Heidi Stevens: Finding strength in fight with cancer

By Heidi Stevens - Chicago Tribune

Nora Leonard is still sick, and our culture is sick, and maybe it’s a leap to draw lessons from one to apply to the other, but I’m going to try.

Nora is the 16-year-old daughter of Kelly Leonard and Anne Libera, longtime creative executives at The Second City, Chicago’s improv comedy club and training ground. She was diagnosed with liver cancer in August, which has since spread to her lungs.

In November, I interviewed her dad, who lost his brother, Kyle Leonard, to esophageal cancer last January and his dad, widely beloved WGN Radio host Roy Leonard, in 2014.

He talked about leaning on a community of Chicagoans, artists and Second City alums, plus the lessons he and Libera have divined and dispensed in their theatrical work, to wrap Nora in the strength and support she needs to fight for her life.

“There’s this saying in improv, ‘Play the scene you’re in, not the scene you want to be in,’” Leonard said. “So we played the scene we’re in.”

They spread the word about Nora’s diagnosis and treatment through a CaringBridge page. They had #TeamNora hats and T-shirts made and took a photo of the Second City staff wearing them.

Word spread fast. Leonard’s and Libera’s Facebook pages are filled with photos of celebrities holding #TeamNora signs: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kate McKinnon. Harvey Fierstein. Stephen Colbert.

On Jan. 14, Hillary Clinton tweeted her support: “Please pass on to Nora that I’m thinking of her, rooting for her, and a proud member of #TeamNora.”

I checked in with Leonard recently, and he said that Nora is on a chemotherapy pill with a three-week dosage, which will be followed by scans and either more chemotherapy or a transplant.

“But I’m not thinking that far in the future,” he told me.

Over the weekend, Leonard wrote a note on Nora’s CaringBridge page. He gave me permission to share it here.

“Nora told Anne that people keep saying how strong and brave she is, but she doesn’t feel strong or brave,” he wrote. “And as we enter our sixth month of this journey, the days are running into one another for her — when she can’t mark them by school or games or performances or experiences other than those so directly centered on her illness or her wellness.

“We remain confident that this will all change when she’s past this. We remain confident without choice. We have to.”

Leonard had met with a cardiologist earlier that day and learned that he has a rare heart condition that consists of a leaky valve and enlarged aorta. Eventually, he wrote, he’ll need surgery to replace the valve.

“Reflecting on what Nora was saying and what I’m currently feeling — especially given how many of you have sent messages of support — I find that our knee-jerk response when someone faces a health issue is empathy, as it should be,” he wrote. “We don’t start with: ‘Well, he is a smoker’ or, ‘That family has a history of that disease.’ Those comments may come up later — but it’s never our first response. Our first response is to express care and solidarity and support.

“Isn’t it interesting how that is the opposite muscle we flex in our political and cultural conversations in this country right now?” he continued. “Instead of leading with the outstretched hand we lead with the clenched fist. And I’m not being Pollyannic — the fist might be the best way to respond — but shouldn’t that hand be unclenched as the very first offering? Isn’t curiosity or empathy a more appropriate initial response?”

It’s a slower response. It doesn’t let us make up our minds immediately about the weekend confrontation on the National Mall — the one where indigenous-rights activists and Hebrew Israelites and March for Life participants came face-to-face; the one very few of us were there for but most of us have an opinion about.

I don’t think Leonard is saying we shouldn’t condemn bigotry or injustice. I don’t think an outstretched hand has to mean a lack of moral certitude.

I think the world feels out of control, and we’re hungry for order and control, even if that means putting people in boxes where they don’t quite fit.

I think Nora’s family — faced with huge, terrifying circumstances that are, largely, out of their control — is offering another way. A way that doesn’t put people in boxes. A way that leaves room for growth and change.

“We aren’t born liberal or conservative,” Leonard wrote. “Just as we aren’t born strong or brave. Our experiences, families, friends, home and era are the driving reason that we lead with an open hand or lead with a clenched fist. They are also the driving reason that we are able to care for ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, that we are able to be cared for.

“Nora is strong and brave,” he continued. “She is strong and brave because she has a community of family and friends who have taught her to hold herself up and when she can’t, we’ll all do it for her. She is strong and brave because she has resources and access to total strangers who are using their expertise to heal her. She was shown and taught that kindness matters.

“We are not fixed, us humans. But it is so much easier to think we are — especially when our experiences keep seeming to confirm the things we think we know,” he wrote. “It’s only when we are forced to become unfixed — through an illness or a natural tragedy or a war — that our point of view is inextricably altered. I think we have to find a way to allow ourselves to become unfixed without all the bad stuff.”


By Heidi Stevens

Chicago Tribune

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at hstevens@tribune.com or on Twitter @heidistevens13.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at hstevens@tribune.com or on Twitter @heidistevens13.

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