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My friends, It’s been a minute. Well, more like four years and two months. I always figured I’d return to this site to either announce that my memoir of Austin’s journey was being published or that he needed a kidney transplant. But no, neither of those things is happening.

His kidney still goes strong, remarkably so. We’d always been told he’d likely need a transplant when he reached puberty, as a growth spurt with added muscle mass will cause the kidney to go into overdrive and then peter out. Well, he turned 13 in September and is definitely in puberty (trust me).


We had an appointment with his kidney doc this past Friday and I learned that I’d been reading the most critical measure of his kidney function (estimated GFR) wrong. For years. I was really supposed to be dividing his decreasing eGFR by his increasing height (1.5 more inches and I’ll be the shortest member of my household), and when one does that, his function has remained fairly steady for a while. It has gotten worse, but only ever so slowly.

The initial prognosis remains: he is just on the cusp between Stage 3 renal failure and Stage 4, he will still need a transplant, and that could still come soon (as in “in the next two years”), but that’s a bridge we will cross when we get to it. In the meantime, he is growing, he is strong, he is athletic, he lives a normal 7th grader’s life, and — the thing that matters most — he remains.

And that book, The Wrong Side of the Window? Well, that sits somewhere on my computer waiting for the day when I will pull it out, edit it, and get it published. That day will come, I promise.

In the meantime, I’ve spent the past few years researching and writing another book, which has landed me a fabulous big wig agent in New York, and which is the real reason I’m posting today. One of the problems with nonfiction is that you have to have a “platform” in order to really attract a publisher (which has yet to happen). So, I’m doing all kinds of things to promote myself and my writing, which feels sort of obnoxious but is nonetheless necessary.

Under the Chilean Sky follows the lives of three Chileans who come of age during the heady years of Salvador Allende’s presidency, get caught up in Pinochet’s web of brutality and oppression following the military coup of September 11, 1973, and eventually end up in Cleveland Heights as political refugees.


You may have heard a thing or two about the current unrest in Chile, which I have written about here and here. I am hoping to use the knowledge I’ve gained over the past few years to establish myself as some sort of an expert in this very complicated nation. But I need your help! I’ve been posting on Medium and my work has been recognized by the editors as being of high quality. But the only way to really get it in front of readers (who I don’t already know) is to have more readers (especially those I do know, like you!) read it, comment on it, clap for it (Medium’s equivalent of “liking”), and share it. I especially need you to follow me on the site (which I think means joining, which I’m almost positive you can do for free). My profile is here.

Medium is actually a fascinating site, filled with really good articles you wouldn’t find elsewhere. One cool feature is that readers can comment within an article (instead of waiting until the end) by hovering over a paragraph and clicking on the + symbol. This allows for a real dialogue on a specific section. I promise I’ll respond if you comment or ask a question!

I’ll also be launching my author’s website soon at where I’ll post upcoming events and other important news as it becomes available. I’ve been accepted to teach a special studies course at the Chautauqua Institution this summer entitled “Chile: From Democracy to Dictatorship and Back Again.” I don’t know which week yet, but I’d love to see your faces in my classroom!

I’m gonna have to be obnoxiously self-promoting over the course of the next year (follow me on Twitter @KCDGallagher), which I am not looking forward to. But I believe this story needs to be out in the world, we need to know what happened in Chile to real people with real hopes and dreams and fears and families, and we need to know the U.S.’s role in it.

This is a forgotten corner of history. And I want to uncover it.

How on earth did we end up here? That’s what was running through my subconscious as I attempted to fall asleep in a hospital room on Monday, July 30, 2007, with Austin in a crib beside me. How did this happen?

An excerpt from that, you know, “book” of mine.

I won’t go all the way back, but just know that Austin was a healthy, happy and totally normal little guy for many months. In the end of June of that year, he had his nine-month check-up with his pediatrician Dr. Senders, a legend of pediatric care in our community. Mark and I sat down with this doctor when I was pregnant with Braedan and he sold me after five minutes of explaining his Daily Dose of Reading program. A doctor who spends his free time and money and energy encouraging families to read to their young children? This was my kind of guy. Then he said it wasn’t his job to tell us how to raise our kids, but to “guide and support” us, as no one would know our children better than we would. So much for interviewing three pediatricians—I signed up then and there.

So I brought Austin in for the usual well visit—a few vaccinations, his latest height and weight, and a general check-up. My little guy was in tip-top shape except that Dr. Senders thought he heard a tiny murmur when he listened to his heart. He explained that there could be a small hole in Austin’s heart which he assured me was not a huge concern as they’re relatively common and often heal on their own. I have friends whose children had holes like that which healed so I was genuinely not worried. I’m just not a nervous parent, I do not envision horrid diseases every time my kids cough or hiccup. Dr. Senders recommended Austin see a pediatric cardiologist to determine if we needed to take any further action. He referred me to Dr. Bockhoven, affiliated with Akron Children’s and not our home hospital, because I’d be able to get a quicker appointment.

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted while he wrote down the name and number. “I thought you said it was no big deal. Why do I need such a fast appointment?” I was still calm but not as calm as I’d been two minutes before.

