Tag Archive for Childhood cancer

Living with Tragedy

For the paperback publication of my young adult novel, BEFORE YOU GO, I was asked to answer a few interview questions for the back matter.

I didn’t really intend to share this here, but given recent events, and the fact I just stumbled upon it again, well, sometimes you have to trust in coincidence. Here you go:

Losing a peer when you are young is especially difficult. Do you have any advice for someone who has experienced this?

Advice? My first impulse is to give sympathy, to say how sorry I am, and to recognize that I cannot know exactly what they are going through. Life can feel impossibly hard at times. I remember when my oldest son — he’s in college now — was fighting cancer at age two. I was newly divorced, living in a stupid apartment, just a number of things going seriously haywire at the same time. My crazy “whirled.” There were days when I didn’t want to hang out or do much of anything. But here’s the thing: you do what you must do. The bare essentials. So I washed the dishes in the sink. Folded the laundry. Put on some music, flipped through a magazine, checked the scores in a baseball game, noticed how the leaves turned color outside my window. Life itself is this tremendous vital force. It leaks into everything. And if you allow it, life will pull you through. Before you know it, almost by accident, you are living again, swimming in that great river. You learn that the heavy weight you carry becomes lighter, more buoyant, and at times you temporarily forget. At the same time, the remembering is so important. Life shapes us, makes us who we are –- we endure the good and the devastating. The important thing, I think, is to keep your heart open, even though it hurts, and try to appreciate that you are loved. And, well, you put one foot in front of the other. Day by day. After a while you realize you’ve traveled a great distance. Your back has grown strong. And you are living again.


His name was Ben and he was waiting for me when I arrived at Blue Creek Elementary. Ben was holding my book, Six Innings, in his hands.

Could you . . . ?” a teacher asked.

Yes, yes, of course.

So we ducked into the empty library, where Ben and I could have a few moments together. I was told that Ben had osteosarcoma, the same illness contracted by a character, Sam Reiser, in my book.

We talked quietly. I told Ben about my oldest boy, Nicholas, a sixteen-year-old who had gone through five years of chemotherapy. “He’s doing great now,” I said. “Healthy, strong.” Both boys shared the same oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Pearce. I explained that Dr. Pearce helped me with Six Innings, and showed him where I thanked her in the acknowledgments. We agreed that she was very kind.

Ben was gentle, he smiled often, there was softness in his eyes: a sweet boy. And all the while, Ben looked at me as if I was the one who was special. As a writer, sometimes by some miracle you touch someone. But with Ben it was different. He was the one who left a lasting mark — on me and so many others.

I learned last week that Ben passed away, October 12th, 2009. He was nine years old.

I did not attend Ben’s wake. I was told by one of his teachers that among the objects displayed was a signed copy of my book. The story meant something to Ben. He may have related to Sam’s experience. “It’s been so hard,” Sam confided in the book’s last pages. But Ben probably most enjoyed the baseball, the humor, the fun of boys at play.

Ben was probably similar to my Nick. At least that’s what I saw, as I blinked back tears, when I looked into Ben’s eyes. Back when we first gathered to explain to Nick, at age nine, that he had relapsed with leukemia — that the cancer was back — Nick sat and listened quietly. Dr. Pearce laid out the protocol, the path Nick’s life would take over the next two years. This will happen, then this will happen, and then this will happen. Like a story unfolding, though no one could say with certainty how it would end. Dr. Pearce asked if Nick had any questions. Nick did. “Can I go to my friend’s house now?” he asked. That seemed to me, then and now, the perfect reaction.

I saw Ben only twice that day, once alone in a library, once as part of a larger group. But I’m looking at him now.

I’ll always remember the few minutes I spent with Ben Stowell.

Ben’s family has established The Ben Fund to assist other families dealing with childhood cancers, c/o HSBC, Latham Branch, 494 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, NY 12110. Ben leaves behind a twin brother, James, and his parents, Stacey and Tim. My heart goes out to them.

Fan Mail Wednesday #25

Stand back, people. Everybody stand back! It’s Fan Mail Wednesday . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

I just finished reading your book, Six Innings, and thought it was awesome. I am doing a book report on it. My favorite part was at the end when Sam realizes that Mike wasn’t feeling sorry for him being so sick, but just really wanted his friend to hang out with. I have never had a friend who has been that sick, but I know I would want to be a friend like Mike. I would love to see if you could make Six Innings into another story with Mike and Sam. Maybe Sam could get better and they have another championship game. Maybe have them go to a Met game!

