Laurel Lee Walked Through the Fire, a Journey First of Tragedy, Then of Triumph

updated 06/02/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1980 01:00AM

At 30, Laurel Lee, a housewife in Portland, Oreg., lost her home, husband, health and hope. "It was like the 4-H Club of despair," she says. She had Hodgkin's disease (cancer of the lymph nodes), three preschool children and no money. What saved Lee, now 34, was a powerful talent for writing. Through nine months of hospitalization and two major operations, she kept a journal. One doctor thought it was good enough to mail to an editor in New York. In May 1977 Dutton published the book, titled Walking through the Fire—a line from the book of Isaiah in which God promises protection to his children.

Paperback rights sold for $327,000 (of which Lee received half) and the book later became a TV film. In all, the author earned $310,000 from the slender 113-page volume, illustrated with her own whimsical pen-and-ink drawings. Lee had been living on welfare and food stamps in a $100-a-month apartment. Her oldest child, Matthew, then 6, was sleeping on a closet shelf. "I felt," she says now, "that I had come into the morning where there was joy after a long night."

With her cancer under control, Lee enjoyed 16 months of good health and happiness until suffering a relapse in November 1977. "All these wonderful opportunities were opening up," she says, "and I had to cancel everything and go to bed." After 11 months of radiation and chemotherapy, the cancer once again was in remission. Doctors have warned Lee that it could recur at any time—but have also said that if she remains disease-free for 10 years, she is permanently cured. An optimist with wry humor, she has continued writing and recently published a sequel called Signs of Spring (Dutton, $7.95). It covers her divorce, her relapse and a six-month romance with a young doctor who bowed out because he felt he could not handle three young children and a wife with cancer. Now that her life story is up-to-date, Laurel has begun to work on children's books. Her first, Barnaby Frost, about a bumbling old man, was published by Tyndale House Publishers last December. "Writing for children is like getting up and singing a song," she says. "For adults you must do a whole symphony, with music for all the instruments."

This kind of poetic expression comes naturally to Laurel. When she first mingled with publishers and editors in Manhattan, "She was sort of Ozarky," her agent, Harriet Wasserman, reports. "She was so poor. I remember she wore a long floral dress with a pin. She told me, 'When I wear the pin, it's a dress, and when I take the pin off, it's a nightgown.' Then she took the pin off and went to bed." But Lee was not so overwhelmed by the Eastern elite that she passed up opportunities to twit them. After a New Yorker editor told her that "there is no literary tradition in Portland," Lee lunched with the woman and mischievously prefaced the first course with, "Aren't we going to say grace?"

The daughter of an accountant, Laurel was born in Chicago but raised in Fremont, Calif. She met her husband, Richard, while hitchhiking on vacation from Berkeley, where she was studying sociology. They were married four months later, and after working odd jobs and traveling for four years settled in Portland to raise a family. Richard, a would-be inventor, got a job as a school bus driver, and Lee became adept at surviving on a grocery budget of $15 a week.

Hodgkin's was diagnosed when she was six months pregnant with her third child. Two doctors advised her to abort, arguing that the radiation treatment she needed might damage the baby. Instead, she delayed the therapy as long as possible, finally agreeing to a massive dose of radiation in her seventh month. Fortunately, the child, named Mary Elisabeth, was born healthy. Five months later Richard walked out, and after the divorce married their former babysitter. "I was so busy fighting my own battle," Lee says, "that I didn't realize he was cracking. Our problems were like a flood. You had to find your own footing, your own stones." Richard is still in Portland and occasionally sees the children. "I knew," Laurel says, "that the only way I could ever get over my anger was to forgive him." Her parents and the members of her nondenominational church have become "like real brothers and sisters," she says, accompanying her to doctors' appointments and watching the children.

Laurel has bought two homes in Portland with her earnings, one of which she rents to another divorced mother. She has set up trust funds for the children, now aged 4 to 10. As for her future, Lee sees "an element of mystery and surprise. I think just believing in God helps," she says. "I feel there is a Heaven at the end of it all."

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