“No, it’s not a big deal.” Reassurance. That’s all parents really need. “But I think you’d like to hear that from a specialist. This is more for you than for Austin.” More reassurance.

So, truly not fazed by this news, I went home and the issue completely slipped my mind. My girlfriend Becky asked me about it a few weeks later and I guiltily realized I hadn’t followed through; I had actually forgotten about it! Proof that I was indeed not worried about Austin’s heart, and the first of many lucky breaks. I finally called and Dr. Bockhoven could have fit me in the very next week except that I was planning to take the boys to my family’s summer house on Lake Chautauqua for two weeks. No problem, they scheduled me for the Monday after our vacation.

We spent two lovely weeks up at the lake. My parents were there, providing necessary help since Mark came only on the weekends. Every evening as I sat nursing Austin on the little second floor porch-turned-nursery, I could hear the sound of Braedan’s endless chatter wafting through the air as he and my mom worked in the yard, he pruning bushes with kid scissors and she gardening without the harsh sun. Braedan, you see, is a constant talker. He’s been narrating our every move since he was one-and-a-half, talking from the moment he wakes up until the moment he goes to bed (and sometimes even in his sleep). I have never met a three-year-old with a vocabulary like his. He uses words like “splendid” and “impressed:” “I am so impwessed you finished that puzzle, Mommy.” He also say things like, “My body is telling me it doesn’t want carrots” or “My body feels like it needs ice cream” because when he was potty-training, Mark and I used to tell him to listen to his body. Ha!

He and my mom are two peas in a pod, they’re so deeply connected. It’s not your regular love between a grandmother and her first-born grandchild; it’s like they’re buddies. They relish being together and never tire of each other’s company. So evening gardening is a sacred activity for them both.

I was struck during our Chautauqua weeks by how quickly Austin was growing: he was pulling himself up to standing and playing independently and acting like such a big boy. Every time I turned around, he’d be into something new, constantly exploring and totally fearless, unlike his cautious older brother. Classic second child, I thought, a fearless second myself. My parents took Austin and Braedan to the small-town amusement park on two (blessedly quiet) occasions and Austin did great without me, happily eating ice cream and watching his big brother enjoy the rides. Life was moving along at a fine pace with no worries.

And I was moving along, already ready for the next big thing. Mark and I had been told in pretty clear terms that having another biological child was “not medically advisable.” I’ve had type 1 diabetes for twenty-one years, you see, and two pregnancies were more than enough burden on my body. I’m healthy, always have been, but I do have a serious disease … something I need to remind myself of every now and then. I love my boys, there is no doubt about that, but I’ve never been afraid to admit that I want a daughter. It’s not just the adorable little girl outfits and decorating a nursery in the colors of the moment (although admittedly that sounds pretty great); it’s the later-on stuff, the growing up, planning the wedding, watching a daughter birth a child. My mom and I are very close. We love being together, we relate and connect and talk each other’s ears off. And I want that. So Mark and I’ve been thinking about adoption. We have a lot of love to share, we can afford it, there’s no good reason not to. Or at least there wasn’t right then as I sat up in my Chautauqua room each night completely engrossed in a new book about international adoption, already envisioning bringing our future daughter home from Guatemala or China.

It wasn’t all rosy though. Austin was fussy at night after having been a fairly good sleeper, but he also grew five new teeth during those two weeks, something I ended up repeating to doctor after doctor and nurse after nurse and intern after intern when they all walked through our door and recorded our history, always including the question, “Has he been in any pain lately? Fussier than usual?” Well, as anyone with small children knows, cutting five teeth is a rather unpleasant experience (for parent and child!), so any unusual fussiness got chalked up to that.

A few days before our trip was scheduled to end, my dad commented on Austin’s belly, asking me if it was always so hard. I looked at it and felt it and agreed that it was slightly distended but it really didn’t alarm me. Babies get that look of big firm belly with skinny limbs when they’re gassy or constipated and my response was simply, “Maybe he has to poop.” Even now, now that I know the truth behind that big belly, I don’t look back and think, “God, I should have known something was wrong.” It just looked full. And I blew it off.

But there is a moment, one that I play over and over in my mind, that happened on our last night there. Mark had come for the weekend, along with our friends and their two-year old daughter, so there was much wine and laughter over Saturday night’s long dinner. It was late and Mark had fallen asleep putting Braedan to bed (shocker, right? Who’s ever heard of a husband failing to emerge from bedtime?). Austin had been up and down, asleep and awake throughout the evening and was very hard to soothe. I had finally given up on rocking him in his bedroom and had taken him outside. We were sitting on the front porch, just the two of us, and I was holding him in my arms as I sat on a swinging chair, and he just wouldn’t stop crying. And I remember so distinctly, like it was yesterday, cradling him in my arms and whispering in his ear, “Austin honey, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.” Oh, I shake my head when I picture the two of us there on that dark and starry night because if I had tried to imagine what might possibly be wrong with him, I could not have even come close. Not even close.

