The world of pediatric oncology is one of extremes. The diseases strike unexpectedly, cruelly, and without discernible cause in the midst of childhood, a time of remarkable growth and innocence. While these diseases were once a death sentence, the improvements in survival rates (in places where the latest treatments are available) have been dramatic: five-year survival rates of near 90% compared to 10% just forty years ago. Even so, the burdens of disease and treatments are high, and of course, death still comes too often. Among the tribulations of the pediatric cancers, beauty can be found in the lives and loves of the children and families. One aspect of beauty is the compassionate connections that can develop between the children affected. In The Moon Prince and the Sea, Dr. Daniela Anderson captures this beauty in both words and pictures as she tells a fantasy story based on actual patients.
Sumit is a boy in rural India who travels for days to get to the hospital for treatments for an undefined serious illness. As he physically recovers, he connects with other children in the hospital. He also learns of a girl named Marina in a distant country (the US) who has cancer as evidenced by her bald head and connection to an IV pole. He is touched by her story and dreams of her. He paints her a picture with two moons—one on earth and one in the sky—and sends the picture and a brief letter of encouragement to Marina. Far away, she receives his gifts and feels both connection and comfort.
After he returns to his country home from the city hospital, Sumit is not able to return for more treatments because of the family’s lack of resources. A caring nurse travels to Sumit’s home to find him with hopes of continuing his treatment. The neighbor children, however, inform her that Sumit is now “in God’s home.” But in Anderson’s imagining, the story has not ended and Sumit’s connection to Marina continues.
Back in her hospital, Marina waits until family and friends are ready, and then she closes her eyes and takes her last breath. In the next place, she and Sumit are united, healed, unafraid, and bound together.
Anderson’s watercolor illustrations are rich and vibrant, and they evoke feelings of comfort and compassion. Sumit has a yellow silk cape that both connects him to the moon and presents him with a certain regal dignity and resilience. His cape and bearing mark him as “the moon prince,” while Marina’s name means “the sea,” and thus the book’s title. While Marina is surrounded by family and the best of medical care and resources, there is a sense of vulnerability as her disease puts her beyond all efforts of cure. Understandably frightened, she has a quiet strength as she waits to take her last breath until her family is ready. Hand in hand, Sumit and Marina then travel on together, connected to the mystery of the unknown while rooted in the known, which is love.
Children with cancer and other serious diseases are, of course, like the rest of us—not always saints, not always wise and inspirational. Yet there is something striking about the experience of a life-threatening illness at a time of life wired for dramatically persistent growth. Such children often have and show stubborn resilience and focus their time and attentions more on the prospects of living rather than dying. And if death comes, it is not uncommon that they demonstrate deep compassion for their family and their fellow patients—others who suffer. Anderson captures these aspects of children and illness in the story, which treats death as both ending and beginning. There is real sadness, of course, in the story because it is faithful to the truths of terminal childhood illness. Nevertheless, the strongest feelings and impressions are connection, compassion, and transcendence, and these are other real truths at the intersection of the worlds of childhood and illness. — Greg Adams
Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, FT is Program Coordinator for the Center for Good Mourning and Staff Bereavement Support at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. His work of 27 years at Arkansas Children’s Hospital includes time in pediatric oncology, pediatric palliative care, and grief support for staff and community adults, adolescents and children. He also writes and edits a grief/loss electronic newsletter, The Mourning News. Other current related experiences include teaching an annual grief/loss elective class in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work and chairing the Credentialing Council for the Association of Death Education and Counseling.