many a sermon emphasizing that we need to build relationships and witness with our nearest and dearest first. If we haven’t done that, we have no business saying that we’re going out to the “uttermost parts.”) 

I ran across a reference to the book Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham. Of course I was taken with the title, and even more with the subject: a memoir of Harpham’s experiences with having a daughter who needed a bone-marrow transplant. (Don’t get this Heather Harpham confused with another writer, Heather Harpham Kopp. It seems unbelievable that there would be two writers, memoirists at that, with such similar and distinctive names, but it’s true.)

Part of the book’s appeal for me comes from the descriptions of hospital life as Heather, first alone and then with the daughter’s father, Brian, pilots Gracie through the first four years of her life. The baby is born with a disorder that is never clearly diagnosed but which makes it impossible for her bone marrow to produce new red blood cells. So, until she has the transplant, she has to have blood transfusions every three weeks or so. Right after a transfusion she’s pink, healthy and energetic. But as the days go on and her red cells start breaking down she gets paler and weaker. She wilts. Back into the hospital she has to go. Then a new problem surfaces: the repeated transfusions are causing a dangerous buildup of iron in Gracie’s tissues. So now she has to have another procedure, chelation, which has to be done at home, at night, by the increasingly-worried and exhausted parents. The lines have to be flushed perfectly so that no bacteria are introduced into the bloodstream; there must be no bubbles to travel to the heart. If this can be done while Gracie is asleep, so much the better. Usually this happens, with the little girl sleeping right through the insertion of the line.

But all of this is just a bunch of stopgap measures. What Gracie really needs is a bone marrow transplant, a harrowing procedure in which her faulty marrow has to be killed off with chemotherapy that is so toxic her entire digestive system becomes inflamed and peeling. Then her little brother’s stem cells from his cord blood are infused. And then the parents wait. So many of the hospital vignettes reminded me of Gideon’s five weeks of incarceration in his own sterile, kind prison.

Well, I’m not going to tell you what happens, because I really, really want you to read this book or, ideally, to listen to it. It’s read by the author, and she is funny and charming. (Also a little too fond of the f-word, but we’ll cut her some slack.) What really propelled me through the book was the love story. Yes, the parental love, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s the love between Heather and her now-husband Brian that really got me. I found myself thinking at so many points, ‘Yes, that’s just how I react to Jim sometimes. Yes, I’ve said things like that before. Yes, you can be madly in love with a person one moment and absolutely enraged at him second later. Yes, yes, yes.’ I guess it’s a good thing for me to recognize a kindred spirit in Heather. (Jim, on the other hand, would never, ever have behaved like Brian does, from his desertion of Heather when he finds out she’s pregnant to his temper tantrum in the parking lot of a Whole Foods store.) I guess it’s encouraging to realize that strong love does not preclude misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and apologies. And temper tantrums. Heather throws a few of those herself, although she doesn’t actually throw any groceries during them. Nor have I, so that’s something.

Human relationships are so complicated and difficult, so contradictory and wonderful. You can never, ever climb inside another person’s head. But this book lets you climb into Heather’s just a little bit. I’ll have more about her tomorrow from an interview I read. For now, though, use up an credit or check at your library so that you can listen to this brave woman tell her story.

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