The next day came and as I was packing all our gear and getting everything ready for the car ride home, my mom watched Austin, since Mark and Braedan were already on the road. But my mom, who never calls when she’s babysitting an unhappy child, who never asks for help or complains when a grandchild in her care is missing his own mother, this time, this day, she brought Austin back to me and said she thought there was something wrong. She thought his stomach hurt, because he kept rubbing his side. Yes, that very side that my dad had questioned just a few days prior. So I changed him and nursed him and away we went, leaving our relaxing vacation and our normal lives in our wake.

We got home and you know how it is: there are piles of mail to go through and phone messages to return, laundry to be done and groceries to be bought. Mark stayed home Monday morning because we were about to begin a partial kitchen renovation (how’s that for great timing?) and he wanted to meet with the contractor. Another lucky break since Braedan stayed with him instead of coming to Dr. Bockhoven’s with me and Austin. I packed lunch so we could run a zillion errands afterward, and we headed off for what we thought was a regular old doctor’s appointment. And here’s where we began our dizzying descent into another, much darker, world.

In walked Dr. Bockhoven, the first of many heroes we would encounter in this great saga, who, after one glance, felt Austin’s stomach and voiced concern: “Does his belly always look like that?” He sent us for the scheduled ECHO which happened to include an abdominal ultrasound. And it lasted forever. Really, we were up on that table together for more than an hour. Austin was crying, I was lying there on my side nursing him and thinking how glad I was that Braedan wasn’t with us, and the technician, this lovely older woman, just kept checking and checking and checking. It didn’t quite occur to me until afterwards that she spent way more time looking at Austin’s side than at his heart, the original purpose of our visit. Before we walked out, she asked if I had any other children and then handed me two stuffed animals and wished me a gushing and solemn farewell. I thought she was being friendly or felt bad that it had all taken so long. I didn’t understand that she had just made a terrible discovery.

Dr. Bockhoven, who had been watching on his office computer, met us at the door and led us down the hall past the room where our stroller and lunches and normal lives were waiting and into another room where he pointed to the phone and said that Dr. Senders wanted to talk to me. I sort of chuckled as I picked up, making some stupid joke about this not being routine protocol and nodded my head as he told me that my baby had a seven-by-seven centimeter mass in his belly. (We learned the next day that it was quite a bit bigger but seven-by-seven sounded plenty big to me at that moment.) That moment. The moment that sits like a big fat black smudge down the center of the page that is our lives, dividing everything into before and after. There is no real way to describe it. I cannot separate out all that came next, all that I now know, from my innocence and naiveté at that particular moment in time. I’d like to say the world stopped spinning but it was more like the world started spinning faster and I stopped. “Surreal,” though overused is the only accurate word. I remember Dr. Senders asking me how Austin was right then and I laughed and said he was eating the phone cord and wriggling to get free from my tightening grip. Totally normal Austin behavior. This child? This child has a tumor?

I have to admit, as implausible as it sounds, that I did not think cancer. Well, I’m sure I must have thought it but I did not believe at that moment that my child had cancer. Dr. Sendres had said the word “mass” actually, not tumor. And what the hell is a mass anyway? That’s not necessarily bad, right? . . . Right?

Dr. Bockhoven and I walked back to the room where we had started hours earlier, when we were different people, and he tried to explain things to me. I remained calm, nodding my head, not grasping the severity of the situation or at least not allowing myself to. Dr. Bockhoven was apologetic, sorry that he, a total stranger, was the one to break this news. And, while he no doubt has to share bad news with parents, this bad news is of a completely different nature. Tumor discovery is not his area of expertise. I thanked him time and again because, truly, he went above and beyond. He could have easily sent us back to our regular doctor with a simple, “You should probably have this looked at.” And you know me, I would have waited until Kirk and Sarah’s baby shower was over and the kitchen was finished and back in order before I would have gotten around to making another appointment.

No such pause here. Instead I’d been told by Dr. Senders to go home, pack a bag and check in at the emergency room. “No need to run red lights,” he told me so I tried to sit calmly through them but was getting increasingly anxious by my inability to reach Mark. He was not answering his cell or the home phone, and Mark is outrageously reliable, always there when you need him. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the drive (isn’t peanut butter and jelly supposed to make everything better?) and Austin, exhausted from what we then considered a major medical procedure (oh, irony), quickly fell asleep in his car seat. I got home where there was still no sign of Mark despite his car in the driveway, and Morey, our contractor, had questions. Leaving Austin asleep outside, I brushed Morey off and started grabbing clothes out of the enormous pile of laundry to throw into my overnight bag. I was later able to laugh at the outfits I picked; you would have thought I was going on a tropical vacation with the assortment of cute summer skirts I threw in there. I was rushing around trying to remember my glasses and diabetes supplies and feeling so thankful that I actually had a charged cell phone (a total rarity for me, the queen of the dead cell phone). Morey stopped me to say he couldn’t find Mark and needed the dimensions of the fridge we’d ordered, but his words took on a Charlie-Brown’s-grandma-on-the-phone quality, so I interrupted: “Tell Mark he needs to call me. Austin has a, a thing. A mass. Something growing inside his stomach that isn’t supposed to be there.” There: I’d said it out loud. And finally, for the first time, I started to cry. But there was no time for this, so I left Morey confused and guilty as I peeled away.

