In one way, I have been writing my memoir since I was fifteen, when I was diagnosed with a novel variant of an extremely rare leukemia, called natural killer, which had no known survivors. When I returned to high school after missing the end of grade 9 and the beginning of grade 10, I enrolled in a writing class. All of my ideas were metaphors for the fight between life and death that I felt still playing out within my body, my bloodstream.
With everything that I wrote over the years about my experience, directly or indirectly, I was haunted by the feeling that the subject matter was too narrow, too navel-gazing. Friends and family who read these early attempts tried to convince me otherwise.
“Are you sure it’s bigger than itself?” I would ask them.
“Yes,” everyone urged. “Yes.”
I didn’t believe them.
But when I became pregnant, unexpectedly, having been told that conception after my treatment would be unlikely if not impossible, I had a strong sense of the protagonist in the story of my life shifting. I was becoming the witness as well as the narrator. The book could be about this becoming: the transition from sickness to health, from girl to woman, from woman to mother. As a mother-to-be, I suddenly felt a greater empathy for my parents, for what they would have gone through with their only child on the edge of death for nine months, or ten years (until the chance of relapse is gone), or her whole life — however you choose to see it.
Within the pages of Natural Killer lies the story of how another work almost came to be. I had first tried to write a novel about my experience in which the protagonist died. She died because I was supposed to die, because people die, children die — that’s life. But it didn’t feel right. I poured years into that draft, and it never came together. Then one friend asked a question that nobody else had: “Did you want to die?”
Or maybe she said it like this: “Did you want to die?”
Either way, the answer was obvious to me: no. Maybe I just needed to write the truth, then.
My memory of the later part of my treatment, everything that followed the fourth round of chemo, is fuzzy, if not gone. After the fifth round, I got very sick — sicker than I’d been up to that point. My body was a machine, simply being told what to do: kill the cancer by killing everything that grows. So while my four-month-old son napped in his stroller beside me, I went back through my hospital records, all the thousands of pages of digitized handwritten files stored on computers in the basement of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
I went over the doctors’ and nurses’ notes to fill in the gaps. It felt like reading a suspense novel where I wasn’t sure what would happen to the main character. I hoped she would live.
“Significant worsening of pulmonary picture in face of continued poor clinical picture,” my medical record read on October 22. And the next day: “Clinical deterioration overnight. Infectious Disease team to examine: pt is clinically worse.” Nurse note: “Parents v. anxious. Many services in to see pt.” And on October 24, nurse note: “Harriet nervous + scared.”
Just as I did while I was a patient, I had to rely on my parents and doctors to write this memoir. Their recollections are woven throughout the narrative, adding a chorus of voices that I hope make my book “bigger than itself.” For it’s really the story of a community.
My parents had kept a journal to document the many days we spent in the hospital, but also to put the situation into their own words. My initial decision to write my experience as fiction was an attempt to take power over it, too. Does that make this non-fiction account a surrender?
Making my book felt at turns like being a composer, an archivist, a curator, a psycho therapist. I had never thought of the process of writing as cathartic, but as soon as I finished, I found I could stop telling myself what had happened. And that was an incredible release. I surrendered metaphor and just wrote the truth. I let go of the story and gave it to you.