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Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

The trumpets sound a fanfare, and I walk with 1,300 invited guests into the courtyard of the City Hall of Stockholm, which has been transformed into a dining room. Students wearing sailor hats and blue-yellow sashes lead us to festive tables that stretch from wall to wall. The men look chic in their white ties, patent leather shoes, and honor medals. The ladies flourish their evening dresses and sparkling jewels. The walls are decorated with carnations, specially flown in from Italy, the corridors are lined with crystals, and the ceiling has been transformed into a shimmering replica of the Northern Lights.

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Novelist Pia de Jong talks about her new book Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition. She tells the story of her daughter, Charlotte, who was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of leukemia, often treated with chemotherapy. Pia and her husband decide instead to take Charlotte home and care for her there.

This segment is guest hosted by Mary Harris.

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The Dutch Chamber Choir

I had forgotten how cold New York can be. The bitter wind cuts into my face and slices through my thin coat and sweater. A father tugs a woolen hat with a fur pom pom tightly over the ears of a baby snuggled in the sling against his chest. A teenage girl in a leotard hops from one leg to another while waiting for the traffic light to change.

I am on my way to the atrium of the New York Ethical Culture Society to hear Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival performance of 150 Psalms. It is a week of choral concerts of only psalms. Tonight the Dutch Chamber Choir will perform 12 lamentations.

Inside, the room is as warm and toasty as a church. Pews are in a semicircle, and above our heads floats a chandelier that throws shadows along the walls. As I sit down, I nod to the older man next to me. He does not seem to notice me. Strikingly, many people sit alone, apart from one another. This is a completely different atmosphere from the opera, just a few doors away in Lincoln Center, where people come to be seen as well as to watch.

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-Drivers License Eliane
Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

Our daughter celebrated her seventeen birthday this year by getting her driving license. This was not left to chance. She made the appointment for her test months in advance, at 8 a.m. sharp. The exam itself was an afterthought — a five-minute spin in a parking lot, parallel parking, turn into the highway, and finish. Soon she was home, holding her glittering license, a free ticket to a life of freedom.

“I’m going out for a little bit,” she promptly announced. She stepped into the car, pulled down her mirrored sunglasses, opened the windows, tuned up the radio, and disappeared into the wide, wide world.

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Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

The year is 1990. The time is 4 a.m. The place: Princeton. I am jolted awake by ambulances with sirens screaming, police cars, a trauma helicopter chop-chopping overhead. I live near the train station. I peer through the window at a cluster of flashing lights converging in the snowy night.

Not until the next day did I find out what had happened. A group of college sophomores, after partying all night, decided to fool around. They climbed on top of the little train, the Dinky, which shuttles people into Princeton from main line, about five minutes from campus. The student who was first to get on top of the train was wearing a metal watch on his left wrist. Eleven thousand volts of electric current surged through the watch into his body. Eleven thousand volts! That number I never forgot. Now he was dying.

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When your daughter was just two weeks old, she was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. You rejected all suggestions of any treatment, of which the most common was chemotherapy, and instead made the decision to wait and see. Was this approach consistent with your personality up until that point or did you surprise yourself?

I did surprise myself, especially because I was so certain about what to do. There was no doubt in my mind, no negotiating, no second thoughts. I just knew I had to have her home with me. I had learned to trust my intuition when I became a mother, though. Like all new mothers, I was bombarded with rules: when to wean your child, where and how to sleep, when to introduce food, etc. I had decided to follow my instincts regarding my kids. But then I often discussed those decisions and doubts with friends. This was different.

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Saving Charlotte, by Pia de Jong, translated from the Dutch by Pia de Jong and Landon Y. Jones (Norton). This compelling memoir by a Dutch novelist begins in 2000, when her daughter is born with congenital myeloid leukemia, a rare disease with a low rate of survival. De Jong and her husband decide against chemotherapy, which is likely to be both devastating and ineffective. “Parents always want to do everything for their children,” an incredulous oncologist protests. “We do nothing,” de Jong responds. “That can be a lot.” De Jong movingly describes the work of nursing her daughter to health, and sketches the Amsterdam neighborhood—the brothel next door, the local crank, the kind old man who lives across the canal—that seems to cocoon the struggling family.

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Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition
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