So what happened on that walk seven years ago today, August 17? On that crosswalk, I imagined the possibility of the death of a child I loved, and while this is still an unbearable thought, it changed my interior landscape permanently.
That summer morning, seven years ago today, I was walking through Boston’s Chinatown on my way to meet my two-year-old niece Joli, her parents, and my parents for dim sum. They were in town for a medical appointment with an eye specialist for Joli. There was concern about a lazy eye.
Although it was a beautiful day in Boston, the sidewalks and buildings washed in yellow light, I didn't notice. It embarrasses me now to reveal this. I was in pain. A gray rain cloud followed me everywhere. And what was my big complaint?
I was a loser, a failed novelist, and I felt worthless.
I had left Boston in my twenties and moved to California for an MFA program in creative writing. I was full of ambition and dreams. But years later, in my thirties, I returned home to Boston without achieving what I’d set out to do: to become a novelist, preferably a highly paid and famous one. Some of my classmates in my small MFA program had already published in the New Yorker and other magazines, made best-seller lists with their first books, and were already publishing their second and third ones. Movies based on their writing were being nominated for Academy Awards.
My friends and siblings, who were not writers, were throwing weddings and birthing babies and buying homes. They were getting on with their adult lives. And what was I doing? I continued to live like a student, piecing together several low-paying jobs. I was earning less than I had a decade earlier with my first job out of college. I was collecting rejections for fiction and essays I’d submitted to literary magazines. I avoided bookstores because each time I saw an acquaintance’s new book displayed on a table, I wanted to cry. I was ready to give up.
The only time I felt respite from feeling like a failure was the one day every week that I spent with my niece Joli. She was curious about the world and how it worked. It was a relief to shift my focus from everything I wanted and couldn’t have, to Joli’s needs and interests. At two years old, she could say the word, “pterodactyl,” and never tired of saying it. She could recite the alphabet through “F.”
In those days, I was always running late (depression makes it hard to get out of bed), and that summer morning was no different. I stopped in front of CVS and called my sister Liza, Joli’s mother, to tell her.
“We’re not going to lunch anymore,” Liza said. Her voice sounded muffled, as if she were standing in a corner, and hiding her face. “They think Joli has cancer,” she said.
I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. People rushed around me. There was talk of surgery to remove the cancer, which meant removing Joli’s eye permanently.
They were headed to another hospital to see another specialist. “Wait for me,” I said. “I’m coming with you.”
I didn't know this yet, but learned later how serious this disease is: Children went blind from this cancer. They also died. We didn’t know what would happen to Joli, if something unspeakable was waiting for her.
It was only a five-minute walk down Washington Street. I crossed Essex and by the time I reached Kneeland, the gray weather inside me had changed permanently. I walked over the crosswalk, traveling from before to after.
The diagnosis changed her life circumstances suddenly, and I needed to be someone else the next time I met my niece. So my life wasn’t turning out the way I had dreamed it would in my twenties? There were worse things. And I would be no good to Joli depressed.
Whether I had written a novel or made a lot of money was of no value to my niece. What mattered now was who I was going to be in her moment of need. I needed to show up fully present for the next several months as she gave up her eye and adults in white approached her with needles and bags of poison. She needed me to talk to her kindly when people stared at her face too long and to comfort her when strangers thought she was a boy. And I also needed to help her have fun like when I let her go outside in her rain boots to stomp in as many street puddles as she wanted to even though it was a cold February day and her white blood cell count was low.
Because I didn't have a full time job, I was able to spend a lot of time with Joli. Being there for her and her parents when she had cancer makes me more proud than anything I’ve ever done.
Now, my niece is nine. As for me, materially, my life isn’t all that different. I haven’t published a book (yet), but I'm working on it and I hope to someday. I'm still ambitious, but things are in perspective. Love matters more.
So what happened on that walk seven years ago today, August 17? On that crosswalk, I imagined the possibility of the death of a child I loved, and while this is still an unbearable thought, it changed my interior landscape permanently. Although I was forced to consider the worst of life’s possibilities, in that moment somehow I regained hope that other things, maybe even wonderful things, could be possible in this life, too.