And lo and behold, right as I reached the corner, Mark appeared, finishing up a run with Braedan asleep in the jogging stroller. I waved him over impatiently and it all came tumbling out, words and sobs and fear and uncertainty. He was calm (Mark is always calm), said he’d bring Braedan to his parents’ house on the other side of town and meet me at the hospital. He kissed me, told me he loved me and rushed home to find Morey running down the driveway to repeat the news.

I called my mom, not expecting her to be home from Chautauqua yet but figuring I could leave a message. Well, she answered and now I had said it three times to three people, “Austin has a tumor,” and it was starting to feel real. The cloud of calm, the swirling strangeness of the morning, the fog I had inadvertently walked into, was starting to lift and I was slowly realizing that this nightmare was happening. This was actually happening. She asked a bunch of questions to which I had few answers and said she’d meet me at the hospital.

Here comes another part that I can now laugh at because it is just so me. Dr. Senders had told me to use the valet parking outside the emergency room, but I, little Miss Independent, I-refuse-to-admit-that-this-is-a-real-emergency, decided instead that I would park in the parking garage just like everyone else. Only the parking garage I chose happens to be located many a secret corridor away from the ER. So there I was, one hand pushing a stroller that held only my overnight bag, with a sleeping Austin in my arm, as I wandered around the basement hallways for a good fifteen minutes, one tunnel leading to another, every sign pointing back the way I had just come. I was down by the loading docks—maintenance guys were driving little tow-lifts around—and nobody could seem to point me in the right direction! I had fallen into the rabbit hole, Alice in my own awful wonderland.

Finally a sympathetic woman walked me from one winding hallway to another and into the back entrance of the emergency room. They whisked us right in—they’d been expecting us—and I was steered to a row of seats in the back to wait for Transport, which was basically someone to walk us back up to what would soon become “our floor” and which (of course) was where I had started out fifteen long minutes before. This is when I bumped into Marissa, a woman I knew from our community Baby & Me many years earlier. A pediatrician doing an ER fellowship, she had taken the call from Dr. Senders describing our case. But it wasn’t until she saw us that she realized she knew me. As Transport arrived and I got up to leave, she gave me a hug and said, “We can treat this. This is one we can treat.” Damn right they can treat this, they better treat it.

It had never occurred to me that it might be something they couldn’t treat.

I was led back upstairs via a much more direct route, and through two sets of doors where washed our hands in between because of “compromised immunology,” a little sign of what was to come. My mom was already there, wondering what on earth had taken me so long, and there were a zillion nurses checking us in and doctors and residents and interns coming through and taking our history and making notes and nodding reassuringly. And Austin, he was just as regular as could be, playful, wanting to get down on the ground and crawl, totally oblivious to the crisis brewing around him. My brother Kirk showed up, all too familiar with that hospital since Sarah had been released just the day before after ten inpatient days to stop pre-term labor. I hadn’t even been over to visit her yet—that was on my list for the afternoon, along with cooking them dinner. Kirk handed me a pen and a notebook and told me to write down the names of all the doctors I’d meet and any questions that popped into my mind. I took it, thanked him and, that night when they’d all gone off to their own safe beds, I started writing. And never stopped.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. Mark arrived shortly and we stood shoulder to shoulder while a flood of doctors marched through our space, asking the same questions as the one before them. We were transported back to the basement for an abdominal ultrasound. At some point in the evening, we remembered to order sandwiches from the cafeteria. Later, after everyone else had left, Mark and I sat in the dark hospital room with Austin asleep in the crib next to us. We talked in hushed tones, not quite able to finish our thoughts, starting sentences and then trailing off into nothingness.

Dr. Senders appeared, long past the time he should have been home with his own children, for what amounted to a counseling session. But we were so not ready for all that he told us—it was so much more than we could wrap our heads around. He talked about the stages of grief and how Mark and I might each be in a different stage at any given moment and how important it would be for us to be aware of one another’s needs. He talked about Braedan and how we had the power to shape this journey for him, not by being falsely optimistic or hiding the truth, but by answering his questions and providing him with just enough information—and not too much—so he would feel safe. He talked about all the help we’d get from others and warned us not to let coordinating that help become an extra burden. He said we were about to start a marathon, one we hadn’t trained for, and that we needed to pace ourselves and rest on the rare downhill because we were bound to hit spots that would be harder than we could ever imagine. He promised us we would reach the finish line. And I, needing something concrete to hold on to, grasped at his literal words and felt optimistic—I’ve run marathons! I can do this! But I had no idea.

Before he left, he said that that particular day, July 30, 2007, was the first day of the next stage of our lives. Everything after that day would be different than everything that had come before. But we weren’t ready to know that yet.

We had no idea.

It all started on a swelteringly hot Monday in July. Almost eight years ago. Our boys were 3 1/2 and ten months old. We lived in a different house. We were different people.

Because it changed everything.

