In 2007, Elisha Cooper experienced one of those life-changing moments that every parent prays they never face. He had taken his nearly 5-year-old daughter to a Chicago Cubs game on a beautiful summer day when he happened to reach his arm around her torso and feel an unusual bump under her ribs.
Cooper wasn’t initially alarmed, but ensuing doctor’s appointments revealed that Zoë had a rare kidney cancer known as Wilms’ tumor. Happily, Zoë got better and is now a healthy, vibrant 13-year-old. But during the aftermath of that fateful day—surgery, chemotherapy and years of appointments to ensure that the cancer didn’t recur—Cooper says he “fell apart.” He chronicles his memories of that difficult time in his spare and heartfelt memoir, Falling: A Daughter, a Father, and a Journey Back.
Before that discovery, life had seemed idyllic. Cooper wrote and illustrated children’s and adult books while helping care for Zoë and her younger sister, Mia. The paperback version of his book about Zoë’s first year was being released: Crawling: A Father’s First Year. The family was scheduled to move to New York City in just two weeks, where Cooper’s wife, Elise Cappella, would start teaching psychology at New York University.
Suddenly, however, a shadow loomed over their busy life. In a phone conversation from his home in New York City, Cooper gives an admiring nod to Zoë’s unfaltering courage: “Here’s this girl who’s 5 and 6 and 7 years old and going through this thing, and she’s being tough. And meanwhile, I’m falling apart, because it was devastating to have that kind of worry. So I was always smiling, but I was not smiling inside.”
Cooper didn’t begin to write about the ordeal until after Zoë’s four- and five-year checkups came back clear. “It was then that I could almost take a breath,” he says, adding, “And, this is a ‘good’ cancer. That’s something I’m still very aware of. Most kids are OK with this cancer and survive it, although 40 years ago, that wasn’t the case. But we were in a clinic where there were kids who were not surviving, and I’m always very aware of those parents who went through that heartache. I can’t even imagine that.”
Cooper began to process his own emotions as he wrote Falling, mostly at a table in New York City’s Stumptown Café in the Ace Hotel. “The good thing about this space,” he explains, “is that it’s very dark. I would go there and cry really. Not cry—I would go and write and get weepy. This was a book-length attempt to use words to try to make sense of something.”
Even now, years later, it can still be difficult for Cooper to discuss an experience so close to his heart. As he and I chat on the phone, I read out loud one of the many fine passages in his book: “The words ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ work for some; the words that worked for me were ‘laughter’ and ‘thanks.’ I like ‘beauty’ and ‘hope’ too, as they speak to the best in us.”
When I finish, there’s a long pause on his end of the phone.
“Thank you. It’s kind of amazing to hear those words. . . . I got weepy a lot writing this, as you can imagine. Probably around sentences like that. Sorry.”
After another pause, he elaborates, “As much as I like fighting and battling it out in sports, I had to kind of submit to something here, at least to find some type of patience, which I really don’t normally in my life. And I was kind of thinking about how words are saving—words from people whom I loved or finding words within myself that made me feel better.”
“Consider having a day that asks the question, Will your child live?”
After Zoë’s surgery and chemotherapy, years of watchful waiting were necessary, involving periodic scans to make sure that the cancer hadn’t returned. “Consider having a day that asks the question, Will your child live?” he writes. “Then repeat that day every three months.”
Cooper hated those appointments, which intensified his worries and made him feel “angry and protective and wild.” At times he found himself erupting in unexpected explosions, which he describes unflinchingly in Falling. One winter, when a sports car nearly hit him as he biked through Manhattan, Cooper retaliated by punching the car until he broke its side mirror. He groans when I bring up the incident.
“That was one of the harder things to write,” Cooper admits. “That was just crazy. Why did I do that? I’m still incredibly embarrassed. I think it was a moment after that when I realized I can’t go on being this upset. But was it all because of Zoë and her cancer? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”
His anger has subsided, and life now brims with cheerful details, like making pasta sauce for dinner, getting Zoë to soccer practice or taking Mia to lessons at the American School of Ballet. And Cooper can’t wait to present copies of his new book to the nurses and doctors who treated Zoë, most especially to oncologist Dr. Alice Lee at New York Presbyterian.
“I have so much appreciation for her,” he says, “both for being a scientist, and whip smart, and for doing all the things that she did, but also for being incredibly caring. Everybody there at the oncology department was.”
Cooper carefully anticipates the readings he’ll be giving from his new book. “I’m going to be talking to people who have undergone or are undergoing some worry or pain in their lives,” he notes. “And I just want to be present for people who read this book.”
Before ending our conversation, I mention one of Cooper’s children’s books, Homer, which he wrote and illustrated during Zoë’s illness and recovery. Cooper describes Homer as being about an old dog who “sits on the porch and worries about his family.”
“Later,” he says, “I realized, yeah, that old dog was me.”