“A bald eagle skims along the bluff where windblown Douglas firs, their exposed roots like talons, grip the eroding cliffs. Gulls circle and warn the bird of prey not to get too close. One hundred fifty feet below, the Salish Sea crashes and stretches west to the Pacific.” So begins Wild Ride Home: Love, Loss, and a Little White Horse, a Family Memoir, a beautifully crafted, intimate memoir in which cancer is but one part of the author’s “wild ride home.” From the opening paragraph, the reader is made acutely aware that this memoir is a work of literature, one to be savored word by word.
A Wild Ride
The modern cancer memoir has been embraced, in its various forms, as a personal and empathetic way to learn about and cope with cancer, from diagnosis to survivorship or death. After a perusal of the past decade of cancer memoirs, a few generalizations seem to hold true: Women tend to write more cancer memoirs than men, and breast cancer is the most written–about disease—which makes sense given it is the most prevalent cancer among women. And the disease itself, with all the attending trials and tribulations, is usually the central theme in the memoir. So, in that regard, Wild Ride Home, by acclaimed poet Christine Hemp, breaks the mold, as the author weaves her cancer diagnosis into looping themes of love lost and found, domestic violence, pregnancy loss, her mother’s dementia, and, of course, Buddy—the feisty little Arabian horse that helps her through her darkest days.
“One of the book’s most endearing messages—which is also dear to the oncology community—is that although cancer is a disease that affects one’s life in profound ways, it does not define who a person is in spirit and mind.”—
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Ms. Hemp is a dynamic storyteller with an equally vibrant story to tell. She begins her memoir at age 35, after an already rough and tumble life: bouncing around Britain and up and down the East Coast of the United States, working at various laborers jobs, all while her worried mother asks by phone about the condition of her car, her dogs, the men she was dating. She settles in New Mexico, where she teaches writing workshops, repairs houses with local carpenters, plays flute at a local pub, and fly fishes. Then, her life—if one can imagine—gets more complicated. She meets and falls in love with a man named Trey, a professional falconer, who eventually becomes abusive after the author suffers through two miscarriages.
Losing Her Parents, Finding Focus
Although readers will enjoy Ms. Hemp’s wild ride of a life and root for her all the way, her book suffers from too much time spent trying to psychoanalyze and finally escape from Trey as he goes off the deep end. Thankfully, she has a wonderfully tight-knit family to give support and refuge. Her book, organized into three parts, takes flight in Part Two, “The Land of Forgetting,” during which the author’s mother, a lovely woman with a heart of gold, develops dementia. The onset is frighteningly fast. “On a dark winter morning, an email from my father blew into my inbox around 6:30 a.m. He said that he’d been awakened in the night, once again. ‘Your mom was hiding under the bed whimpering. When I asked what she was doing under the bed, she said she was helping a baby bird trying to find its mother, that it couldn’t find its nest,’” writes Ms. Hemp. She captures the gut-wrenching mental decline of her mother with delicate, moving clarity.
Then, as her mother’s condition worsens, Ms. Hemp’s 76-year-old father, a tall, rugged stoic, develops persistent night sweats and is diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Ms. Hemp deftly captures the delicate nature of her father’s diagnosis and his eventual decision, against the strong advice of his oncologist, to go off therapy. Ms. Hemp describes the moment her father, who is also her hero in life, tells her he quit chemotherapy. “My father conveyed such a presence that we all remained quiet. I could not gather any words, but the air in the room felt suddenly fresh. And even though dad was delivering frightening news, the way he framed it sounded like a victory.” However, the victory the author applauds soon becomes a trip to the local hospice center, where her father’s cancer quickly progresses. Her telling of his death is poignant but will also leave the reader wondering about the decision that ultimately cut his life short.
A Lump and a Horse
As mentioned, this is not the typical cancer memoir, as Ms. Hemp’s own battle with breast cancer doesn’t come until the story’s last quarter section during her 50th birthday. However, this isn’t a bad thing, as the reader has by then become an intimate partner in her tumultuous and oftentimes zany journey. It’s also at this stage of the book that the author gets the horse, Buddy, who will quickly become one of the story’s most endearing characters.
Title:Wild Ride Home: Love, Loss, and a Little White Horse, a Family Memoir
Author: Christine Hemp
Publication Date: February 2020
Price: $24.99, hardcover, 336 pages
Ms. Hemp’s journey with cancer started in the shower, with the discovery of a small, barely detectable lump. “My local doctor wasn’t happy with it, so she immediately made an appointment for an advanced 3-D imaging…. After the biopsy results came back, my doctor looked directly at me and told me I had not one but two malignant tumors in my breast. In the course of a few short minutes, I had breathed in the worst possible news and then breathed it out,” she writes. Ms. Hemp brings the reader through her surgery and chemotherapy regimen with a sense of hope. Although the “why me?” question looms in the background, she is never bitter, thanks in part to her own indomitable spirit and her best friend, a plucky little horse named Buddy.
A Wild Ride Home lives up to its name in more ways than one. One of the book’s most endearing messages—which is also dear to the oncology community—is that although cancer is a disease that affects one’s life in profound ways, it does not define who a person is in spirit and mind. Ms. Hemp makes that crystal clear to the readers of this well-written memoir. A Wild Ride Home is recommended to readers of The ASCO Post and their patients with cancer.