In ways large and small, obvious and subtle, it shifted and molded each of the four of us into the people we are today. We will never ever know what our lives might have been, who our boys may have become, what paths we would have pursued had we not been sidetracked by childhood cancer. Sidetracked…? No, that doesn’t come close to describing what it did to our lives. Waylaid. Ambushed. Flipped over, thrown around, and knocked senseless.

Here’s the tally of physical scars: Thirteen visible on his body, some small, some medium, one enormous. One and a half kidneys gone. Twelve rounds of radiation. Fourteen months of chemo. Countless blood and platelet transfusions. One Broviac line, one PICC line, one Mediport. Temporary dialysis. More medications than I can name, some oral, some intravenous, some subcutaneous. An ileus…or two. MRSA and C-diff, at the same time. If much of this sounds foreign to you, consider yourself lucky.

Actually, I consider myself lucky. In every way that we were outrageously unlucky, we were equally, unexpectedly, miraculously lucky.

And today, he had his five-year scans. To check out his kidney, liver, lungs and heart. And everything is normal, unchanged, unremarkable. As we sat in the office with his (new) oncologist at the end of our day, she ran through the list of things to worry about moving forward (who doesn’t need a list like that?): Infertility, heart problems, kidney problems, secondary cancers, cognitive issues, hearing loss, and scoliosis. We went through each, one by one, comparing them to the cumulative doses of his six chemo drugs.

And he should be okay.

The cognitive issues and hearing loss would have already occurred, she expects him to remain fertile, his heart is being monitored already. Secondary cancers would reveal themselves through his regular lab work, but he is well below the level of chemo considered dangerous in that regard. There are no guarantees — and some items on that list (ahem, kidney problems) are not potential late effects of cancer treatment that we worry about, because they are instead obvious and definite parts of his everyday life that we worry about. He still has stage three renal failure. He will still most likely need a transplant.

But what he does not need, ever again, is to be scanned for Wilms tumor. He does not need annual or even biennial checks of his liver or lungs or kidney. Whatever comes his way — and stuff will come — it won’t be kidney cancer. That dragon has been slayed.

By this guy:


My apologies to the other moms whose sons may come home begging for a mohawk tomorrow,

but we were in no mood to say no.FullSizeRender(22)

It’s March 20th. The first day of spring. A time that for most of us marks a beginning. A sense of relief (phew, we made it!) and excitement for all that’s to come (it is coming, you know). New growth, lengthening days, all the signs of life returning.

It is not so for the Meyer family. This day, one year ago, marked the beginning of the end. There was new growth alright, but not the kind that anyone wanted. The discovery of a new tumor in Rebecca’s brain and the stark reality — that her parents already knew but had hoped they’d never have to truly experience — that there were no more options. There was nothing to be done.

It wasn’t the end of hope. The family kept fighting, kept searching, kept grasping desperately for any possible way to extend her life. But they knew. One year ago today, on the first day of spring, they knew what was coming. And they knew they couldn’t stop it.

I still have hope. I hope that they Meyers will heal. That each day, they’ll feel a little more joy and a little more peace. That one day, they’ll laugh til tears run down their cheeks and they forget, even if just for a moment, that they’re sad.

And I hope that this is the beginning of the end of childhood cancers that kill. I’m not convinced that we can actually end childhood cancer, though that certainly is the goal. But I do truly believe that we can end childhood cancers that kill. I think with the right combination of funding and technology, brilliant minds and steadfast determination, doctors can achieve that much.

And I also truly believe that we took one step in that direction on Sunday. That the brave acts of the youngest among us will, in a real tangible way, move us closer to that goal.

I’ll repeat some of the things I said on Sunday, variations of which I shared twice, once with the Feldman family in the beginning of the event and again with the Meyer family in the middle.

The children of Fernway School and those of Fairfax School have had to learn some hard lessons in the past week and in the past year. They’ve had to see, up close and personal, how sad and cruel and deeply unfair the world can be. But they’ve also had the opportunity to see how good the world can be. How much kindness and selflessness there is out there. How many people are willing to come to your side in a time of need, to stand by you, hold your hand and bolster you up. How many are willing to do what’s right even when it’s terrifying.

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They’ve seen that there is a time for laughter and lightness, a time to honor and celebrate what we’ve lost while still looking forward. They know what it means to sacrifice, to give when you know that you won’t get anything back from it. Every person in that room could have shaved their heads on Sunday and it wouldn’t bring Dan or Rebecca back. But they were still willing to do it. Because they embody hope.

Because they still believe in new beginnings.


Sunday was wonderful. Sad, happy, moving, chaotic, upbeat, serious, silly. Wonderful.

Thank you to everyone who helped the day run smoothly, so smoothly, in fact, that we finished shaving 170 heads in just over three hours. All of the volunteers, from the hard working barbers to the kids hawking baked goods, made our event the success that it was.

