One year ago a friend suggested I read A SECRET MUSIC by Susan Doherty, a Canadian author who summers in Kennebunk Beach. The award-winning novel tells the story of a 15-year-old piano prodigy named Lawrence whose goal was to win a coveted invitation to the famed Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Lawrence was coached by his mentally unstable mother Christine, herself a gifted violinist. The plot resonates with family subplots and melodious references to Chopin opuses and Schubert serenades, with the hope that music might keep demons at bay.
Because I was so taken with the book, I searched for Susan’s email. I wrote how much I enjoyed A SECRET MUSIC, never expecting to hear back. But we became pen pals and emailed numerous times over this past winter and early summer while the 58-year-old author battled an extremely rare, often fatal disease, HLH (Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis).
An email might begin, “Well, Val, I’m doing okay, just a small setback….” Hardly small. She recently admitted the tough struggle she had undergoing chemotherapy, steroid therapy, stem cell replacement, months in the hospital, 25 blood transfusions, weeks of isolation. Despite the pain she always spoke happily, positively and with faith. “I never gave up hope.”
During the past year I rarely forgot Susan and continued to send occasional emails offering love and cheer. Then, this past Sunday I was sitting in the fifth pew of Trinity Chapel at Kennebunk Beach for 9 AM services. Because of the chapel’s intimate size, the congregation rarely exceeds 50 or 60. During the opening hymn I glanced at a woman in an adjoining pew. She was noticeably thin, quite pale and wearing a large hat. I assumed she had recently undergone chemo.
Something about the woman kept drawing my eyes. And suddenly I thought, that’s Susan Doherty, my pen pal! She must have sensed my interest because she turned and looked at me. I mouthed the words, “Hello Susan, it’s Val.” She beamed and mouthed, “Hello Val,” and we blew each other kisses, all while singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
After the service we finally met face to face. I couldn’t hug her for fear my germs might compromise her fragile health. But we spoke like old friends, even though it was the first time we’d laid eyes on each other.
She told me how during her stem cell transplant she listened to a playlist she’d created. Because her donor was from Germany, “It comprised all German music — classical and contemporary. One song was by the German band Schiller. Another was ‘The Serenade’ by Franz Schubert, the duet performed by Lawrence and his mother Christine in A SECRET MUSIC.”
Like the characters in her book, Susan used music to keep her demons at bay.
“My faith has meant that there were no obstacles,” she said. “I did a six-city book tour last summer for A SECRET MUSIC while doctors were trying to diagnose my condition. I had a high fever at each event, but the adrenaline rush of having a debut novel allowed me to leapfrog over the symptoms of a dire illness.”
This amazing woman, a brilliant writer, an eternal optimist, a dear pen pal, is now on her way back to good health, and writing her second novel. She said, “I now see my illness as simply part of my life’s journey. An uncluttered path does not exist for anyone.”
(A SECRET MUSIC has won numerous writing awards, including the 2016 Grace Irwin prize for best Canadian book, awarded by the Word Guild. It is also available on Amazon.)