Way back in 2015 a couple of months after I published my first novel I received a message on facebook out of the blue and completely unsolicited asking me if I would be happy to receive an award as ‘Book of the Month’ from a young American woman called Jianna Menapace who had started a book review site. I was told, somewhat nervously, that they had read my novel, enjoyed it and thought it deserved to be the first novel to receive the award, I would get a certificate, and a decal I could add to my cover and other stuff as well as featuring on the site itself. So “would I be okay with that?”
Of course, I was okay with that. I had just released my first novel. A quirky little thing that did not really fit in any genre, was not exactly an average first novel, which it still is. For while I am very proud of Cider lane, it is unlike anything else I have written and unlike anything, I am likely to write again. It is still my quirky little novel. Getting people to read it beyond those who knew me was challenging to say the least. I was more than happy to receive an unsolicited and utterly unexpected reward. I was over the moon not only because of the reward itself, but because it gave me confidence as a writer, the confidence I needed to believe I could reach people beyond those who knew me, and that what I was writing was worth something in the wider world. To say I was pleased is an understatement, I wasted little time in telling everyone I knew about this and looked forward to opening up the website to see my book there with Book of the Month written above it. Indeed, when I received the pdf certificate of the first (and indeed to this day only ) reward I have ever received for my writing I wasted no time in printing it off, framing it and hanging it on the wall.
It’s still there, on the wall, and if I never receive another reward, or I receive others, that one will remain the special one, the first one. I still can not thank Jianna enough for the sheer joy and confidence that award gave me. Why she picked Cider Lane for this accolade I have no idea. What it meant to me at the time and to this day is what mattered. It inspired me to keep writing.
This though is where this story turns a little dark, a lot tragic, and a whole lot less happy. While I was basking in the glory of this award, I received another email, one that first apologised to me that Jianna would be unable to do quite as much promotion for the novel as she had intended, which would have been a little deflating for me as I was hoping that promotion work would help me sell a lot more books. But the apology was not needed. Indeed it says a great deal about Jianna that she took the time to apologise to me at all. Because the reason she couldn’t do the promo work she had promised, to me and several other writers who work she was championing, the reason the website closed after that first month was this. Jianna’s cancer had returned. She was 18 at the time, and her own body was trying to kill her. It still is.
Jianna is now 23, and after fighting her cancer for five years the doctors have given her no more than six months to live. She shared this on facebook only the other day, in a message that I found harrowing in the extreme. I kid myself at times I am a hard laced Yorkshireman who has faced the world in all its forms. I am not, I am a luck swine who has never had to face the life trials and never suffered as Jianna has suffered. If I believed in the big guy in the sky I would thank him for that. This young lady once wrote of my fiction
Hayes captures the essence of trauma to perfection in his book Cider Lane: Of Silences and Stars. It’s a difficult feat to write emotion. First, you must submerge yourself within the walls of the pain that we try so desperately to avoid.
That seems a wonderful compliment to my writing. It certainly was at the time. But I write fiction, the trauma I write about is just that fiction. It pales in comparison to the trauma of Jianna’s daily life. These are her own words talking about her struggles.
I let chemo ravage my body because I believed that hostile treatments were the only answer to my aggressive, terminal cancer. I practically begged the oncologist to give me the medication cocktail that nearly killed me. I lost 150 pounds in 7 months. I was and still am so desperate to live, I would rather suffer with the treatments than die on morphine.
My mouth is coated in open sores, my teeth are beginning to crumble out of my skull, my lips are cracked and bleeding, I couldn’t hold down water let alone food and I could barely stand for a long while. So for 7 months, I starved nearly to death.
The day I stopped pursuing treatment, I could barely stand on my own. My knobby knees would shake, my over-worked anemic heart would pound in my visable ribcage and my world would spin around me.
Jianna is 23, and facing what are likely to be the last few months of her life in a hospice, which is traumatic in itself. She is also, as I mentioned, an America, oh the wonders of American health care… As such Jianna, this bright, cheerful young woman who nervously asked if I ‘would be okay with receiving an award?’ has had to open a go fund me page to fun her end of life care… I don’t generally dip my toe into American politics, or the American system. I am not American for a start, so don’t feel it is my place to criticise how they chose to run their nation, but frankly, the fact that anyone needs to resort to social media to fund their end of life care disgusts me utterly, there are some things that no matter what your politics should just never need to be done. How do you measure the worth of a society that puts such a burden on the dying?
Just think on that a moment, and if your British like me, thank the fucking big fictional guy in the sky for the NHS and that no matter what happens you will never have to ask people to send you money through social media to fund your last few months of life. I know I do.
Jianna is braver and stronger that I, I suspect. She has gone through so much in the last few years, and yet still has fight in her even if it is just fighting for the dignity everyone deserved in the last few months of their life. I write a lot of stuff on here that is light and fluffy, or just for fun. While I do on occasion talk about the flip side of life, the dark and the tragic, I don’t make a habit of it. But some things are bleaker than a middleaged Yorkshireman’s occasional struggles with depression, and this is the bleakest story of all. A young woman less than half my age, at a time in her life when she should be still exploring the world, falling in love and living life to the full is facing the last few miles on the road of life, and has to ask people on the internet to help her fund that last journey.
I owe Jianna for that confidence she gave me when it came to Cider Lane. I remain in her debt, and she is one of the reasons why I am publishing a new novel today, of all days, because that award helped me believe I could be a writer, and helps me still through my own dark moments, moments which pale in comparison to her daily struggles. She talks of those so much more eloquently than I so please take a moment to visit her Gofundme page and read them yourself.
And perhaps, if you can, spare her a dollar or maybe two.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I know it is not what people come to my blog to read. It’s not something I would wish to write about, it saddens me that I must…
I am Jianna’s dad and truly appreciate what you have written. I remember when she started the award and how excited she was to recognize writers who she felt had talent and promise. You must be awesome if she thought you were talented because she has great taste. I know this blog post touched me, so thank you.
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My own daughter is Jianna’s age. Which puts this all too close to home, ‘there but for the grace of’, and all that. I can’t imagine what you and your family are going through, and have been going through these past few years. If a few words I wrote helped, even for a moment I am nothing but glad.
I took a while to reply, only because I could not think what to say, for what can I say, nothing of any true weight I suspect. But let me say this much, a person’s life is measured in all those who that life has touched, in the joy it has brought to others, and the love in which it is held. Jianna has brought much joy, is well loved and has touched lives across oceans. All the while facing down the odds against her that frankly would have worn this haggar Yorkshireman to dust long ago, and yet she is still here, still fighting, even if the fight is now only to leave this world on her own terms.
She is an inspiration in many ways. I would be proud if she was my daughter, I have no doubt you are proud she is yours.
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