And it was indeed a success! Right now, we have $100,201 online plus another $3,381 in checks that I mailed today. I struggled a bit with our goal this year, after such a remarkable 2014. I knew that having two sick children in our neighborhood contributed in a big way to the $124K we made last year. From Carolyn’s unprecedented $12,000+ shave to the impressive showing at Roxboro Middle School, we would have been hard-pressed to match those incredible earnings. But still, I went big and set our initial goal at $125,000. About two weeks ago, I was feeling a bit disappointed at our mediocre progress (I’m not sure whether I’m an eternal optimist or just plain greedy because there was nothing mediocre about what we accomplished!), but I began debating what to do: Should I lower our goal? To a more attainable and realistic $100,000? That felt so defeatist. I didn’t want to give up! But we simply weren’t going to raise $125K, even I had to admit that.

I finally settled on $111,000, a nice in-the-middle sum that included my favorite number. And I’m glad I did, because I’m fully confident that we’ll reach it. I’ve followed my participants’ pages and their totals are rising every day, especially those of the women who did the full shave. No doubt, they’ve gotten enough stares and questions and shocked responses (“You really did it!”) that they’ve garnered additional donations. All of that, plus the couple thousand we should make from the Dewey’s Pizza School benefit in June and I think we’ll be there.

But once we’re in that room, putting the “community” in Community Center, the money matters less and less. Whether you raised $50 or $3,000, every one of you who set foot on that stage made a powerful statement. To sick children, you said, “I stand with you. You are not alone.” To your peers, you said, “I can see outside of myself. There are things more important than how I look.” To the world, you said, “I am willing to sacrifice on behalf of others, even others I don’t know. I can make a difference. You can too.”

Everyone in that room heard you. Everyone was moved by your generosity, your kindness, and your courage. We all watched our children, the little people who are supposed to look up to us, do things we might not be brave enough to do (I’m certainly not). And we watched our own peers do the very same things. We witnessed people growing closer, mother and daughter teams shaving, fathers and sons, brothers and cousins and classmates and friends doing something big, side by side. Which is the only way we should ever be when we do something big.


I saw three children, two boys and a girl, pay tribute to their father in the way that he would have chosen had he had the chance. They climbed on a stage and sat with their friends and schoolmates to make the world a better place. And then they went to his funeral. It’s not the way the childhood should work, there’s no doubt about that. It’s far, far from fair. But they did it and it made them each smile. At least a little.

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I watched a beautiful young woman shave her head in memory of her mother, with tears streaming down her face. And another young woman, with full pregnant belly, making the world a little safer for her unborn child. I watched a six-year old girl and her mother holding hands with the clippers buzzing above their heads, their eyes on each other, their hearts with their lost friend.


And the boys. I know I spend a lot of time highlighting the girls and the women, but this is a big deal for the boys too. It requires courage and a willingness to stand up and truly be seen, stripped of that thing that makes you simultaneously stand out and blend in. One, who’s shaved with us since the beginning, said that he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue this year now that he’s in middle school. Looks matter to the fellas too, you know. But then (and I quote), “I thought that this might save my future children from having cancer, and I never looked back.”

And that’s why we do this. So that not one single one of those kids who joined us on Sunday, not one 4-year old or one 15-year old, has to hear the words, “Your child has cancer.” And that they certainly never, ever have to hear the words, “There’s nothing else we can do.”

I’m gonna say the same thing here that I say every year, because it’s the only thing that deserves to be said at this moment:


I am humbled and honored to be able to bring this event to this community and I am humbled and honored by how enthusiastically this community embraces this event. Your eager participation and your incredible generosity, both of spirit and of all things tangible, are beyond measure.

As of right now, between our online donations and the cash and checks we collected today, we’ve raised $98,673. I have no doubt that we will creep over the $100,000 mark in the next few days and even reach our very ambitious goal of $111,000 by the time the fiscal year ends in June. (That means you can keep giving, people!)

There were quite a few highly emotional moments today that I’ll share in the next few posts, but for now, please rub your fuzzy heads, pat yourselves on the back, hug a bald person, and watch Fox 8 news in the morning (8am?) to see Braedan, already bald, and his classmate Joey, who’s shaving on the air, tell you why they do what they do.

I truly thank you from the bottom of my heart.

In the eleven and a half years that Mark and I have been parents, we’ve heard the words “Your child has cancer” on three separate occasions. And each time, it stunned us and terrified us and brought us to our knees.

But every day we know that we’re the lucky ones because we’ve never had to hear the words, “There’s nothing else we can do.”

And the reason for that is medical research. If Austin had been diagnosed with his rare cancer twenty years earlier than he was, I’m pretty confident he wouldn’t be here today. Pretty positive, in fact. But somebody twenty years ago funded the research that saved his life. Now it’s our turn to do the same for some other child, and some other mother, twenty years from now.

I don’t run this St. Baldrick’s event for Austin, although it certainly felt that way in the beginning. Today’s truth is that Austin does not have cancer and, at the risk of inviting bad luck, I don’t believe he ever will again. If I really wanted to do something for Austin, something that would actually benefit him as an individual, I’d be raising money for kidney research. That’s our next big thing, his next big thing.

