After Cancer, A Father Reflects

Editor's Note:

Elisha Cooper is the author of many children’s books, including Train, FarmHomer, and Big Cat, Little CatBeach received a Society of Illustrators Gold Medal in 2006 and Dance! was a 2001 New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year. His memoir, Falling: A Father, a Daughter, and a Journey Back, reflects on his experience raising a daughter with cancer.

In the basement dressing room of the David H. Koch Theater, the ballet moms and I watched “The Nutcracker” play on the video monitor. We watched our daughters dance – they were candy canes this year – and we took photos of them as they tumbled downstairs after performing on stage, their costumes jangling with bells. Mostly, though, over countless shows and countless cups of coffee, we dissected the performances of the principal dancers.

Who was on, who was off. What made Tiler Peck, star ballerina for New York City Ballet, so good? Was it her athleticism, her decades of practice, some interior spark? How exactly was she able to gather the theater to her using just the flick of her head? Though at some point our chattering stopped, and we just stared at the monitor, speechless.

I tried to convince the ballet moms that they should watch soccer. That soccer was an art, that Lionel Messi was a major artist, a dancer of sorts, and that his art was actually more difficult because other performers – forces beyond his control – were trying to knock him down as he was performing.

I don’t think the moms bought my argument.

Our debate continued at the School of American Ballet, where my younger daughter takes classes six days a week. As we stood outside the practice studios, I’d tell the moms about Messi’s latest performance. Or in the elevator, once with Tiler Peck crammed next to us, which in ballet was sort of like rubbing shoulders with Lebron James (if James were short and wore his hair in a bun).

With my daughter in class I often go for runs around Central Park, and I think about her as a dancer. She’s twelve, lanky and still growing. She has real presence as she glides across the floor, as if she’s carrying air between her arms. Eyes gravitate to her. Who knows what she will become – she’s young, ballet is cutthroat – though when I see her alighting on the subway or spinning around our apartment, I am sure she will move through the world with grace.

On days when my wife brings our younger daughter to ballet, I go for runs along the river with our older daughter. Angular where her sister is long, she runs like a colt. All elbows and knees, like she’s battling the wind. But she’s fast. All year I have struggled to keep up with her. So have many others. She’s a distance runner on her high school track team, only a freshman, already a force. As she speeds around the track in her bright green Bronx Science uniform, curly ponytail bouncing behind her, it is hard to fathom that this girl once had cancer.

Cancer has little to do with who she is. I can’t say the same of myself. Being the parent of a child with cancer will do that. After her diagnosis with Wilms’ tumor when she was five, and during the surgery and treatment that followed, I had trouble talking about it. Language didn’t work – all those “fighting cancer” phrases  and that made me angry. Years later, when I wrote about the experience, the words came out slow. Metaphors, which I love, fell apart. It was easier to pour my worry into the watercolors I paint in my children’s books. Or onto playing fields, where I didn’t have to speak.

I came to see how these wordless spaces, in sports and art, were a refuge for me. Now I sense that my daughters, given the worries that will surely come to them as teenagers, are starting to find their own wordless spaces. Ones that allow them to get out of their heads, and into their bodies. And how important, given the pressure and digital clutter of our days, these quiet spaces can be. Places beyond words.

My wife and I recently brought our daughters to “Hamilton” (going at six o’clock AM to the resale ticket line made me the greatest father for a day). In the last act, when Alexander mourns the loss of his son, Angelica sings, “There are moments that the words don’t reach.” I liked that phrase, its honesty. Also how the phrase was supported by music, which was supported by choreography, adding up to make something new in an alchemy of art. And I liked picturing Lin-Manuel Miranda writing this alone in a studio, or maybe on the subway.

The world can be brutal, unfair. Cancer, poverty, the latest political outrage. But I think through art we are best able to respond to the unimaginable.

The internal turns outward, and we stand up.

Last month, at the New York City high school track championships, with one lap to go, my daughter started to sprint. She passed the runner in front of her – the crowd murmured – it appeared she was floating. As her father I watched with pride of course, and gratitude to her doctors and the science that saved her, but mostly in wonder to see this singular person run with, for want of a better word, grace.

Sometimes, when I am watching my older daughter run or my younger daughter dance, I imagine them as old women. I hope, as all parents do, that my children will grow to be very old. I imagine them reading books in comfortable chairs. I hope they will look back on these days, these incipient summer days, feet spinning across the floor, or rounding the turn for home, and remember how it was to be young and fast, so breathtakingly alive.