A tear rolled down Veronica Marion-Rawlins's cheek when she discovered there weren't ample resources that could help her explain her breast cancer diagnosis to her then four-year-old son. The single mom and her son, James "Trey" Rawlins III, searched everywhere – from local booksellers to online retailers – for reading materials that could help them better understand the journey they were about to embark on together. When they ended up with nothing,Trey decided to write a book himself.
Five years later, Trey, now age nine and a fourth-grader at Edgewood Magnet School in New Haven, Conn., is a published author, with help from a $1,000 donation from Howard University Hospital, in Washington, D.C., and his mom's credit cards. "When Mommy Came Home" is targeted toward children ages four to seven. By word-of-mouth the book, available for $10 through his mother, became so popular among local schools, clinics and hospitals that it is now sold out. The mother-son team hopes that with donations, they will be able to order more books that can be distributed to the people and places that may need them most.
In his book Trey writes how his mom "would see Nurse Karen for her treatments … she'd sit in a big comfy chair … eat treats and snacks and sometimes do her nails." Although he wasn't able to accompany his mom around the hospital, "I waited until she came home" and the two would nap on the couch. Trey recounts helping his mom by doing "little jobs" like dusting or emptying out the trash. The book contains over 20 illustrations from Jean Marie Sanchez of Hamden, a children's book writer and illustrator.
Having only ordered 100 initial copies, Marion-Rawlins said she did not expect the book to garner all the attention it has. Hospitals and clinics as far as Augusta, Ga., are now requesting copies. Although she admitted to "maxing out my credit card" to finance the book, Marion-Rawlins hopes that the book will get picked up by more publishing outlets.
"We're not looking to make a profit," Marion-Rawlins, currently an education consultant for the State Education Resource Center in Connecticut, said. "We want to donate them to hospitals, so when other moms are diagnosed, now they'll have a tool that I didn't have. So if they have a young child, they'll know what to expect."
Marion-Rawlins, whose son was in school when ABC News spoke with her, said both she and her son have had an amazing journey. Neither expected the outcome "to be so big."
Although she is now happy to report, "I'm doing great," Marion-Rawlins was diagnosed back in 2007. The former first-grade teacher said the first thing she asked the hospital social workers for was a children's book.
"She came back with really technical medical pamphlets and I thought to myself, 'No, this isn't going to do it,'" Marion-Rawlins said. "I figured that if I could just show him in a book with pictures what Mommy was going to go through and that we're going to be O.K., then it would be O.K."
In "When Mommy Came Home," the "adventures" between mother and son during the treatment help drive the book forward and show readers that the little moments are what helped them get through the ordeal.
"He had always wanted to wear a [beanie] that he saw his older cousins wearing, so when I lost my hair, we wore matching ones," she said.
When her taste buds changed, Marion-Rawlins recommended her son "eat everything Mommy can't eat anymore," and after her treatment, when her body ached so much she couldn't walk to her bedroom upstairs, she and Trey pretended to be in the wilderness and "camped out" in their living room.
But Marion-Rawlins said although the book is a team effort, her son really takes the spotlight for his proactive attitude that was initially triggered when more and more families began to share their stories, asking Trey to talk to other children about his experience. When the mother of Trey's friends across the street was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Trey was more than willing to talk to them about what he was going through.
Karen Underwood, aka Nurse Karen, told ABC News that she was "speechless" when she learned she was a character in the book. Underwood's role was to administer Marion-Rawlins' chemotherapy and "assess and take care of her."
"I think this will definitely have a positive impact on children," said Underwood, a registered nurse at Yale New Haven. "That population goes through a lot of stuff and many parents wonder what's going to happen to their children."
Trey's main focus during this time was "being brave," and Marion-Rawlins said she is "blown away" by her son's care and compassion. The young author has been asked to speak to other children and parents in the community and Marion-Rawlins said instead of getting nervous like most other kids his age, he doesn't shy away because he "knows it's going to help other moms and children."
Jennifer Quirk, library media specialist at Trey's school, said although they do have children's literature on breast cancer and other diseases, many of the material is non-fiction and "doesn't talk about real people going through the experience." Quirk said this will be the first book in the school's library that chronicles a personal experience.
"It's always a taboo subject, so having literature like this will help to make it something that parents can talk about with their kids," Quirk said.
Andrea Seigerman, LCSW, of the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New-Haven, said there is still a great need for materials for "children of all ethnic groups and of all educational levels." Seigerman worked closely with Marion-Rawlins as her social worker during her treatment at Yale.
"There is a real need for easily understandable, easily communicated information from parents - both mothers and fathers going through cancer treatment – to children," Seigerman, who was with Marion-Rawlins since day one, said. "It touches on a universal need – the idea that a little boy or girl can look at a book and feel that they're not the only one who's going through this."
"Parents want to protect and inform them, but many aren't sure how to do that," Seigerman said. "So the most important outcome of this book is that it will help other parents feel comfortable opening up about this topic with their children."
But the mother-and-son duo's journey doesn't end here. Marion-Rawlins, who has a niece who wears a cochlear implant because of a hearing impairment, said they are currently discussing the possibilities of writing a second book about her to "provide awareness regarding that community."
"[Trey] knows what it feels like to be different," Marion-Rawlins said. "I think it's so important to share with children what's going on at a level they can understand."
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