Life-Affirming (Manhattan/Brooklyn, Northern CA, Durham NC; 2001 to present): If the punch power of a vivid, heart-to-heart memoir doesn’t take your breath away, Heather Harpham’s journey parenting a “human cupcake of a girl” born with a rare, unidentified red blood cell disease should change that.
Oozing with love for Amelia-Grace, there’s so much to say about Harpham’s incredible story, which makes the point is not entirely hers. But a lot has been left out here, so you can read it raw, feel the full brunt force of it. The treatments, decisions, sadness, loneliness, unfairness, relocations, commutes, anger, unfairness, ups and downs. And still the title is Happiness, with slight billing to the frightening road ahead, the crooked little road.
The heartfelt prose stuns and grips, as it brings to life people who’ll touch you. You’ll fall in love with Gracie, care what happens to her. A “little football of a person” who “smelled like sliced apple and salted pretzels” when she entered the world, only to be whisked away moments later from her adoring mother for the first of countless blood transfusions – once every three or four weeks – to survive. Then, when too much iron built up in her system, she had to be hooked up to a cleansing machine for twelve hours every night, forecast for the rest of her life. Harpham didn’t even broach asking about Gracie’s life-expectancy until she was 1½ years old. A 50-50 chance of living beyond twenty-nine are odds no parent should have to hear and bear, which again makes the Happiness title striking.
I once took a class in which the entire semester was focused on the topic of Resilience. Why some people possess it and others are unable to cope. It’s a question you’ll be asking throughout as this story overflows with this almost indescribable quality. Ironic the author believed she was “poorly equipped for hardship.” Wow, nothing could be further from the truth.
The declaration does give you a glimpse into Heather Harpham’s happiness perspective. How she was someone who “captures the shiny, pretty, easy things, and lets the rest drop away.” A cup-runneth-over person. A California spirit who spent the first twenty-three years of her life appreciating the beauty of the Marin County highlands, outside of San Francisco. For ten years, she trained in and performed improvisational theatre. Today, the visiting artist teaches performance drama at Sarah Lawrence College. (Amelia-Grace’s father teaches there too.) So we assume Harpham was endowed with much creativity and spontaneity when she “stepped off the edge of the world” at thirty-two, better prepared than she gave/gives herself credit for.
The author is very close with her fun-loving, bohemian mother, who clearly instilled a joyful soul in her daughter despite the “serial chaos” of divorce, remarriage, stepsiblings. A therapist who “had a way of looking at the world that moved me; she saw the light, no matter what.” The two were “expert at laughing through the worst.” So we shouldn’t be spellbound the author nurtured a little girl with an awesome “life force” of her own (“what she did have, more every day, almost every hour, was personality”), but we are. Happiness is a manifesto to saying “YES to life” in spite of everything.
Geography organizes the chapters since Gracie’s needs dictated geography. When the first chapter opens on Two Coasts – with the baby’s five-month pregnant mother having returned home to California and the father, Brian, a high-disciplined, prize-winning novelist living and teaching in New York – we immediately grasp that as heartbreaking as Gracie’s life-and-death medical issues were going to be this story was even more complicated than that. How is that possible? Do you believe people are only given what they can handle?
Happiness digs deeper than a “mom-and-girl versus world story.” For its Brian’s story too, told sensitively and candidly, with what the author calls a “seesaw quality” – “I love you, you infuriate me.” The two eventually married, but it didn’t happen overnight. That their relationship not only survived but thrived is a testament to their love. Even the best of marriages would have been sorely tested, for Gracie’s care demanded superhuman strengths. I counted at least a dozen medical centers Gracie was treated at or consulted about by the time she was four.
Caregiving is beyond exhausting, physically and emotionally, particularly when it’s your child (and other children you meet along the way) enduring the “suffering of innocents.” Yet Amelia-Grace seems to have inherited her mother’s inner core. Her “refusal to see herself sick … dazzling and a little scary.”
We read so much these days about deadbeat dads but that’s not Brian. Ten years older than Harpham, he was terribly honest early on: “If I wanted to have children with anyone, it would be with you.” Yet he didn’t run away, though he only saw Gracie twice in the first six months of her life. Forgiveness is hard, but once he enters the picture, he does so in a big, devoted, loving way. Passionately committed to his writing, when he was in he was all in.
We admire many people in this story, starting off, of course, with mother and daughter. “We’re not hospital people, we’re home people” Amelia-Grace preciously, poignantly says. “Mommie, its love from me to you.” If we feel our heartstrings pulled, imagine how the author felt? We can. For her heart is big enough to let us in.
Someone you’d want in your corner. So we read about friends, terrific friends, because Harpham cherishes friendships and they surely cherish her too. Three are prominent and significant: Cassie from childhood, Suzi from college, and Kathy, newly found.
“If you’re lucky, you meet four or five people in your lifetime you are totally comfortable with. Comfortable in a way that causes your best self to surge forward.”
Not a shred of doubt this memoir is about being your best self ever.
Three surprises to note. First is Brian’s identity. As if to protect him, we don’t find out who the acclaimed writer is until page 95. Such a pleasant surprise having read (and loved) one of Brian Morton’s novels, Starting Out in the Evening. Lots to catch up on (Florence Gordon, his most recent).
The second surprise hit me personally 100 pages later when the name of a world-renowned Duke University medical pioneer is introduced. Without giving anything away, let me just say: What is the chance I went to junior high school with Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg? A good reason to save old yearbooks! There she was, her long hair now cropped but she looks remarkably the same. Googling I confirmed the famous hematologist came from my hometown, Bayside, NY and it was her father who owned the stationary store my CPA dad and I visited often.
The biggest surprise, though, is the one I’ve intentionally not mentioned. You must discover Amelia-Grace’s little brother, Gabriel, all by yourself. A lifeline.
“It was astonishing how little time there was to make sense of the world.” What’s more astonishing is how much Happiness shows us what really matters in this “anything, everything is up for grabs” world.