On Saturday, February 10th, 2001, Leyla Harrison found out that the truth really is out there. It's a discovery that nobody wants to make. She was brave, terrified, and 28 years old.
I've known Leyla for five years, since her entry into the XF fanfic community. She was the first person I thought of when we started Working Stiffs, and she graced us with her first (and only) interview. So much of our conversations never made it into the published interview, but will resonate in my heart forever. When we launched the site, Leyla was so tickled she e-mailed everyone she knew. To date, her interview has received the most hits of any feature of Working Stiffs.
When she first became ill a few years ago, fanfic and The X-Files became very important to her. As she said in her interview:
I went through my cancer around the same time as Scully did -- and it was a very powerful experience for me. For me, the fanfic I wrote at the time was my way of dealing with my feelings about my illness -- and they were varied in their type and intensity. Dealing with something as frightening as cancer, especially at a young age (I was 24 when I was diagnosed) ran me through a huge range of emotions, and I admit I "used" Scully a lot to help me deal with them, one at a time. That was a lot of what Darkness and Light was about, at least when I started writing it. The first two stories were my way of dealing with my fears of hospitals and of pain, and the issue of shutting people out and letting them in, last two stories were my way of dealing with my own fears of death.
I went to the NYC eXpo with four good friends to see Gillian Anderson. As we came in, we got the raffle tickets for autographs with Gillian at the end of the day and none of us had any. At one point, one of my friends offered $200 and got 5 tickets, so at the end of the day we all lined up to see Gillian.
I hand her my picture and she goes to sign it. It was kind of a "hurry it along, she's got a lot of people to sign pictures for" kind of thing. So I open my mouth and I say, "I just wanted to tell you that I had cancer when Scully did." The guard was like, "OK, move along," to me and Gillian said, "no, wait," and motioned for me to go on. I told her (and I paraphrase at this point because it all is a little blurry <g>) how much I appreciated her playing Scully as a strong woman with cancer, and that her portrayal helped me write and find my own strength too. She asked me if I was all right now, and I told her, yes, I'm in remission. I said, "Thank you so much," and then (to my utter humiliation) I started to cry, and she looked very affected (according to one of my friends who was standing right next to me) and then I walked off the platform.
I had been waiting a long time to be able to tell her that, and I still can't believe I had the chance -- but after that day, I felt like I had my closure for the cancer, even though I was healthy at that point. It was an amazing moment.
In November 2000, she told me she was sick again. I talked to her on the phone, and I told her that I was willing to come out and help her--whenever and whatever she needed. She inspired that kind of generosity, loyalty, and love wherever she went. Her honesty awed me, and her courage humbled me.
In one of her e-mails to me before Christmas, she wrote:
I don't feel like myself to be honest; I'm just really tired all the time and I live life from hour to hour. I used to say "today is a good day" or "today is a bad day" but now I just say, "today I had a good morning but the afternoon sucked." However it goes is how it goes. I spend a lot of energy (emotionally) being strong and trying to remember how important that is in the middle of all of this because they are not sure yet whether any of these treatments will work for me since the disease is so far advanced.
Leyla had bad days, and she had good days. In the beginning, she was shocked that the cancer had returned--she really thought she'd conquered it. Even in December, she told me that she wasn't ready to die, and she would fight it as long as she could. Anyone who knew Leyla wouldn't be surprised.
Over the last few months, she was completely overwhelmed by the support and kindness of the fanfic community. Bags and bags of cards, gifts, and flowers arrived on her doorstep. The first time she told me about them, she choked up. "I can't believe how incredible people are," she said. "Some of these people I've never even talked to on e-mail!"
As one of her longtime fans e-mailed me, "She has a huge following on the Internet... most of us never bothered to tell her enough how very talented she is."
When it was becoming clear that she was becoming a little too overwhelmed by all this love, she e-mailed me the following:
I thought about this today and I just realized what I would love. If people want to send donations in my name, I would really love knowing that the hospital and research facility that is treating me would get some support. I can't begin to tell you the humanity and kindness every single person there has shown me (doctors, nurses, techs, clerical staff, *everyone*). They have been amazing. They also do more research for melanoma and more clinical trials than any other medical center at the moment. So -- here's their address, phone, e-mail, etc, and please feel free to pass this on.
The Friends of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center
One Medical Center Drive
Lebanon, NH 03756 USA
During my last conversation with her on a lazy Sunday afternoon, she was watching the snow fall outside, and laughing at the dogs. She lay on the couch, and we talked about the snowglobes she wanted to make, her crafts that had taken over half the house, X-Files, getting a new couch, Christmas with her family, true love, and all the things she still hoped to do.
One of the things she was really looking forward to was getting more involved with Gilda's Club:
Gilda's Club is a worldwide support community for people with cancer and their families started by Gilda Radner's husband Gene Wilder and Gilda's therapist after Gilda died of cancer. The experience was amazing. They have support groups for patients and family members (which we are starting to go to this week) and all kinds of activities for us to participate in if we want to. I'm already ready to go to some of the activities this week as long as I'm up to it -- some craft stuff and candle making. It's the kind of thing I love to do but I would never do alone, and this way I can meet other people who have cancer and get to do something during the day. Plus they have lectures on how to eat better when you have no appetite (sounds perfect for me), classes for yoga and tai chi, meditation and relaxation -- it's really wonderful. They are set up in a huge three-story brownstone that's filled with lots of rooms filled with overstuffed couches, a huge kitchen, and so much more. I can completely see myself going down there for the day with a book and a pillow and just getting some quiet time, away from the house, away from the phone and doorbell, having a little lunch there, maybe taking a nap, just getting a different set of four walls to look at every once in a while.
Leyla told me that she wanted to sit down that week and write a thank you message to everyone, for Working Stiffs. She never got the opportunity to write it, but she wanted to thank everyone "from the bottom of [her] heart" for their thoughts and prayers. She valued every minute of her time with the people she loved, and continued to be amazed by the encouraging messages from the fanfic community.
Thanks to the Internet, Leyla's words will continue to inspire and move people all over the world, as it always has. There will be a permanent home for her web site and her fanfic, and I think, more importantly, there will always be a permanent home in my heart for my memories of her humor, strength and compassion. As Mulder said to Margaret Scully in One Breath, "It's too soon." I couldn't agree more.
In loving memory,
Nicola Simpson and the staff of Working Stiffs
Do you have a memory of Leyla or her writing that you'd like to share? Please check out Lauding Leyla, a guestbook devoted to the appreciation of Leyla Harrison. All comments will be forwarded to her family.