The soundtrack of childhood cancer

The soundtrack of childhood cancer

Alastair Moock's songs for his 5-year-old with leukemia now help many other families, too.
Alastair Moock and his daughter Clio on stage together
Alastair Moock and his daughter Clio on stage together
© Justin Miel


Guitar in hand, Alastair Moock sat beside the hospital bed of his 5-year-old daughter, Clio, and together they began to write what would become Clio’s leukemia soundtrack. Clio provided ideas, and her dad, an acclaimed Boston singer-songwriter on the folk and family music circuit, turned them into songs like “I’m a Little Monkey” and “Take a Little Walk with Me.”

Later, the project would become Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World’s Bravest Kids, a full-fledged album featuring hits such as “B-R-A-V-E” and “When I Get Bald.” It would spark a fundraising campaign on that would nearly triple Moock’s goal of $10,000 to produce the album. It would reach families and children’s hospitals across the country, snag a Grammy nomination, and attract the attention of Good Morning America, Katie Couric, NPR, People magazine, and more.

But at the time, it was just a dad and his daughter, a girl with a bright smile and brown eyes, singing their own way through.

Moock, his wife Jane Roper, and twin daughters Clio and Elsa belong to the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church just outside of Boston. Moock considers himself a latecomer to Unitarian Universalism—he and his wife joined after their daughters were born—but he’d been around UUs for years. He and Roper first met in a class taught by a UU minister, the Rev. Dr. Thandeka, at Williams College, and Moock frequently played at UU churches. And then he went to perform at the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI).

“It was like a full immersion in the UU world,” he says of SUUSI. “I spent a lot of time hanging out with UU ministers, and I liked them. Philosophically, theologically, there was a lot that was about humanism. A lot of it seemed to resonate with my own songwriting. . . . In my songs for grownups I’d often dealt with questions of examining your life: What am I doing? Is this useful? Am I enjoying myself? Am I making good use of my time here? The kinds of questions I ask, the kind of music I’ve always been drawn to, it seemed to resonate with UU values.”

Moock started playing the cello in second grade, trading it for his dad’s guitar when he went off to college. He still remembers attending his first Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie concert when he was 11 or 12.

“It really had a profound impact on me,” he says. “I hadn’t seen anything like that before, the way that the audience was alive. The barrier between the audience and the performers seemed so low, it seemed like we were all involved in something communal. You’d think that at that age it would have struck me as hokey, but it didn’t. It was a communal spirit that I wanted to be part of. In some ways it reminds me of what draws me to UUs. When I think of that type of performance, it’s very similar to a church service.”

And throughout his career, Moock has strived to create that same spirit with his own music. He always loved working with kids but initially resisted the idea of becoming a “children’s performer,” words that brought to mind costumed characters like Barney. “I had a perception of what performing for kids had to look like,” he says. “But the musicians I loved—Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Mississippi John Hurt—so many of them had written songs for kids, so I had always had in my mind that it was possible to make kids’ music that wasn’t insipid, ‘Wheels on the Bus’-y; that I could make music for kids and draw in adults at the same time.”

Then his daughters were born, and he suddenly found himself with a wealth of material. His first family music album, A Cow Says Moock, was a hit.

“I’ve always had this playful streak in my music,” he says. “I like to play with language and in some of my grownup songs I felt almost embarrassed by it; I didn’t know what to do with this instinct. But with making music for kids, the playfulness was front and center. And yet I could also talk about serious things.”

And then life provided his most serious subject matter yet.

Clio was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in July 2012. “We went through all the range of emotions you’d expect,” Moock says. “It was devastating and horrible and numbing.” Clio’s treatment began with a difficult four- to five-week stay in the hospital, where she was lonely and depressed.

Moock brought in his guitar. “I didn’t feel like singing. But Clio has always responded very strongly to guitar; she loves to sing. We started singing together and the response was very visceral. She brightened, she sat up in bed, she was singing. And at some point, I said, ‘Why don’t we write a song?’”

After a couple of early collaborations with Clio, Moock started writing songs on his own, inspired by his family’s experience. “The first I wrote was ‘When I Get Bald,’” he says. “That was something we were talking a lot about with Clio and trying to prepare her and ourselves for. I wrote that song as a way of trying to ease her into it. . . . And those songs kept coming as we went through each stage of this incredibly long journey. The song ‘B-R-A-V-E’ was about this issue facing kids like Clio, who have to spend all this time with doctors and nurses, being poked and prodded, and they have very little control. It was a way for Clio to express all of those fears.”

The song “Have You Ever Been Jealous?” was inspired by his daughter Elsa, who, like many siblings of cancer patients, struggled with seeing her sister showered with attention and gifts.

“For me, writing these songs was the equivalent of writing a journal, and it was my way of working through these issues,” Moock says.

Eventually, Moock realized that the songs might be helpful to other families coping with pediatric cancer. “As a musician, I know the power of music, but it really reawakened it in me to see the impact on Clio,” he says.

The fundraising campaign paid for the production of the album, which includes performances by guest musicians and a chorus of patients and siblings; a music video for “When I Get Bald”; and distribution of the album to hospitals across the nation. Moock has also taken Singing Our Way Through on the road with performances at hospitals, clinics, and camps, and this summer he’ll start songwriting workshops with young cancer patients. His daughters, now seven, continue to play an active role in the project.

Watch the video of “When I Get Bald” (YouTube).

“Clio has been singing ‘When I Get Bald’ loudly and proudly on stage for a year now,” Moock says. “She’s actually going to take a break from it for awhile now that she has a full head of hair.”

Meanwhile, Clio is nearly done with her two-year treatment and is back to school full time.

“She’s so much better this year,” Moock says.

Moock says his family found “a surprising amount of joy” during the cancer experience, and that comes through in the album, too.

“I think you can’t go through an experience like this and not have a heightened appreciation for all the little things,” he says. “When you see your kid laugh after being in treatment, when you see them being themselves, it brings a tremendous amount of joy. That’s what life is, the good and bad together. Arlo Guthrie once said, ‘You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in,’ and I think that’s true.”

A mother of a 2-year-old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia wrote Moock about the album: “I could not imagine music that would speak to this experience the way this does. It is a real gift. There is something comforting about listening to music that is both beautiful and able to express the painful, terrifying, and sometimes isolating experience we share. And the music is positive without minimizing the reality. I felt less alone listening to it.”

And that’s another place Moock finds joy, in hearing from families who have been touched by the music.

“There was one family that sent me a couple of videos of their little girl singing ‘Joy Comes Back,’ and they’re driving to the clinic, and she’s sitting in the backseat belting out the lyrics,” he says. “That was the ultimate testament to the album for me.”

This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of UU World (pages 6–7, 9). Photograph (above): © Justin Miel.

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