Reporter's journal | Jerry Brewer on covering Gloria Strauss
Seattle Times staff columnist
"So, do you think she's going to die?"
That's the first question, always, after I mention this story to family, friends and colleagues. They ask it in a "Can you handle watching a little girl die?" manner. They ask it in a "Hmm, how can I nibble around to figure out your religious beliefs?" manner.
Let's talk about my faith first. I'm a Christian. I was raised in a Baptist church. But in my adult life, I've seldom gone to church, and I don't believe in forcing my faith in God upon others.
As a reporter, especially a sportswriter, I'm leery of too much God talk. Many athletes I cover thank God for everything from their new contracts to their new mistresses. I had become desensitized to the gospel of sports figures; often I did everything I could to keep those kinds of quotes out of the newspaper.
The Strausses are different, however, because I know they're genuine. I've followed them for nearly four months now. Catholicism is hemmed into their lives. And so, when I tell their stories, I would be negligent and dishonest if I excluded the one thing that defines them most.
At first, I wondered if Gloria's illness was the root of their faith. Most people who suffer claim God and ask for help. After delving deep into their family history, I discovered they didn't find religion five minutes ago.
But I want readers of all beliefs to get something from this series. It's not just for folks who have the Bible resting on their nightstand. This is about believing, period. In life. In the innocence of children. In hope.
Have you ever believed in something — maybe not God, but something — so much that you'd die for it? Gloria's story is not quite so dramatic because she's running out of medical options, but it's close. Consider it like this: Gloria is hanging on the edge of a cliff, and her doctors and parents are trying to pull her up, but now the family has decided to let go, because they trust God will catch her.
Could you believe in something that much? I think most of us would answer no, and that's what strikes me most about this story. We're learning about loyalty as we watch this family.
Kari Mannikko, the woman in today's story who lost a child to neuroblastoma, summed up it up best.
Here's a Mannikko quote from our interview that I didn't include in the story:
"We have to believe. If we don't believe, we're giving in. I'm not saying we're being naive or taking the sunny side or that if you pretend it's not going to happen, it won't happen. You're not going to know until that hour. You have to hope. If we don't have hope, we give up. And if we give up, we're not helping anybody."
So, do I think Gloria is going to die? I hope not. As a reporter, I have to prepare for the possibility of death, but as a human, I'm not going there.
It sounds like I'm answering the question yes and no, huh? Well, that's exactly how I feel. This is not my column. I don't have to take a stand. I can drift between reality and spirituality as long as my reporting is clear and unassuming.
Every day, reporters must pit their belief systems against the stories we cover. It's our responsibility to take the objective view and simply write the truth.
When the questions have been asked and the stories have been written, however, we return to our lives and our beliefs. With the Strausses, when I take off that journalist's mask, I feel like a better person. Observing them teaches me much about love, commitment and joy.
I want them to get their miracle. I don't doubt; I just want them to get their miracle.
So I tell their story without prejudice, open to all possibilities.
It's been a tough, tough past 10 days for the Strausses. Someone broke into their car and stole some items, including a precious video recorder and a library of all the family's home videos.
Furthermore, Gloria is having a tougher time dealing with her cancer and the pain it's causing her.
When I'm around the Strausses, they're generally upbeat, still. But I can sense the strain, no matter how gracious and composed they are, and it's tough to handle. This story is not about me, it's about them, so I don't react too emotionally to their struggles because I feel like, if they can handle it, I should be able to handle it. But it's tough.
I took a step back for a few days and just kept up with the dad by phone (lots and lots of text messaging). I felt like they needed a week with some space. And for the next story, I'm talking to a lot of their friends and family, so I just shifted my focus temporarily. This week, I'm back to trying to spend more time around the family.
There's a delicate balance with this story. As the reporter, I want to blend in as much as possible. I want them to feel comfortable around me, and I think we've made great strides in that regard. They've never had a problem with me being around. My concern, however, is that they might change their routine too much because I'm around. If that happens, then the story loses some of its authenticity. They'd just be showing me what they want me to see. I want to tell the story as it is.
So I spend a lot of time thinking about when to visit with them, what to do while I'm visiting and how often I visit. I've never written a story this intimate for this long, so it's an intriguing challenge.
Back to the family videos: The family has been trying to spread word everywhere about this theft. It just wants the family videos back. In that library of videos, Doug has recorded significant portions of all the kid's lives. They represent a running account of Gloria and her struggle with cancer. They show just about every significant moment for the children.
Those videos were in the car because Kristen was transporting them to have a friend copy them onto DVDs. They stopped at Wild Waves amusement park in Federal Way that day, and when they returned to their van, they discovered they had been robbed.
If anyone knows of the tape's whereabouts, the Strausses are asking that they be returned to St. Vincent de Paul church in Federal Way -- no questions asked.
As for Gloria, she's hanging in there, but this cancer is starting to attack her mentally as much as physically. That's the tough part right now. The parents are really thinking about how to handle every aspect of her life. Her happiness matters most to them.
I'll be updating this journal daily between now and when the next story runs. The next piece is slated for early July.
I believe the upcoming story in this series will be the best one yet, and I don't know how I feel about that.
It's going to be good because of Gloria's inner conflict, and I'm also focusing on the family's need for help and how they have a mountain of support. Thus far, the three stories in this series have alternated between happy and sad and always left you with a good feeling at the end. In this piece, there's still plenty of sunshine, but there are more clouds.
Honestly, I'd rather be writing about Gloria's singing or dancing. It's very difficult to write about an 11-year-old girl's woes, but I knew what I signed up for when I decided to do this story.
The Strauss family has always believed that Gloria's condition would get worse before it gets better. Well, worse is arriving.
The Strausses know the cancer is growing. They know Gloria is worrying too much. They also continue to realize how blessed they are to have such support.
I don't know where to start this story, really. I've been thinking about that for the past two days. I find myself always needing to calm down before I write these pieces. There are so many emotions running wild, and if I let the emotion drive the story, I will overwrite it. I have to calm my emotions, but not too much, and try to write with the right amount of conflict, humor, compassion and insight.
I'm going to give it another try tomorrow. I need to get the story to my editors early next week for editing. It's deadline time, once again.June 30
Gloria has her own song. I keep listening to it as I write Part 4 of this series. It's on my mind so much that I probably should include it in the story.
About a year and a half ago, The Songs of Love Foundation -- a nonprofit organization that specializes in making songs for ill children -- sent Gloria her own song. Her parents told the company a few things about their daughter, and within days, a song was mailed to them.
It kind of shows how much people are willing to help children, which is a huge part of this next story. I keep saying it: Gloria and her family receive so much love from so many people. It's amazing what people, when motivated, are willing to do for others.
The song is a little cheesy, but that's not the point. It's fun, just like Gloria. As I'm writing this piece, I keep coming back to the life inside this girl.
I feel much better about writing this story now. Yesterday, I was really struggling to find the proper words. Now I feel like everything is flowing well.
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