But this isn’t for Austin. And it isn’t even for Rebecca, though she too is a driving force. This St. Baldrick’s event — and all the money that comes with it — is for the next kid. The one whose name we don’t know yet, the one whose health updates don’t appear daily in our newsfeeds. It’s for the parent who hasn’t ever had to hover over a hospital bed, watching the lines on a beeping machine, the parent who’s never had to write a CarePage update, who’s never imagined holding their dying child. That parent out there who is innocently watching their healthy child, worrying every day worries, celebrating everyday successes, with no inkling of what’s to come.

Because we were all that parent once. Every one of us who’s walked around the pediatric oncology floor with a cup of weak coffee and a dazed look in our eyes was once a normal parent, with normal expectations, normal fears, normal hopes.

So, until fewer and fewer parents have to hear, “Your child has cancer,” and until NO parents have to hear, “There’s nothing else we can do,” I will keep fighting this fight. I will keep running this event, begging for volunteers, pressuring people into parting with their hair, harassing them to raise more more more. I will keep honoring our children, the few we’ve lost and the few we almost lost, alongside the many who are brave enough to sit in the barber’s chair and shave it all off for someone else. I will keep shouting from the rooftops that this is important and necessary and urgent. I will keep fighting.

And you can too.

Some of you may have seen this yesterday when I posted it on Facebook, but it’s worth a click to enlarge:


It provides us all with some fairly good reasoning for why we need to fund pediatric cancer research. Not that many of us actually needed that reasoning, but there it is.

But you know that part on the graph: “Well, survival is a relative term,”  where it lays out the percentage of survivors living with severe and life-threatening health problems? Yeah. That.

Austin had an appointment with his kidney doctor yesterday, and, well, it’s not doing so great. I mean, it’s still doing. Doing whatever it needs to do every second of every day, despite being a quarter the size of its average kidney peers. But it has gotten noticeably worse since November.

We’re not in panic-mode or anything. This seems to be part of the process. And that’s not just me being super blase about everything; it’s true. His doctor is hopeful that with extra hydration and a shift in medications, we could see a dramatic turnaround. So Austin now has special permission to have a water bottle at his desk and to bring it along with him anywhere he goes. Of course, the last thing Austin ever wants is special permission to do anything that’s in any way different from what his classmates are doing. But who knows, maybe water bottles will become all the rage for second graders from now on.

Here are the details: His creatinine, that number we watched so carefully throughout the spring and summer of 2010, has shifted upwards in a way that concerns all of us. His estimated GFR (another number we watched so carefully in the spring and summer of 2010) is now 38. When/if it hits 30, he’ll be in Stage 4 kidney failure instead of his current Stage 3. His doctor, who is calm and collected beyond all measure, has assured me that he could hover at any one of these numbers for years on end. So his creatinine might decrease to 35 but then just sit there for three years, before decreasing again to 32. It’s not until it reaches 25 or below that we would start to test potential donors. And not until 20 or even 15 that he would need to start dialysis. So we have time.

She did say that her number one indicator of where someone sits on the continuum of kidney function is how they look, feel and act. And since Austin was doing his usual zoom across the room on her spinning doctor’s chair when she walked in the door, she feels pretty confident that he’s fine. I watch him every day and would whole-heartedly agree.

But as we edge ever closer to the five-years cancer-free mark, we know that we are never truly free of cancer. Its shadow will follow him, and all of us, for the rest of our days.

And now, as I return from a PTA meeting to edit and publish this post, I find myself under yet another dark shadow cast by cancer. The father of one of our past shavees, and a shavee himself last year, died Monday morning from a brain tumor. Unexpectedly. Despite, you know, the brain tumor. He was laughing yesterday morning. Mere minutes before he felt dizzy, laid down, and then was gone. Laughing and talking with the nurses in the extended care facility where he was recuperating from brain surgery before returning home to his wife and three kids. And then he was gone.

And now this woman, who is lovely and upbeat and always willing to help others, is without her partner, forever more. And her children, who were so so lucky to have known him, are without their father. They really thought he might die about three years ago and I believe, from the people who know them better than I do and from the wife’s own writing, that they lived each day to its fullest and never took anything for granted. But still. . .  Still.

And still, they move on. Two of this man’s sons would like to shave this Sunday in his honor. I am currently revamping the day’s schedule to fit them and their peers in before the 2pm funeral. And it is my deep honor to do so.

But you know what? Fuck cancer. And all of its shadows.

I guess people really needed to hear those words: Your work is not in vain, because that post was by far the most viewed and most shared one I’ve ever written. It’s not the best I’ve ever written, but the message undoubtedly resonated with people. We are hungry to know we are not alone in this fight (any fight) and that our advocacy does matter.

In a nice segue to that other cause that keeps me busy, I received a message last week from one of Austin’s old nurses at Rainbow. This is a woman I haven’t seen or heard from in years and I have to admit it took me a second to recognize her name since I knew her best before she was married. But she drew the parallel between that post and my work on behalf of St. Baldrick’s and said that I had long given a voice to children with cancer and their families and that what I attempt to accomplish with my event is, . . . you guessed it, “not in vain.”

Sometimes my success on that front feels small in light of such an enormous problem. The ten or twenty dollar donations I beg for, that one extra shavee I somehow convince to join us . . . how could any of this make a difference when we’re talking about thousands upon thousands of sick children and millions upon billions of dollars needed for research?

