By Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers
When Katy Tessman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, there were no good resources to explain it to her young children, Louis and Maxwell.
So she decided to write one.
The Minnetonka resident self-published her children’s book, “Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden,” in 2013.
“When I was looking for a book I could read to my children, I was going through my journals and realized I had already written the book I was looking for,” Tessman said.
The whirlwind journey after the diagnosis was already recorded in Tessman’s journals, from surgery on her 40th birthday to being bald from chemotherapy on Mother’s Day, a total of about 18 harrowing months. Processing those thoughts and feelings into a narrative was an important healing process, she said.
Told through the eyes of her children, the book chronicles Tessman’s diagnosis and treatment through imagery, with cancer as a “bad weed” infecting the garden of an otherwise healthy body.
“It addresses all those big words like chemotherapy in a way that young children can understand, and it gives families a chance to have hope and understanding in a difficult time,” she said.
Tessman added that the book is designed to be highly interactive, with opportunities for questions, prompts and even role-play throughout to help families and children express their feelings about a challenging issue.
“I love the idea of sitting on the couch with your child and learning what they’re thinking about. Having a book in hand really helps a child open up about what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling,” Tessman said.
The book is true to Tessman’s background in speech communications, with a previous stint as a performing singer and songwriter as well as a proponent of early childhood music enrichment.
She currently works at the Armstrong High School media center.
“Literacy has always been a big deal for me,” she said.
The whimsical, evocative illustrations in the book are provided by Jessica Bailey, a recent graduate of art school whose own family had been impacted by breast cancer.
“She provided the illustrations as a tribute to all the people that have been impacted by this. The images really mirror what us as a family and what we were going through,” Tessman said.
Tessman’s storytelling was a way to anchor her family through a comforting tradition of bedtime reading, while helping them process troubling circumstances, such as losing her hair in treatment, or being too fragile for more than the lightest of hugs.
“I always sing to my kids and read to my kids, so after the treatment, when they were scared and sad, I said ‘It’s OK — even though I look different, close your eyes, I still sound the same,’” she said.
Tessman added she hopes to write another book, aimed at addressing the grief and healing process for all ages, but the project remains in the early stages.
For now, Tessman’s efforts have been focused on getting the book into people’s hand, where it can do the most good.
So far, more than 750 copies have been sold, with another 300 copies purchased for donation to Hope Chest, an Orono-based foundation that provides emergency grants and other support to help cancer patients withstand the financial burden of fighting the disease. Tessman said she chose self-publishing in part to keep the book in Minnesota, to benefit families like hers close to home. The intention was always to help provide the resource for other families she had sought for her own, she said. For her work, Tessman has been named a Changemaker by the Minnesota Women’s Press and her book has been in 110 cancer centers across the state.
The saga has come full circle, however, since Tessman’s youngest son, now in fifth grade, has chosen to pay it forward by donating to charity for the next generation of breast cancer survivors. Maxwell, a student at Gatewood Elementary in Hopkins, was part of the school’s pay-it-forward project: Gatewood alumnus Marisa Bingham provided $50 each to 76 fifth-graders, to be donated to a charity of each student’s choice.
Given the chance to contribute to a cause, Maxwell thought back to his own early experiences.
“When Mom had cancer, it was confusing because I didn’t understand what was going on and everyone was so sad and scared,” he said. “When I found out I could donate to any charity I wanted. I heard my teacher talking about Hope Chest and I knew that’s where I wanted it to go. We were there a lot and I know they helped my mom a lot.”
Tessman said the donation was a reflection of her son’s generous personality, and a beautiful epilogue to the family’s journey.
“I was so touched that he picked a breast cancer charity. Even though that was more than, it’s still there and still has an impact on him,” Tessman said. “This way, he’s choosing to take that experience and pay it forward to help others. I’ve very proud of him.”
Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]