I had survived a rare and aggressive form of cancer, but on the 'Gilmore Girls' set, I felt like a normal girl again.
During my first year in the drama program at a performing arts high school in suburban Toronto, I was cast as one of three girls playing Alcestis. Our teacher, the director, had chosen to have the actors who played the title role also play the part of Death.
"When I awake in the body of Alcestis," I would say as Death, "she dies," and then I'd pull back the hood of my black cloak and stand up as the self-sacrificing Queen in Euripedes's 2,500-year-old play.
In the last weeks of rehearsal, I became pale and tired and too thin. Just before the show, I woke up with burst blood vessels in my eyes, which, within hours, had drained to become deep bruises. I looked like I'd been punched.
Like many warnings, all these signs were explained away. The symptoms temporarily got better; unknowingly, I got worse. I performed in every show, but shortly after the last one I finally had blood tests done and, within days, was admitted to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. After countless tests and scans and examinations, I was diagnosed with Acute Myleogenous Leukemia mixed with something called "Natural Killer," a type of white blood cell that attacks naturally occurring cancerous cells in the body. At that time, I was told that six people in the world had had NK-cell leukemia, and that none of them had survived. My particular combination had never been seen before.
During the meeting where my treatment protocol was outlined, I was told that I would not likely leave the hospital for at least six months. I thought, OK, six months, fine. After that, I'll be fine. I convinced myself that my only problem was time.
Though I never allowed myself to fear death, that line ran through my head: "When I awake in the body of Alcestis, she dies." I was the girl, and I was death; both elements were within me.
I didn't find out until after I already loved Gilmore Girls that the pilot was shot in same town as my high school. One of my nurses, Gurjit, loved the show too, and she'd try to schedule her shifts so that she could watch snippets of it with me. If I had a blood transfusion or a sac of chemo to hang on my IV, she could stay a little longer. One Thursday evening, when I had a nosebleed so intense I couldn't tilt my head upwards at the risk of choking on blood, my main frustration was being unable to look up to see the television, which hung from the hospital ceiling.
The only other teenage girl on the ward with me at that time, Jessica, had just returned from a trip to Greece, which she told me had been her "wish." This was the first time I heard about Make-a-Wish, an international charity that grants children living with life-threatening illnesses the chance to do just that: make a wish. Any kind of wish implies hope, but for sick children, the hopefulness of a wish is especially powerful, since it gives them something tangible to look forward to. More importantly, a wish projects a life beyond sickness, which isn't easy when you're in the middle of it all, and often isn't even possible, depending on the diagnosis.
The appeal of Gilmore Girls was its normality: a girl my age going to school, having friends, eating food, being not-sick.
My parents kept an extremely detailed notebook in which they documented the drugs I was given, side effects cautioned and experienced, vital signs, weight, every scan I had, blood test results, and all the rest. In one of the books, I found this reference: Wednesday, August 21, 2002, 5:10 PM. Jodie came to talk to Harriet about WISHES.
Though it's not noted in the books, I remember knowing right away that I wanted to choose a wish strategically—something I couldn't do or obtain on my own, with money alone, and that would give me an experience as well as a trip. My first idea was to go to the Oscars, but that wasn't possible for various logistical reasons. It didn't take long until I decided: My wish was to meet the Gilmore Girls.
At first, the aspirational elements of the show were all about wit, smarts, sass, feminism, culture, and community. As my world changed, the aspiration became, more simply, normality: a girl my age going to school, having friends, eating food, being not-sick.
My wish was granted 14 months after that first meeting with Jodie. I only realized later that it must have taken so long because they weren't sure that I'd survive. I had to wait until after my treatment was finished, my permanent IV removed, and I was feeling well enough to travel. By October 2003, more than a year after I was first admitted to the hospital, I was in remission; my hair had started to grow back, and I had begun 11th grade.
