'Happiness' Is More Than A Perfect Match

Aug 16, 2017

'Happiness' author Heather Harpham
Credit David Kumin

For some, the road to happiness means finding a perfect match. But for author Heather Harpham, the perfect match took on a new meaning. That's the focus of her new memoir, Happiness. KMUW's Beth Golay recently spoke to Harpham and has more.

In 2001, Heather Harpham was living in New York City when she fell in love with author Brian Morton. She writes about this time in her memoir, Happiness, but not in a happily-ever-after kind of way, hence the subtitle, The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After.

"Really very quickly we discovered that we wanted very different things, but not quite quickly enough in that we'd already come to care for each other very deeply," said Harpham. "We had this terrible conundrum and it was something we were actively talking about quite often, whether or not a future for the two of us together would include children."

Harpham says that she knew that a happy life for herself included being a mother, while Morton, who wanted to continue as a writer, was just as emphatic that the responsibility of being a parent was not something he wanted to take on. The couple found themselves at an impasse.

"And then I got pregnant. As simple as it should have seemed like I would do what I said I would do and he said he would do. We were both, I think, quite surprised by the other's decision to do exactly what we'd been saying we would do," Harpham explained. "For me that meant going forward and planning to be a mom and for him that meant affirming his decision not to be a father. And so it was a shock and a painful thing to accommodate for both of us."

Harpham moved back to California to live with her mother, and a few months later gave birth to a daughter, Amelia-Grace, who she called 'Gracie'. Harpham says she finally had what she longed for. But shortly into her journey of what she calls "one-handed" motherhood, Harpham discovered that something was wrong with Gracie.

"Almost immediately--I mean not at her actual birth, but within within 24 hours--I was alerted that she was really sick and really in danger actually, at that moment in time, of brain damage or or even death because her red cells were breaking apart at such a rapid rate that she had this enormous iron overload in her blood. And her blood, they were telling me, had to be cleaned immediately," she said.

Through the delivery and subsequent treatments, Harpham kept Gracie's father abreast of the situation; she was in California, he was still in New York. After Gracie had 4 blood transfusions in the first three months of her life, Morton asked if he could come for a visit.

"It's one thing to think about parenting in the abstract and another to look into the eyes of your own child. And that had a very profound effect on Brian and he has been exactly the kind of father that I think in his mind he imagined he might be which is 100 percent devoted and present and caring about the needs of his kids beyond anything else," said Harpham. "And he's also managed to continue on with his life as a writer which I think has been a beautiful surprise to us both. You can't always have it all but you can sometimes squeeze enough onto the plate."

But the story doesn't end with the family reunion. Gracie's condition, while defined, was never diagnosed. Doctors told them that the only cure for Gracie would be a blood marrow transplant from a donor who was a perfect match, like a sibling.

"They were telling us 'you needed this really perfect match' which we had a one in four chance of getting," she explained. "Then they couldn't give us odds at all on whether the new baby would be born sick. So looking at those odds we said, 'No. That doesn't work. We will not do this.'"

Having made their decision to not have another child and risk having two sick children with the same undiagnosed disorder, the couple moved forward the the intention of caring for Gracie, who, even with continued blood transfusions, would only have a 50% chance of living to the age of 30. Still, the decision was made. And then...

"I got pregnant. You know that's not a very unique story trying to avoid pregnancy and got pregnant. But in our case it really did feel almost like you know an act of divine intervention," she said. "And that was our son Gabriel who was born beautifully, surprisingly, and wonderfully well! Healthy! Totally healthy."

It took about three months to run a test to determine whether or not Gabriel was a match, and that test came back positive. Not only was he a match, he was an extended match, matching the six markers required to be perfect, and then another 17 out of 25 markers beyond that. Yet even with the extended match, Harpham and Morton were indecisive about moving forward with a bone marrow transplant for Gracie.

"The mortality risk for pediatric bone marrow transplant is sobering to say the least. You know I just wanted to think she's going to get better. We're going to take her and she'll be cured. And that's that," she said. "But he... he took that 10 percent mortality risk and translated it into the metaphor ten kids cross the street and only nine arrive on the other side. Are you willing to send your child across the street?"

After a couple of years, and as Gracie's condition continued to deteriorate, Harpham and Morton decided to go through with the bone marrow transplant, using cells harvested from Gabriel's umbilical cord. The results were successful.

"I don't pretend to know that it was absolutely the right decision because we watched a lot of children go through transplant and not arrive on the other side. We watched a lot of children die. And I know that we were really lucky Gracie was cured," Harpham said. "She's a healthy beautiful 16-year-old very strong young person today who's well! She's got totally functioning bone marrow and this unique connection with her brother."

And a family traveling a crooked little road toward semi-ever after.

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Heather Harpham will be at Watermark Books Wednesday, August 16, at 6:00 p.m. to read from her memoir, Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After.