At the height of her popularity, Erma Bombeck’s column, At Wit’s End appeared in more than 900 newspapers and was read by an audience of 30 million people. Her pieces were funny and poignant. They shed light on the day-to-day drudgery of being a housewife at a time when the national conversation about gender roles was shifting.
She started writing her column in the late sixties and she quickly became a household name, achieving tremendous success throughout the seventies and eighties.
She would go on to write fifteen books, some of which were collections of her many essays. I read several of them and laughed frequently. Bombeck had the ability to turn suburban life into something fascinating — and funny! Her first book, The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, was published in 1978 and became a bestseller.
Erma Bombeck’s popularity peaked far before I’d ever dreamed of becoming a mother. For me, she was irrelevant — her columns aimed at an older generation.
But, in 2014 — the year my older daughter’s cancer relapsed, I stumbled upon a compilation of her columns and found that I couldn’t put it down.
The book titled, Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America’s Favorite Humorist, revealed a woman who was surprisingly funny and relevant. I found myself wishing I’d known her.
I’m not going to review that book, but I wanted to give some context on how I became a bit of an avid Erma Bombeck fan eighteen years after her death.
After reading, Forever Erma, I began Google stalking her to try and learn more about her. That’s when I stumbled upon an old interview of her talking about her book, I Want to Grow Hair, I want to Grow Up, I want to Go to Boise — a book that attempts to shine a light on childhood cancer and honor the children and families battling this terrible illness.
She couldn’t have known that she wrote this book for me.
“They were little people whom destiny had tapped on the shoulder and announced, “We interrupt this life to bring you a message of horror.”
— Erma Bombeck
There aren’t many books written about kids with cancer. At least, not human stuff. I have a couple of books that a psychologist and friend gave me when my daughter was first diagnosed. They have titles like, A Guide to Childhood Leukemia (my daughter didn’t have leukemia) and My Book About Cancer.
I’d barely glanced at these books. They read like cancer owner’s manuals and I didn’t feel connected to them.
The lack of real childhood cancer stories is one of the reasons I write so much about cancer (and grief) myself. It’s why I wrote my first children’s book, Doorways to Arkomo and created the character of Grace, who was modeled after my own daughter who had been 11 at the time of her diagnosis.
When I started the book, I hadn’t yet stumbled upon John Green’s, The Fault in Our Stars. But Green’s main character, Hazel, is sixteen and dying. She’s hardly a beacon of hope. My Grace is only 11, and she’s all about hope.
I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise was published in 1989 — way before the internet and social media enabled families like mine to reach out to the larger world and give people a glimpse of what it’s like dealing with childhood cancer. The book is out of print. I couldn’t even buy it for my Kindle. I ended up getting a copy for $2.00 on eBay.
Cancer was insulated in 1989. People still whispered the word and avoided talking about it. It’s probably still taboo to some degree. Personal blogs, social media, and web sites like GoFundMe are allowing families to open up about their struggles with cancer while giving us a way to ask for help and support.
Even so, cancer — particularly childhood cancer — ranks up there with a parent’s “worst nightmare.” I should know.
Cancer scars families. It scars children. It’s easy to sink into despair. It’s hard to remain hopeful. Cancer is unrelenting and cataclysmic. No one should ever have to see their child go through it.
But the thing that we can forget in the midst of a crisis like childhood cancer, is that children do survive. They grow up. They go on to have their own children. That’s the heart of what this book is about. (full disclosure: this was not how the story ended for my daughter, but when I found Erma Bombeck’s book, I needed the hope it gave me).
The overarching message in Bombeck’s book is one of optimism. She writes:
“Inside these little bodies that house a full-blown major catastrophic disease are children fighting to get out. And children exist on a diet of optimism: the rain is always going to stop just before the Little League game begins. The lost library book will always turn up just before it is due. An Act of God will close the school when the term paper isn’t finished.”
It’s easy to lose sight of optimism when you’re trying to get through the day (or the hour). But it’s critical to remember the innate optimism of children. They follow our cues, Bombeck is saying, lead them through this forest.
I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise honors all the players in the epic story of childhood cancer — parents, siblings, doctors, nurses, friends and, most of all, the children fighting the disease.
Bombeck writes with such love and respect that you forget to be afraid of the disease (maybe, just for a minute). That’s exactly what those of us who’ve lived through (or are living through) this horrific illness need.
This book reminded me of the power of hope. It reminded me that I’m not alone . Other parents have come before me in this fight and others will come after me. Bombeck writes:
“Mothers are programmed to bring a child to maturity and by all that is holy they will use everything they have to bring this about.”
It makes so much sense to me now — why I’d been so obsessed with learning everything possible about cancer and why it was important for me to honor my daughter’s incredibly difficult struggle with the disease by writing a book about it myself.
One of the most powerful passages in the book is about patients dealing with relapse, which is something that my own daughter faced early on. It’s not easy to read.
“When forced into a second battle with the disease, it is not unusual for children to consider suicide. Relapse patients mention the word often. Do not think that what you are about to read is a sign of weakness. You are looking despair in the face. You are meeting people who thought they were going home and are being sent back into combat — one more time.”
This is such an incredibly insightful passage because it captures the devastating fear of relapse, as well as those in-between times when we wait for test results and pray that they’re normal.
Yes, this is an out of print, hard to find book. But it’s a book that deserves to be honored for its thoughtful and uplifting approach to chronicling childhood cancer.
In the words of Ms. Bombeck:
“Cancer and optimism were not considered compatible on this planet.”
Optimism is something I held close to my heart throughout the entire length of my daughter’s illness and it’s something I still hold onto now that she’s gone.
Bombeck’s essays about motherhood (and womanhood) and her insight about mothers dealing with the heartbreaking reality of cancer, reached me nearly two decades after her death. Her words remind me that my writing has value, that it may even have the power to lift someone up. I’m grateful I found Bombeck’s books. Remembering her remarkable writing career often gives me the inspiration I need to write my own stories.