As Childhood Cancer Awareness Month comes to an end, Kelly Leonard, father of a newly diagnosed cancer patient, Eleanor, shares how he and his family have cast their ensemble of cancer warriors.
By Kelly Leonard
On Wednesday August 29, I got a call at work from our 16 year old daughter Eleanor. Over the past couple of months she had been experiencing back pain and then, the day before, significant pain in her side. Our visit to the doctor a few weeks earlier suggested a pulled muscle. But the pain was so significant, we rushed her to the ER at Illinois Masonic. When they couldn’t confirm a diagnosis, they made the call to get us into Lurie Children’s Hospital.
With Eleanor on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance and her Mom by her side, I went home to grab an overnight bag. Later, Eleanor would tell me that the EMT liked her socks (Bombas) and they were playing Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” on the ambulance radio. Details like this are important in our family.
So, here’s what you need to know about the Leonard/Libera clan. Anne Libera, my wife, has worked at The Second City for 33 years – in the box office (as a start), but also as a director, teacher and author (“The Second City Almanac of Improvisation”). Anne was the Artistic Director of The Second City Training Center for nearly a decade and now runs both our Comedy Studies program with Columbia College as well as the first ever BA in Comedy Writing and Performance at Columbia.
I have worked at The Second City for 30 years – as a dishwasher (as a start) until Anne got me a job in the box office. As a matter of tremendous luck and timing, I became the producer of The Second City in 1992 and oversaw our talent and live shows over two decades. I wrote a book called “Yes, And” for Harper Collins in 2015 and created an insights division for the company where I currently oversee collaborations with institutions and individuals that bridge the pedagogy of improvisation to areas of science, organizational effectiveness and – wait for it – health and wellness.
Our twenty year old son, Nick and his sister Nora (yep, weird theater parents) grew up at, among and around The Second City. When your babysitters include folks like Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch, you are likely to develop rather unique skills at finding the funny – even in the most serious of situations.
When we ended up at Lurie Children’s, we were immediately attended to by a team that we immediately referred to as the “Grey’s Anatomy” doctors. They were smart, beautiful, had great shoes – I mean, central casting was at work here. Hospitals are inherently stressful places, but Lurie Children’s has designed a hospital experience that does its best to put you at ease. From the bright murals, to the soft lighting, to the windows that look out over the lakefront, everything speaks towards a place in which you are valued. Our friend Kim Scott has a term called “radical candor.” The idea is that all of us need to use more “radical candor” – but you can only be radically candid when you truly care for the person you are talking to. And, this is key, the person you’re talking to knows you care for them.
Our team of doctors informed us that Eleanor (Nora) had a malignant tumor in her liver. It was truly a moment of radical candor.
The official diagnosis is Hepatocellular Neoplasm. She had – she has – cancer in her liver and lungs.
As fate would have it, our son – who would normally have been headed back to Saratoga Springs to start his Junior year at Skidmore – was, instead, at home. He was signed up to take his Mom’s Comedy Studies semester at Columbia College.
So we’re all here. Are we prepared? There’s literally no way any parent, brother, friend, schoolmate could be prepared to have a perfectly healthy, athletic, smart, beautiful 16 year old girl go from volleyball practice to emergency room to chemotherapy in ten days.
It was almost 20 years ago that Second City’s co-owner Andrew Alexander tapped Anne to help him and an incredible team of civic philanthropists open Gilda’s Club, the cancer support center named after beloved Second City alum Gilda Radner. Anne was able to work closely with Anne Lurie (that name rings a bell) as she generously donated their iconic red-doored building on Wells Street. Over the years, we have been joined at the hip with Gilda’s Club and their amazing CEO LauraJane Hyde. Anne serves on the board; Nick picked up some service learning hours helping out at the club and we’ve led workshops, done keynote presentations and helped run benefits for an organization whose services we never expected to need.
And then there is the work we’ve been developing for caregivers.
Two years ago, the scholar and author Adam Grant introduced us to Ai-jen Poo, co-director of Caring Across Generations. You might know Ai-jen better as Meryl Streep’s date at the Golden Globes earlier this year. As we got to know Ai-jen and the extraordinary work her organization does for caregivers, it collectively dawned on us that the skills and practices of improvisation – the work that Anne and I have dedicated our entire adult lives to – could be applied to anyone going through a caring situation.
Being others focused; seeing all obstacles as gifts; playing the scene you’re in, not the scene you want to be in; and – most importantly – maintaining an ensemble mindset, a mindset that dispels the notion that any of us are going through this alone. These principles are essential to the art of working without a script.
We’ve all heard the term that your team is only as good as its weakest member. We don’t believe that. We say that your team is only as good as its ability to compensate for its weakest member. Because at some point in our lives, each one of us will be the weakest member – and we count on our ensemble members to pick us up in those moments.
We launched the “Improvisation for Caregivers” program at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2017 and offered our first 6 week session for home caregivers at The Cleveland Clinic Las Vegas earlier this year.
And here we are.
We are 17 days into this journey with Eleanor. Is it scary? Does it suck? Yeah – for sure – all of that. But we’ve also encountered a team of caregivers who operate as skillfully and gracefully as the best improvisers do when they are playing at the top of their game. I don’t want to name names for fear of leaving any one of them out. But we have nurses who aren’t just treating a kid, they are treating our Eleanor; we have doctors who are taking care of the whole person who is front of them – not just a symptom or a disease; we walk onto floor 17 and are greeted with the warmest of smiles. A week or so ago, I was having a bit of a dark moment when a staff member caught my eye, took my hand and said, “You have this. You’re a warrior.”
I’m not the warrior, Eleanor is. But she can’t do this alone. And she doesn’t have to. We have an ensemble. We have an entire ensemble of warriors.