On the same summer day that 6-year-old Catie Hoch beat her own personal best jumping rope--100 in a row--the doctors discovered that the pain in her side was coming from a tumor on her kidney. "In that split second," her mother Gina Peca remembers, "your whole life changes. You're going along safety-proofing your house and trying to feed your kids the right food, thinking you have control over their safety, and you don't."
There was even less control over the course of the next two years as the cancer spread, through seven rounds of chemo, three operations on Catie's lungs and one on her liver. It was during that time that Gina began to read aloud the first three books about a schoolboy wizard named Harry Potter, who knew something about fighting fierce, deadly enemies. Maybe that's why, when they took the train from their home in upstate New York to New York City for treatment, Catie wore a red cape, red lightning-shaped scar on her forehead, a wand and big black glasses. She was ready for anything.
In January 2000, when it seemed as if her treatment options had run out, Catie was back home, her chances of living to read Book 4 looking very slim. That is when an e-mail arrived from someone in Britain who had heard about the 8-year-old girl in New York who loved Harry so much. "I am working very hard on Book 4 at the moment," the author confided, and she talked about the chapter she was writing, how the werewolf professor Lupin was one of her favorite characters, and about some new creatures who would be making their debut. "This is all TOP SECRET," she warned, so Catie could tell her family but nobody else, "or you'll be getting an owl from the Ministry of Magic for giving our secrets away to Muggles." It was signed, "With Lots of Love, J.K. Rowling (Jo to anybody in Gryffindor)."
Over the next days and weeks, Catie wrote to her new friend about her birthday party; her friends; her new dog, Potter Gryffindor Hoch (the first name after Harry's surname and the middle one after the dormitory house in which he lives at school). She seemed to be getting stronger, brighter, in her excitement about her new pen pal. Jo wrote back at length, typing from her home in Scotland as the windows rattled in the January gales. "It's a bit spooky," she wrote one night. "I sleep at the top of the house (like Ron) and when it's stormy like tonight I keep waking up wondering what creaked ... you see, I'm not as brave as Harry--if you told me there was a gigantic snake wandering around at night where I was living, I'd hide under the bedclothes and let someone else sort it out." Jo was candid about other things that frightened her. "I don't mind talking to big groups of people your age at all, because you ask interesting questions, but talking to adults scares me."
Gina watched the friendship unfold, watched a stuffed owl and a toy ginger cat arrive in the mail as gifts. "I couldn't believe it when the first e-mail arrived, but what I really couldn't believe was that they kept it up," she says. "This wasn't a once or twice 'I heard a little girl was sick, and I sent a get-well note.' To me it was a relationship. I don't know what Jo was thinking, but she was taking time out of a very, very busy schedule to write precious e-mails to Catie."