I also have ideas for you for Jigsaw Jones mysteries. The title is The Case of the Missing Shoe. When someone loses their sneaker, Jigsaw Jones solves it by discovering Rags, the dog, had taken it and buried it in the ground.


P.S. Lets Go Mets 2009!

Here’s my reply:

Dear Billy,

I’ll admit it. I’m sort of mad at you. Here I am, slaving away like a black dog on a hot day, desperately trying to think of ideas, and you shoot off a chatty email with more good ideas in it than I’ve had in a month!

Tell you what, let’s make a switch: YOU write the books, I’ll send the fan mail (but I’m not doing your homework, those days are gone).

Seriously, thanks. I liked your observation on Six Innings. You know, that was definitely an important moment in the book for me, too. When it all kind of flipped. As you may know, there’s a core of true experience in that book. My oldest son, Nick, age 15, is a two-time cancer survivor, five years of chemo. Hard, hard times. I was moved by the friendship he shared with another boy. Nick’s friend would visit, the boys would hang out together, do quiet things, talk. And somewhere it dawned on me that it was tough on both of them. That it’s hard to be sick, yes; but in some ways, even harder to be the steady, reliable friend. Grandma isn’t sending him presents in the mail, you know what I mean? But he’s still got to carry that weight, uncertainty, fear.

Back to your ideas: Maybe a sequel, but I don’t see it right now. Most times one book is enough. I would like to try another sports story one day. Ice fishing? Cliff diving? I can’t decide.

For Jigsaw, that’s a pretty solid premise for a story. If I were to pursue it, I might begin by asking some of these questions: Who would the other suspects be? Is it an important shoe? Does Jigsaw really need the shoe for something? A race? Or a wedding? It’s always good when the clock is ticking — it’s called the “ticking clock” technique — when the hero of the story has to find the solution by a specific time. You see variations of this technique in stories all the time. In its extreme form, for example, the world blows up at exactly noon if the hero doesn’t find and detonate the bomb. It gives the story urgency. Only five minutes left! Three, two, one . . . .

I tried to use that approach in Jigsaw Jones #20: The Case of the Race Against Time. And given that premise, I like how that story begins: “You’re late,” my mother snapped.

Just to be clear: I am NOT sharing the royalties with you. Your ideas are now officially my original ideas and I’m keeping all the money for myself. Or maybe you could keep the idea. Write it yourself. Remove the character of Jigsaw, make it somebody else. Hey, Billy, write your own story! Why not? Go for it. You might enjoy it.

Thanks for writing. And yes, absolutely, “Let’s Go Mets!”


Shea Memory, Childhood Illness, and Six Innings

As these photos taken by Joe MacDonald show, the destruction of Shea Stadium continues into winter. Come spring, our attention will turn to the new home of the New York Mets, Citi Field, with its beautiful Jackie Robinson Rotunda, and the promise of a new season to come.

But I’m not ready to go there just yet. Instead, my thoughts linger on Shea. I’ve been to many games over the years. My first was in 1967, the Mets vs. Hank Aaron and the Braves. I saw the 5th game of the 1969 World Series. Some great victories and some crushing defeats. A lot of memories.

I learned to love baseball from my mother, a former Brooklyn Dodgers fan who, after the Dodgers fled to Los Angeles, adopted the expansion 1962 New York Mets as her hometown team. She faithfully gave her heart to this hapless bunch in orange and blue. As I grew up, she taught me how to throw and catch, and somehow sold me on the preposterous notion that Ron Swoboda, the Mets thick-necked rightfielder, was graceful. I used to ask her, as I minced across the lawn, “Am I graceful, Mom? Am I graceful?” She assured me that I was. I’ve come to see that my love of the game is impossible to separate from the love of my mother; I cannot imagine one without the other.

In the spring of 2003, my oldest son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a relapse. He had first been diagnosed in the summer of ’95, at 26 months. We had been there, done our hard times, and believed the worst was behind us. But again we settled into an exhausting routine of doctors and medicines, blood tests and spinal taps, the chemistry of hope and fear. Much, much harder for Nick the second time around.

