It’s a love story for the ages — set in the digital era.
Boy meets girl. A few years later, despite not recognizing boy, girl accepts boy’s Facebook friend request. Girl falls hard for boy. Boy is diagnosed with brain cancer. Boy and girl get married. Girl begins sharing their story on the Internet. Boy and girl have a child. Later, girl has a miscarriage. A week later, girl’s father dies. Six weeks later, boy dies.
This is the abbreviated version of the tragic, touching, and triumphant tale at the heart of Nora McInerny Purmort’s memoir, It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), and blog, My Husband’s Tumor.
When she’s not sharing her refreshingly honest accounts of living, loving, and grieving in the Internet age or working on her podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Purmort finds great joy in spending time with her precocious son, Ralphie, and running the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Still Kickin, created “to help people when their hard thing comes” — something Purmort understands better than most.
Q&A With Nora McInerny Purmort
Experience Life | Why did you blog about your late husband, Aaron, and his brain-cancer diagnosis?
Nora McInerny Purmort | I used to say it was because it was a convenient way to communicate with our friends and families, so I wouldn’t have to write a hundred emails and worry about who I left off. I always left off my older brother.
I also knew this was a life-changing thing, and for the first time I wanted to keep my eyes open for it. We tend to remember our good times and close our eyes to the rest. We just get through it.
Looking back, I did it to give Aaron control over the story. I didn’t want him reduced to a sick person. I wanted him to keep his humanity.
Some people retreated from us, so I wanted to force the world to see us — and as more than a cancer story. Although the title is My Husband’s Tumor, and we talked about Aaron having cancer, it wasn’t like the forums I found online, which discussed how many milligrams of a drug someone was on or their chemo schedule.
That stuff was of no interest to us. Whatever way you feel in control of your life, good for you. For some, that’s getting an MD through the Internet and learning as much as they can about what’s happening inside the person they love. That wasn’t for me. What was helpful for us was to give Aaron’s illness no more space than it absolutely required — like physically in our schedule — and just let us be people.
I made the blog I wanted to find when I Googled “glioblastoma.” Now people find it by searching for “my husband has a brain tumor.”
EL | Why do you think people sometimes struggle to be there for others going through hard times?
NMP | We’re uncomfortable and afraid we’ll make the situation worse. Will it make the other person sad? Will it remind them? Like there’s not a universe where I’ve forgotten Aaron is dead.
We use fear as a reason not to do anything, which has damaging effects on people that we don’t realize. We think, I’m not important to this situation, so I just won’t involve myself.
It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is, but I think it’s just to do something — like laughing — and to do it without expectation and ego.
EL | What lessons have you learned from your loss and grief?
NMP | That I’m not special. Loss and pain feel personal, and they are, but they’re also universal. That’s why my podcast investigates the central question we ask and answer every single day: “How are you?” We reflexively answer, “I’m fine,” because it’s polite conversation. I want people to see the benefits of having honest conversations about all the uncomfortable things that happen in a lifetime.
EL | Humor is a central part of your book. Tell us about the title and how humor supports you.
NMP | When people ask me about it, I say it’s about my dad and husband dying after I had a miscarriage. That makes things awkward, so I explain it’s about love and grief and that it’s a funny book, and they’re like either, “Oh, that makes sense” or “How could it be funny?”
I had this picture of what grief was — a giant pool of sadness you sink into. Some days it is, but it doesn’t stop you from being human. The world keeps spinning. It just does, unfortunately. Rude. You have to keep going. Humor is a natural part of our world.
I was married to a funny person and raised by a funny person. They made me laugh even in the last moments of their conscious lives. Aaron told me before he slipped into unconsciousness that he’d be with me forever, and for that reason I should stop picking my nose. I’m still working on that.
EL | How did Still Kickin get started?
NMP | When Aaron had his first seizure, he was wearing his favorite old kelly-green thrift-store shirt with faded white letters that said “Still Kickin.” We thought that was so funny, like, “Ha-ha, you just had a seizure!” We didn’t think it was serious.
But it became his theme for everything we were going through, so he wore it a lot.
He thought we should trace the shirt, sell them, and give the proceeds to cancer research. For his one-year “tumorversary,” I set up a website, but this was like 2011, 2012, and we would have had to have inventory and fill orders ourselves. We didn’t have the time or space to do that, but I wanted Aaron to have a win before he died that wasn’t about him being sick.
So in 2014 we put the shirt on Cotton Bureau, a curated, crowd-funded retailer of custom tees, and hoped we’d meet their 24-shirt minimum. We ended up selling about 400 the first time, 1,000 a few weeks later, and 3,500 the next time.
After my book was cooked, I talked to my friend Lindsay about how this could work. Based on the experiences I’ve had with Aaron, nobody wants to be a pity story. The things that truly help us are being seen and having money.
A man I knew through Twitter was going through what Aaron was. I asked Lindsay if this made sense: We’ll tell Scott’s story, sell the shirt for a month, have a donation-based workout at a gym, and give the profits to his family. That night we made a Squarespace site and an LLC.
It’s grown from there, and it’s not just about brain cancer anymore. We’ve helped rape survivors and people with ALS, Parkinson’s, and MS.
It works because “still kickin” are two words anybody can see themselves in. You show up and do something small — a workout you were probably going to do anyway, meet some friends, buy a shirt. I love that people are physically involved in a way that makes small acts of kindness that seem inconsequential feel like something big. Because they are big to the person who’s going through it.
Photography by Kwaku Alston