Grieving second-grader’s journal aims to help others

Seven-year-old Noah Orion, right,and his sister, Naomi Orion, 5, enjoy some fun time with their dad, Harley Orion. The kids lost their mother on Sept. 26, 2017, after a 5-year cancer battle.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Everyone has good days and bad days. But it took a 7-year-old who lost his mom to cancer last fall to imagine “Noah’s Good Days, Bad Days Journal.”

Noah Orion, a second-grader at Del Mar Hills Academy, came up with the idea last summer when he stapled together two different sets of blank printer paper where he could write and draw his thoughts whenever he felt happy or sad.

Now, Noah and his father, Harley Orion of Carmel Valley, are planning to turn that germ of an idea into a professionally printed booklet that can be used by other children going through hard times. They’ve lined up more than 100 investors through an campaign and half of all profits will go toward cancer research.

Orion, 40, said his son is a born entrepreneur who’s always coming up with ideas for creative inventions (during the interview for this story Noah had a sudden brainstorm for a trash-picking metal claw “that will clean the world”).

Orion said he believes producing the book in memory of his late wife, Sandy Orion, will help Noah, and his 5-year-old sister Naomi, channel memories of their mom in a positive way.

“For the kids, I want to keep up the momentum,” he said. “This project gives them the opportunity to talk about their experience but focus on their progress in moving forward. I think it’s so important we’re making the future as bright as possible.”

Carmel Valley second-grader Noah Orion, 7, looks over journals that he kept to track his good and bad days after losing his mother, Sandy Orion, to cancer last fall.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune )

Harley and Sandy Orion met in 2004 when they both worked for a regional newspaper and they married later that year. His specialty is in marketing, hers was as a news and entertainment reporter. She founded the website (under her maiden name Kraisirideja).

In March 2013, seven months after the birth of their second child Naomi, Sandy was diagnosed with a terminal and aggressive form of breast cancer. Orion said that as a couple they agreed to hold off in telling the children about her disease until her physical symptoms became too hard to conceal. At that point, they would honestly share her prognosis.

“I believe kids are smarter and more able to handle complex situations than we give them credit for,” Orion said. “At a certain point we let them know because if they had something they wanted to express to her, they had time to do that.”

All last year, whenever Sandy was feeling sick, both children would draw funny pictures to cheer her up. Then, during one of her chemotherapy treatments in August, Noah presented his Good Days and Bad Days journals to his dad.

The cover of the Bad Days journal features a male stick figure being showered with rain from a dark cloud over his head. The Good Days journal features a stick figure with an exclamation point over his head. Its first entry, dated Sept. 14, has a drawing Noah made of him and his grandfather on a fishing trip.

“That,” Noah said, “was a very good day.”

Just 12 days later, Sandy died at the age of 45.

“My mom was a fighter,” Noah said. “She was quite a trooper. I remember even when she didn’t feel well she went on a camping trip with us. She was funny, loving and caring. I spent as much time as I could with her.”

During the fall months, Noah made dozens of copies of his journals and handed them out to his school librarian, teacher and fellow students. Noah said everyone seemed to love the journals.

“I think they make people feel better about their days,” he said.

Orion said the idea to create a published journal came out of the positive feedback people had to Noah’s booklets and also to provide a way for those who loved Sandy to support the kids.

“People kept asking ‘what can we do?’ We already had a freezerful of lasagna, all the sympathy cards we could possibly read and flowers enough to fill the living room. I know people’s hearts were in the right place but I wanted to channel all this kindness in a way that would have lasting value.”

In mid-January, Orion set up an crowdfunding account (under the name “Noah’s Good Days, Bad Days Journal”). The initial goal was to raise a modest $900 to print 100 paperback sketchbooks. The two-sided book would have a “good days” side and a “bad days” side so children could write from either end, depending on their mood.

Now halfway through the 40-day campaign, 120 backers have signed on, raising more than $5,000, with the amount growing every day.

Orion said the new plan is to print hardcover books for the backers and sell paperback books to the public for $12. They should be ready for sale in March.

After expenses, half of the proceeds will go into a college fund for Noah and the other half will go to a nonprofit Sandy Orion Memorial Fund. The fund will raise money for two causes: the Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla, where Sandy was treated, and to Seyfriend Lab at Boston College, where biology professor Dr. Thomas Seyfried is researching a metabolic cure for cancer.

At the end of 2017, Orion resigned from his marketing position with the National Merchants Association in Temecula to spend more time with his children. He’s doing some business consulting and getting Noah’s journal’s published. But mostly he said he’s just being a dad when his kids need him most.

“People have a lot of opinions about the effects of grief on children, but most agree that the first few years after a loss like this are critical to the trajectory of their lives,” he said. “Losing a parent is always going to be a major event in your life, but it doesn’t have to change who you are or prevent you from having a wonderful life.”

--Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune