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happy faces only: a commentary

Haley Klak

happy faces only is a new book from author Karen Klak. I’ll show all my cards: Karen is my friend. I first met her at the Stollery Children’s Hospital over ten years ago when I interviewed her to be on our new Family Centred Care Council. You can purchase her book through links here and find out more on Karen's website.

Because of this personal connection, this is a commentary of her book and not a review. As recent first-time author, I know that it is the people who love us are the first readers of our books. Accordingly, I read an early version of Karen’s book over a year ago and had the pleasure of recently re-reading the final published version.

happy faces only is the story about the life of Karen’s daughter Haley. It isn’t a spoiler to say that Haley died of complications from a brain tumour when she was almost 12 years old at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.

Before Haley died, she lived. She was deeply loved by many – not just her family, but people working at the hospital, fellow patients and strangers who became new friends.

happy faces only gently pulls the curtain on a taboo subject. While the death of a child may be any parent’s worst nightmare, Haley Klak reminds us that living a full life doesn’t hinge on the amount of years spent on this Earth.

Her mom Karen has always struck me as the epitome of grace, and this grace is illuminated brightly in this book. I’ll lean on another author, Anne Lamott, to define grace.

happy faces only is the title of a poster that Haley hung on her hospital door near the end of her life. The book is a detailed account of Haley’s life in and out of the hospital, embedded with Karen’s journal accounts. It is carefully written in a calm and thoughtful voice – in fact, I can almost hear Karen’s steady voice narrating her words as I read the book.

The book is both a thank you note and a love letter. It is a thank you note to all the health professionals that were in Haley’s life, including those who rarely get the spotlight, like Child Life Specialists, Radiation Therapists, Hospital School Educators and Emergency Medical Technicians.

It is a love letter to Haley Klak, who lived with a brain tumour and all that goes along with it for most of her life. I was rooting for Haley through the chapters and it was an honour to get to know her through her mother's stories.

The love letter is for Karen’s other three children too. Karen does not minimize the impact on them of having a sick sister. At one point, Haley’s older brother says, “It’s like having divorced parents,” when his sister was in the hospital, as Karen and her husband took turns staying at the hospital with their sick girl.

The love letter continues for her husband Greg and her extended loved ones who were there for the Klak family - babysitting and offering emotional support. Karen fondly references her hometown, Edmonton, a prairie city in Canada that boasts a love of hockey and brutal winters. Edmonton is more than a setting here; it acts like a character in the book.

While there is no way to sugar coat the death of a child, happy faces only is an overwhelmingly positive book. The chapters are studded with little stories of family-centred care (like offering two gowns for diagnostic imaging procedures, or making the time to knock and wait before entering a patient’s room), which is helpful content for health faculty students or new staff at orientation.

Most of Haley’s hospital encounters are gentle and sensitive, and the occasional rare negative experience is treated as a teaching moment (the rushed resident, the thoughtless ER physician). Karen is careful to mention own privilege as a mom in the hospital and does not forget other families: people who live far away from their hospitalized children, those who don’t speak English as their first language and single parents.

happy faces only is for those of us who might say, ‘I can’t imagine’ when we hear of a child’s death. Karen’s story helps us imagine, as her gift for details brings us right into the hospital room with Haley as she endures numerous pokes, procedures and surgeries. Karen challenges us to understand what it feels like to have a child critically ill in the hospital, even if our first instinct is to turn away.

Karen’s writing is precise and linear. I cheered along, hoping hard that Haley’s tumour would shrink, while knowing in the back of my mind that it would not. Her attention to the specific attributes of daily life is astounding: the clomping of the firemen’s heavy boots when they arrive as first responders to a 911 call, the discomfort of sleeping on the reclining hospital chairs, the details of every ride taken at Disneyland. (I’m in awe of Karen’s talent in this way, as I struggle to remember what I had for lunch yesterday).

Karen takes us through her evolution as a medical mom – starting with getting used to foreign hospital routines, to supporting other parents on the oncology unit, to participating in fundraisers to raise money for the hospital.

Death is slowly introduced halfway through the book as if to soften the shock of Haley leaving us. Many of Haley’s roommates on the pediatric oncology ward die before her, reminding us of the sacred work that’s done in children’s hospitals. Karen touches on her own faith and spirituality and there’s an especially tender chapter when she talks about heaven with Haley.

The hot air balloon illustration on the cover is explained near the end of the book. When Haley’s care became palliative, she had many extraordinary life experiences gifted to her: a football game, NHL hockey player visits and yes, a hot air balloon ride.

It still feels like a surprise when Haley’s beloved pediatrician tells Karen that Haley is going to die. There’s no way to hold back your tears at Haley’s response to finding out that her treatment is no longer working.

“You mean I’ll never get to have babies?” she asks. Grab the tissues, but as Karen reminds us, tears are cleansing too.

happy faces only gently pulls the curtain on a taboo subject. While the death of a child may be any parent’s worst nightmare, Haley Klak reminds us that living a full life doesn’t hinge on the amount of years spent on this Earth.

Haley was a little girl who first lived large before she died. happy faces only is a tender book. From the beginning to the end, it is a mother’s beautiful testimonial to her beloved child, a gentle call to readers to imagine the unimaginable.

I promise that you will remember Haley Klak the next time you look up at and see a hot air balloon floating past in the blue sky. Thank you, Karen, for sharing Haley with us.

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