As a sophomore in high school, Travis Waters woke with a nagging pain in his leg, a sharp aching sensation that would alter the course of his life. What was thought to be a stress fracture or form of tendonitis, turned out to be a much worse and more aggressive illness. In the winter of 1998, Travis and his family were confronted with a shocking reality: The pain in Travis’ right tibia wasn’t caused by physical exertion but by a rare form of bone cancer called Metastasis Ewing’s Sarcoma. It’s here that Ellie Waters, Travis’ mother and faithful ally, begins her book, which chronicles Travis’ inspirational and heartbreaking story of hope against all odds.
Kibou: The Travis Waters Story of Hope is a compelling true story written by a mother who stands by her son as he battles against a growing “monster” within. Focusing on the courage with which Travis confronts his diagnosis and exhausting treatment plan, Waters tells a powerful story of strength, devotion and loss.
Traveling from Potsdam, a small community in rural New York State, to the Dana Farber Children’s Hospital in Boston, Travis’ treatment begins with an MRI that offers a bleak 30 percent chance of survival at best. “The bombshell had been dropped,” writes Ellie. Realizing the severity of the situation she questions: “How could this be happening to our perfect family?”
With a CT biopsy scheduled to sample bone tissue and a rigorous chemotherapy plan laid out, Travis and Ellie are quickly swept up in a whirlwind of medical tests and procedures. In a particularly memorable scene, the family travels to the Brigham fertility clinic to harvest Travis’ sperm, as chemo will render him sterile. Waters writes: “We sat in the waiting room alongside married couples, seeking help with contraception. Travis was seventeen and preparing for his future. He looked like he was taking everything in stride. How would I have reacted at that age? I barely knew what sex was all about then. Physiological and physical pain was forcing my son to grow up quickly.” This scene is especially gripping as we, the readers, are crossing a threshold with the Waters, realizing the cruelty of the situation in visceral way.
In the process of fighting this aggressive cancer, Travis and his mother travel from the Boston pediatric hospital to the Seattle hospital in Washington, where an experimental treatment called Holmium promises hope for patients suffering from cancer confined to the bone. Though the Holmium minimizes cancer growth and activity throughout Travis’ body, it is not the lasting cure that they had hoped for, as Travis’ cancer breaks the barrier between bone and blood, creeping its way into the tissue in his skull.
Hope is rekindled for Travis with the help of macrobiotics and the professionals at the Kushi Institute, who map out a special dietary plan especially for Travis’ situation. A macrobiotic diet focuses on eating grains and fresh, in-season vegetables while cutting out sugars, highly processed foods and all animal by-products. Eating healthy gives Travis a sense of hope and control over his illness. And, the macrobiotic diet inadvertently brings Travis and his mother to Asheville, where Travis’ uncle can supply the family with fresh produce through his company Mountain Food Products.
Despite the challenges mounting against him, Travis’ strength and courage are placed at the forefront of every scene. Through sleepless nights in the Boston and Seattle ICU and after enduring one painful procedure after another, Travis’ will to live and tremendous love of life carries him forward.
Art is one of many tools which helps Travis reflect on the events that pass, acting as an important outlet to explore his feelings and express himself. Throughout the book, Travis’ unique artwork is replicated in vibrant prints that bring life to the pages. One piece titled “Nuking the Tumor” is especially captivating. The painting depicts an arid earth bombarded by comet-like shapes that explode as they collide with the yellow-surface.
Throughout the book, Waters also focuses on the extraordinary relationships forged between Travis and his community. Neighbors in Potsdam rally to comfort him; nurses and doctors, constantly taken back by Travis’ positive outlook, offer their utmost support throughout his treatment plan. In Asheville, Travis is embraced by the community at Jubilee! Church, where he is offered reiki, acupuncture and aromatherapy sessions by local holistic healers.
Understandably, the most compelling of the relationships developed in the book is the super-glue strong mother-and-son bond that forms between Travis and Waters. For most young adults, the teenage-years mark independence and often times of rebellion against parental guidance. For Travis and his mother, connection only deepens between them as the illness progresses. With Waters’ encouragement, Travis lives by a mantra of savoring each and every moment. The great loves of Travis’ life, his dog Kibou (the Japanese word for hope), his cat Ice, and his blue Volkswagen bug, affectionately named “Water Bug,” keep his spirits high, ever-so determined to hold on to the moment while he can.
Most of Waters’ book is written like a journal, recording the day-by-day events and activities as the family confronts the greatest challenge in their lives. This structure, however, focuses strictly on the chronological order of events; on action over the emotional process involved with confronting these complex emotions. As a reader, I found myself yearning for more information about Travis’ emotional process, for stories of his childhood and details about his life before cancer.
At one point early in the book, Waters tells a story in Travis’ own words about the day he broke into school to retrieve his friend’s forgotten homework. This is the only moment in the book where Waters recreates Travis’ voice, straying from an otherwise exclusively personal perspective. From that moment on, I hungered for more of Travis’ voice and wanted to hear more from Travis directly.
Kibou, as a whole, is a tremendous accomplishment on Waters part, documenting each stage of Travis’ illness and mood while paying careful attention to the details of his evolving condition. More than that, the book offers particular lessons for anyone who has suffered from grief or loss. It is and inspirational story that reminds us why we must cherish every moment of our individual journey: As life is the greatest, most delicate gift of all.
Waters will be at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 1 p.m.