One answer came to mind when Andrea Yerkes’ daughters asked about their daddy.
“He’s happy in the sky,” she told them.
Their father, Crystal Lake native Daniel Cunningham, had lost his year-long battle with Stage IV Melanoma cancer. Andrea had struggled for months to cope, unable to respond to their daughters’ questions with anything, but tears.
She didn’t want Cunningham’s children, 11-year-old Ana, 5-year-old Grace and 3-year-old Cailie, to feel like they couldn’t talk about their father. She didn’t want them to forget him either.
So they talked about how he’d be watching over them, helping “angels paint the morning sky an orangey-pink.” Those conversations grew into the children’s book, “Happy in the Sky,” written by Yerkes and illustrated by Yury Borgen.
“Mommy promised it would be OK, Although we miss you badly. We know inside our hearts you’ll stay, And most of all – you’re happy. So I’ll be strong like Mommy because this is not goodbye. Someday I’ll meet you up there, And together we’ll be, You and me, Happy in the sky.”
Yerkes hopes the book, published Aug. 22 and now available at Amazon.com, helps other families experiencing tragedy cope. Many of the scenes in the book are based on downtown Crystal Lake.
“I feel like it’s made me stronger and made me feel so much more comfortable talking about it with them,” said Yerkes, a Naperville native who works 30 hours a week and attends the College of DuPage, hoping eventually to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications, journalism or English.
“This is not about the money for me. … It’s definitely a journey for me as a writer, but, more importantly, it’s a tribute to his death for me, and I feel like it will help so many parents and children,” she said.
She hopes to offer an eBook version of the book free on Monday, the one-year anniversary of Cunningham’s death.
“I think that would make him so happy,” she said. “He’s just one of the nicest and supportive people I know. He’s proud of me as a writer for sure and what I’ve done to support our girls. I feel like doing that would make that day a teeny bit easier for me.”
She described Cunningham, who worked in construction, as laid-back and encouraging, pushing her to pursue her dreams and interests in writing poetry.
“He loved his family. He loved his friends. He loved guitar, our religion,” she said.
His death was somewhat sudden, happening about a year after the diagnosis. During the last month of his life, he required hospice care.
“The whole time when he was sick, I was trying to be positive, praying and hoping,” she said.
“I was horrified for me, but I was most horrified for them,” she said of Danny’s daughters. “There’s no way I can make this a pretty conversation for them. There’s nothing I can ever say or do to explain it to them. That’s what hurt me the most.”
Other books about grief and loss just didn’t seem to help. Some would put death in terms of a goldfish dying. Others were too repetitive, she said.
She asked herself what she’d write if she were to create a book. One night in bed, she wrote “Happy in the Sky.”
She’s proud of the book she’s now memorized, although she still has trouble getting through it without tears. It’s become her daughters’ favorite read.
One day at the pool this summer, a friend asked her daughter why her father wasn’t with her.
“I was so scared, thinking, ‘What is she going to say?’ ” Yerkes remembered. “She looked at him and said, ‘He’s happy in the sky.’ She didn’t seem sad about it. It was just the most heartwarming thing to me.”