But it’s not small. It’s actually quite big.

Here’s what’s big: We have 133 people signed up to shave their heads next weekend. And more signing on every day. And a fair number of them are women and girls. That’s no small feat. Here’s what else is big: They’ve raised almost $50,000 for childhood cancer research. And by “almost,” I mean that by the time I post this, we’ll probably be there.

Here’s another thing that’s big: A grandmother who has signed up to shave her head not because any of her children or grandchildren have ever had cancer. But precisely because they haven’t. She feels just thankful enough and just lucky enough to be willing to do this on behalf of someone else. Someone she doesn’t even know.

Here’s what else is big: Rebecca has been gone for nine months but she looms large in the minds of many. She is so, so far from forgotten. Next Sunday, a cadre of her friends, from her earliest babyhood playmates to the classmates she never had enough time with, are either shaving their heads or cutting their hair in her memory. And she was never even bald. She held on to that crazy mass of curls until her last day on this earth. But still, they will sit up there, these little six-year olds who should never have to fathom such big and scary things, and they will shave their own heads for her.

And yet, it’s not really for her and they all know that. No amount of heads shaved, no amount of money raised, will ever bring her back, will ever make her well. But they will do this anyway. And that is big.

Rebecca’s best friend, the frick to her frack, is a six-year old first grader at Fairfax. She loves princesses, much as Rebecca did, and usually wears her long light brown hair in a braid down her back. I don’t know her all that well, but I feel pretty safe in calling her a girly girl. And my assumption about girly girls is that they like their hair. Or they at least like to have hair. But nine days from now, Ruthie will be bald. Bald. And not only that, but her father, her mother and her four-year old brother will be bald alongside her.

None of that will bring Rebecca back. None of it will make them miss her any less than they do today. But they will do it anyway. So that no other six-year old has to lose her best friend.

And THAT is big.

I never intended to stop blogging after Rebecca died. It just sort of happened. I’d been writing a lot, mostly about her, then summer got underway and when the next big thing worth sharing was our trip to Brazil, and when that trip included the “tragedy” of sitting on a flooded freeway for seven hours instead of watching the USA versus Germany game that we had traveled ten thousand miles to see, I somehow had enough perspective to just not write at all. And then it went on, the summer days turned into fall and inevitably winter, and now I haven’t posted in more than half a year. I almost laughed recently when someone said, “Oh, I read your blog all the time,” and I thought, “Really? All what time?”

But anyway, I’m back. With much to say, including an eventual hilarious run-down of that large and at times infuriating country to the south of us. But right now, what has really drawn me back is that St. Baldrick’s season is upon us yet again. Our 2015 event is well under way, with over 30 participants already signed up and nearly $1,500 raised (record-breaking at this very early stage of the game).

Last Thursday, St. Baldrick’s announced their 2015 Ambassador Kids to the world. I know the date because immediately after reading though their stories, I shared the news on Facebook. As always, they’ve chosen five children and teens from across the country with different types of cancer who represent the spectrum of treatment status — from the child in treatment, to the child who’s “cured,” to the one who’s relapsed, to the one with no evidence of disease. And of course, always, they choose one of the five who has already died. Because that’s the stat we all live with. One in five. Who’s it gonna be?

I cried as I read through their stories, as I always do, but I was filled with admiration for all they’ve overcome thus far and hope for all they have ahead of them. But I was also filled with something darker, a tiny inkling of dread. A nagging thought, deep inside myself, that I couldn’t even articulate at the moment: One in five didn’t seem like enough for this bunch. One in five seemed awfully lucky.

A few nights later, no wait, let me be more precise: TWO nights later, as Mark and I were getting into bed, he said, “I hate when I get these emails from St. Baldrick’s that so-and-so has just died.” “What? Who died?” He held up his phone to show a girl, 12-year old Caroline who I had just read about. What was he talking about? He is clearly confused. I had just met that girl, for crying out loud.

And I scoffed, “No, not her. She’s not the one who died, honey. It was a boy, a little 8-year old boy. I just read the stories.” As if that little fact — “I just read their stories” — somehow protected them. I mean, she couldn’t possibly be dead today if she wasn’t dead two days ago when *I* read her story? She’s not the Dead One. He is.

Well, they both are. This girl, Sweet Caroline, forever 12, was announced as an Ambassador Kid on Thursday and died on Saturday morning. Two days of fame. Two lousy, measly days.

Being a St. Baldrick’s Ambassador Kid is a fairly big deal. It’s special. Suddenly, there are thousands and thousands of people following your story, shaving in your honor, wishing you well. It doesn’t actually change anything, it doesn’t magically make you healthy. But it’s still special. And she should have had a chance to enjoy it. To revel a little in her own celebrity.

She should have had a chance to enjoy so much. And to revel in her own ordinary life.

But she didn’t. And this is why we do what we do. This is what all the hoopla is for. All the green hair, the fundraising competitions, the shamrock cupcakes, the endless emails. It’s so that kids stop dying.

April 2020


April 2020