Meanwhile, my father-in-law, Ed Ginsberg, a lifelong Yankee fan, contacted the New York Mets. He made phone call after phone call, telling one person after another Nick’s story. Weeks passed. While undergoing treatment, Nick got an infection. His immune system too compromised to fight it, Nick was forced to stay on IV-drips in the hospital for twelve long days until his temperature settled below 101 degrees. On one particularly bad day a letter arrived from Chris Brown, the New York Mets Community Outreach Coordinator. He invited Nicholas and three guests to a special day at Shea Stadium.

When Nick felt strong enough, down we drove from our home outside Albany, New York — Nicholas, his stepmother Lisa, his grandfather Ed, and myself. Chris Brown met us at the gate two hours before the game, shook our hands, and brought us inside to the secret, special places. He opened a door and led us onto the field, where Nick stared in wide-eyed wonder. We stepped into the dugout, felt the bats in their racks, eyed the neat rows of clean helmets, and snapped picture after picture. We walked into a long concrete hallway under the stands, where we stood nearly alone outside the Mets clubhouse door, as real live ballplayers — guys with names like Vance and Ty, Joe and Cliff — walked past us on their way to the indoor batting cages. Some players stopped and briefly chatted, signed baseballs, and smiled for photos with their arms resting on my son’s shoulder.

I couldn’t help but think of my mother, and how our love of the game had brought us to this singular moment. My boy, sick with cancer, smiling into the camera, a Sharpie and a signed baseball in his hand. All those games we had watched together, our spirits dashed by defeat and lifted in victory. All of that time and energy invested, all of that life we poured into the game — all of it, truth be told, a little absurd. After all it is just a game. Not life, not death, and certainly not childhood cancer. But standing in that gray basement of Shea Stadium, I knew with certainty that it all had been worth it.

We loved the game. And sometimes, amazingly, it loved us back.


It was why I wrote Six Innings, why that book was so important to me. Because it’s all in there, all that stuff, a roiling wave that carries the words along, the love of the game, a lifetime of baseball, and sometimes the hard things that get in the way.

A Child With Cancer

I think when you’ve had a child with cancer, as I have, certain things always make you cry. Forever after, you are prone to bouts of blubbering. Memories, little acts that touched you, stick into your heart and remain stuck there, like a forgetful accupuncturist’s needle. Time passes and something unbidden triggers a memory; the needle vibrates again, the heart goes atwitter, and the eyes well up. It’s just one of those life events that, if you think about it at all, well, it’s good to have Kleenex around. Though I prefer the back of my sleeve.

My oldest son, Nick, relapsed with leukemia in 4th grade, after having already gone through it, ages two to four. All totaled up, he’s gone through five years of chemotherapy. Imagine that. I scarcely can, and our family lived through it. Nick’s good friend since 1st grade was (and still is) a boy named Sam. I watched in awe and admiration as Nick and Sam’s friendship weathered this illness. Though Nick was bald and weary, and not a whole lot of fun to be around, their friendship endured. Even more, it thrived. I was privileged to witness the goodness in Sam, his fundamental kindness, the way he treated his sick friend, my son. I won’t describe the specifics, because already I feel as if I’m a trespasser, like I’m on someone else’s property. It’s theirs, not mine. But what I saw, I will say, was genuine love. The friendship, the loyalty, the steadfastness of two boys. And it went both ways; they both gave, and they both received.

More than anything, that experience fueled the core of Six Innings, gave the book it’s heart. It’s what inspired me when I wrote those fictional scenes between two made-up characters, Sam Reiser and Mike Tyree.

It’s a book about a Little League baseball game and, I hope, not just that. The game is the structure that allowed me to enter the lives of some of these boys that I’ve seen, and known, and imagined. I’ve changed all the details — Nick is Sam and Sam is Mike; the form of cancer is different; the characters are more “inspired by” rather than “based upon” — but the core experience remains. Friendship under duress. At the same time, I think you can still read it as a baseball book, with hits and heroics, fears and failures. It’s one specific and yet metaphorical place where real boys live, out on the diamond, on green fields, under clear skies, the purity and relative peace of boys at play, that big yellow sun shining down.

Nick completed 9th grade yesterday. Good grades, too. This morning he announced that he did twenty-five pull-ups. “Good,” I say. “Keep it up, Nick. Keep it up.”