My parents and I were flown out to LA (as a surprise, the airline upgraded me to first class) and the three of us were put up in a fancy hotel for a week. I had my own room, where no nurses would come to check my temperature or adjust my medications in the night—something I hadn't had in over a year.
On the day I was set to go to the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, there was a stretch limo waiting for us outside the hotel, the script for the day on the back seat. The episode was called "Die Jerk," and the first line was Richard telling Lorelai that she should eat more broccoli: "Staves off the cancer," he says. This was back in 2003, remember: Richard and Emily get wireless internet installed ("Emily, I'm going to google you!" Richard says, walking around the living room holding a laptop) and at one point, Rory says: "It's Avril Lavigne's world, and we're just living in it."
The limo glided through security and pulled up in one of the big lots. My parents and I were taken inside, and I was swept away to hair and make-up, given a blazer to put over my t-shirt, and placed on set in the Yale Daily News offices. I wasn't just meeting the Gilmore Girls; I was going to be in the Gilmore Girls.
The scene they were filming that day was on the Yale Campus, with Rory and Doyle, the newspaper editor, where Rory finds out that perhaps she doesn't quite have the chops for the whole writing thing. Now that I'm a writer myself, I can attest that this is a constant, humming fear, whether or not you have an editor as hard-lined as Doyle.
"Is this some kind of hazing?" Rory asks as Doyle takes his red pen to her page. "The only parts you haven't cut are the ones you haven't read yet."
As the character of "newspaper office worker," I was instructed to look through photo slides and sign for a delivery. The director addressed me by name and made sure I was in the center of the frame. In between takes, the guy who delivered the package I had to sign for said to me, half jealous, half flirting, "You're clearly the favorite—I bet you're going places."
The best thing was that this guy didn't know that I was a wish-kid. I wasn't just normal, something I hadn't been in nearly two years; I was the most special person in the room.
Scott Patterson, the actor who played Luke, came in that day. He wasn't shooting; he showed up just to give me a tour of the outdoor set in his BMW. He took me into Doose's Market, Luke's Diner, and Lorelai and Rory's house, carefully coordinating photo opportunities all the while. "Let's pretend you work in the diner," he said, "and you can be serving me coffee!" We talked about sports and summer and other completely normal things. Again, my illness—the thing that had defined my life for so long—was never mentioned.
Because I was clearly having the time of my life, I was invited back to the set the following day. I was given a tour of the indoor studio by one of the costume directors, who crocheted as she walked, and introduced me to everyone: Alexis Bledel and I talked about school and books; Edward Hermann and I talked of Southern Ontario, where I grew up and where he had a cottage; Kelly Bishop said I had the posture of a ballerina, and told me how she used to be a dancer; and Lauren Graham and I talked about movies and Meryl Streep. Everyone on the set made me feel not just like a part of the cast, but like a member of the family.
Meeting these people, who I had watched on TV for so long, I expected to feel star-struck. But instead, I felt totally comfortable. Though the circumstances were definitely unusual, the whole thing felt... normal? We drank coffee, ate snacks, did crossword puzzles; we just hung out together. I'd somehow survived a rare and aggressive form of cancer, and these people were international celebrities—but there, on the set, we were all just human beings relating to each other in these basic, almost mundane ways.
Months later, when "my" episode aired, a friend organized a viewing party at her house. We counted that I had 18.5 seconds of screen-time, which seemed practically infinite. Had Andy Warhol said that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, I wondered, or 15 seconds? Had I surpassed my time frame, or did I still have 881.5 seconds to go? My scene was over by the first commercial break, which meant we could all calm down and concentrate for the second half.
After the episode was over, there was a knock at the door. I assumed it was a parent coming to fetch one of us, but it was my wish-granter, wearing a ball gown and holding an Oscar engraved with my name: Harriet, winner of best extra.
To make a donation to your local Make-a-Wish chapter, visit their website.
Follow Harriet Alida Lye on Twitter.