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A Girl with an Expiration Date: On Heather Harpham’s ‘Happiness’

By posted at 12:00 pm on September 7, 2017 0

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When you’re living through watch-it-through-your-fingers reality what makes for good escapism? I’d like to make the case for a memoir about life with a mortally ill child. And let me add: I am a new mother. I am still poised halfway between awe and terror every time I look into the face of my eight-month-old—awe that he exists in all his joyous defenselessness, terror about whether I can keep him existing and maybe even preserve some of that boundless baby joy. Watch-it-through-your-fingers reality doesn’t help a mind already teeming with all the many ways a child can die before breakfast. I would have thought the last place I’d want to go to escape was a book about, as author Heather Harpham puts it, “a girl with an expiration date.”

But Happiness is not just that. It is also a book about one of the healthiest romances I’ve ever seen committed to paper, about neighborly grace, about balancing one child’s needs against another’s. It is a book, most of all, about the value of that most commonplace and staggering of miracles, “the spontaneous eruption of an individual consciousness out of nothingness.”

It begins with two interleaving narratives. There is Harpham, alone in California, having just given birth to her seemingly perfect daughter, unwilling to sleep because, “What if she sighed or pursed her lips or splayed her fingers or jerked her arms upward?” At 3 a.m. a nurse enters to say that the doctor wants to run some tests. This is the last moment Harpham will have with her healthy child. From then on, hers is a child with a terrifying, undiagnosable illness; Amelia-Grace cannot make sufficient red blood cells on her own. No one can say why she is dependent on the transfusions of washed blood she must receive every three weeks, but without them she becomes “wan and listless, a dollop of a baby who said and did very little.”

The second narrative explains why Harpham is alone through this ordeal, why she and the love of her life are “semi-strangers living on separate coasts who happened to have a baby in common.” It’s a complicated situation, one to which Harpham does subtle, meticulously fair justice, but the gist of it is that Harpham’s partner of several years, the novelist Brian Morton, is “a man with a gift, and the dense garden of habit grown around it for protection.” In other words, he doesn’t want children. Even when Harpham finds herself pregnant with his child.

Eventually the narratives merge. Four months after she’s born, Morton meets and falls in love with his daughter, and through his love for her reconciles to the distractions of fatherhood. He and Harpham begin to create a shared world, one dominated by a single question: “How could we make our girl better?”

When the answer is finally delivered, it is as unpalatable as it is uncertain: They can have another child, hope this one is not afflicted with the same undiagnosable disease as their first and that his blood marrow is a match for hers. If they are lucky in this ghastly gamble then they can undertake the even ghastlier risk of a bone marrow transplant. There is between a 10 percent to 20 percent chance that the transplant will kill Amelia-Grace. But without the transplant, there is only a 50 percent chance of her surviving until 30.

I am aware that so far I am not making a very good case for my claims of escapism. But take, to start, the humor Harpham can forge out of even the bleakest moments, such as this about her newborn: “Her cotton ball heart beat happily on…filling with the blood of an anonymous stranger. Gracie was surviving, literally, on the kindness of strangers. This was stranger number two. I tried to fathom who these people keeping her alive might be…Whoever they were, I wanted to make out with them. Just for a minute or two.”

Or look at what she can spin out of moments of touching normalcy, creating a fully rounded human of her daughter, affording Amelia-Grace the dignity of naughtiness when she might have more easily cast her as sainted suffering child: “’Gracie, we don’t want to hurt the baby.’ She gave us a winning smile. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I do want to hurt the baby.’”

More important than the humor itself, there is what it signifies, the staggering sanity. Harpham at one point praises her three-year-old daughter for her ability to, “find the speck of gold amid all this dross.” It’s a characteristic the daughter surely inherited from the mother, and the beauty with which Harpham sees the world makes hers a healing mind to inhabit. So, for instance, in contemplating whether she can trust Morton enough to let him into her and her daughter’s life after he’s absented himself from both for far too long, she reflects that life with Morton, “held the potential for being a surprising life, a life that was the product, the gift, of multiple imaginations.”

Or of the stem cells as they enter her daughter’s body, the start of a process that may end up killing Amelia-Grace within the next few days or weeks: “Once the cells enter the bloodstream, they are self-aware. They know they are stem cells. They survey the body, perceive where they are most needed, and collectively, as a flock of birds bends and turns, they go there…En masse they bore out of the vein wall, burrow through muscle, through fascia and bone, to reach their destination. They do this of their own accord. Without any medical inducement or coercion. They do this just to be nice.”

They don’t, of course, but Harpham is herself so thoroughly nice—or, rather, so thoroughly kind, so thoroughly fine and decent a human being—that in the moment we believe in the grace of this vision. Nor are we surprised to learn that she wrote this book in large part to thank the many doctors, nurses, friends, neighbors, strangers who showed her family kindness as she tried to save her daughter. (I hope you’ll forgive my telling you that Amelia-Grace survives. I worry you won’t dare read the book otherwise.)

Most memoirs aren’t written because of a surfeit of mental health. Harpham’s would be an interesting and invigorating psyche to inhabit even in the best of times. But it is a particularly soothing place from which to contemplate our current political predicament. The sense of betrayal, of vulnerability, the guilt and pity and worry for those who will continue to be hardest hit, the most vulnerable members of our community—all of this makes Harpham’s memoir feel not just moving but necessary.

“There was no one,” Harpham observes on her first night as a mother, her ticking time bomb of a daughter nestled against her. “And then poof—her.”  That this can be said of every person on earth —every sick child who needs health insurance to survive, every body in the path of a nuclear missile, every soul housed in a sort of skin that conjures senseless fury—is not a fact that is likely to be lost on most of us. This awareness, after all, is precisely what makes our current predicament so unbearable. And this, finally, is what makes Harpham’s book the perfect form of escapism from our inescapable collective tragedy. If the tragedy is a system of governance that puts precious little value on each precious human life, what better escape could there be than to soak in the most concentrated form of such valuing, the maternal love that is spread over every one of Harpham’s pages?

Halfway through the book, Harpham and Morton decide that they cannot in good conscience have a second child whose reason for existence is, at least in part, to save the first. Days later Harpham finds herself pregnant. (Harpham’s reproductive system has an impeccable sense of comic timing.) As she weighs what to do about this pending being, who will eventually be her irrepressible son, Gabriel, there is a paragraph so perfect, so affirming, so buoyantly brave I found myself repeating it as a sort of mantra.

Yes to another child who might be sick, yes to having two children under two years old at the same time, yes to Brian. Yes, yes, yes to drool, late nights, mutual accusation, yes to euphoria, yes to the probable, the impossible, the impractical….Yes to the whole crazy, doomed mess. Yes to whoever had chosen us, yes, we chose you back, yes. Yes to life …yes to yes. I say yes.

If she can, surely so can I, and so escape from cynicism and despair a little longer.

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