Last weekend my wife and I took our three-year-old son to a Halloween themed birthday party for a five-year-old girl who has been fighting brain cancer for most of her short life. We became acquainted with the girl’s parents through our small business before she was born, and we’ve watched them struggle with the disease from the start. It has been a horrific roller coaster ride of MRI’s and treatments. Sometimes we can help out by taking care of their dog, but more often they simply ask for prayers. They are strong, kind, optimistic people who are living life with perpetually open hearts. Somehow they seem to defy the gravity of despair.
For a gift, I wanted to give the birthday girl a copy of Zen Ghosts by Jon J. Muth. Our son loves all of Muth’s Zen panda books almost as much as I do, with their subtle Buddhist parables, haiku dialogue and gorgeous watercolors. But I had some reservations.
Being a ghost story, the book deals with a girl whose soul separates from her body and lives for a time away from her family. It was going to be a Halloween themed party with some of the usual spooky trappings, but my wife and I decided that maybe Zen Ghosts was just a little too risky, a little too close to home. We returned it and gave her a different Muth book instead.
We’ve known the family for years, but this was our first time visiting their home, and Mapquest had some kind of glitch that sent us to entirely the wrong neighborhood. We were lost for a while, and had to phone for directions. When we finally found the party, our arrival felt surreal to me.
As it turns out, their house is easy to find when you know what to look for. You just make a left at the funeral home on Main Street and drive until you get to the cemetery gates. Then go through the cemetery gates and their beautiful house is on the right.
This is not a gloomy cemetery on a crisp October morning; it’s absolutely stunning, decked out in flaming yellow-orange maple trees. As I drove up the lane to the party, I realized that if I wrote a story about a girl with cancer who lives in a cemetery, it would seem contrived. Like they say, you can’t make this stuff up. I was also hit by my own stupidity in thinking that a book about a ghost might be insensitive. As if they don’t live with mortality everyday. As if they don’t keep finding it every morning, like spare change rattling around in their pockets from the day before, like leaves blowing down their driveway from the graveyard.
I want very badly for their setting to not be poetic. I want my son to someday be invited to her Sweet Sixteen. I bet a lot of us were wishing for that when she blew out the candles.