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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.
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.
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.
When I was a freshman in high school, I took an introductory journalism course. That spring, a girl I’d known from my neighborhood went with the Heights instrumental music program on a trip to Asia, where she contracted a rare lung disease, which landed her in a coma upon her return home. She died on her sixteenth birthday. I wasn’t yet experienced enough to be on the official newspaper staff, but this girl and I had lived on the same street and had gone to the same school since our earliest elementary days, so when nobody stepped forward to write the article on her life, I did.
I sat in on the counseling sessions the school had set up for her friends, furiously scribbling down the conversations between her closest friends and her boyfriend. Then, accompanied by my mom because I must have been nervous, I walked over to her family’s house and sat at a picnic table in the sideyard to interview her parents and her younger brother. It was, to say the least, a fairly intense experience for a 15-year old, as I dug into their grief and then had to craft a story (with a strict word count) that captured all she had been to those who loved her. I was proud of the story I submitted, even though the one that was eventually published had been sanitized and read a little more news article and little less human interest.
But the significance of that experience is not lost on me as I’ve now spent years upon years writing about darkness and sadness in a way that I hope brings a sense of light and comfort to people.
Today, I was asked to write the article for the Heights Observer on Becca Meyer, who died on Saturday, less than twelve hours after turning six.
Sometimes, in our darkest days with Austin, when we thought he might not survive, I would wonder what my life would have been like if our second baby was conceived a day earlier or a day later than Austin had been. Or even a minute earlier or a minute later. What if I’d gone to the bathroom, gotten a drink of water, fallen asleep first and this child with these specific genes never came to be? Would we have been spared our great sorrow, our worst fears, his tremendous suffering? But every time I allowed myself to think that thought, it was immediately replaced by the full and unwavering knowledge that I would take Austin, with all his physical faults and with all the suffering that we did endure and that we may have endured. I would always still choose to have had him, even if it was only for a short while.
I have to imagine, that because Becca was adopted, her parents have had a similar and yet powerfully different set of what if’s to ponder. What if there was one family ahead of them on the list? What if some other child had been born on June 6 instead of June 7 and they’d been called for that one? What if her birth mother had decided otherwise? How different would their lives be? Would they be spared the unthinkable grief they now feel?
But I know without hesitation that if they’ve ever allowed such questions to run through their minds, they are immediately replaced with two unwavering truths.
One: They would always take the joy of having known this spark of a child, the gift of having loved her and been loved by her, … for the enrichment of their own lives, they would always choose Becca.
And, more importantly, two: If the child we knew as Rebecca Alison Meyer was destined to be in this world and if it was written in her genes or in her stars that cancer would claim her life, then who better to entrust her short life to than the Meyers? Who better to surround her with love and laughter and friendship and all things princess than Kat and Eric, Carolyn and Joshua? Who better to hold her, guide her, sing to her, dance with her, kiss her and love her than the family she was given? How lucky were they to have been given the incredible honor of shaping the course of her too short life? How lucky were they to have had the opportunity to fill it with so much joy? How lucky was she?
Loving her so well and loving her so much may well be the greatest burden of their lives. But I do not doubt that it is also their life’s greatest blessing.
I lied to Kat Meyer. It was early last fall, after the kids had gone back to school and her family was briefly home in Cleveland during their months-long stay at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I told her, expert that I was in such things, that the year ahead would be exhausting. It would be sad, hard, frustrating, terrifying, surreal and completely and utterly exhausting. But then it would be over. They would pull together and they would do this hard thing and then they would be okay again.
And there was my lie.
I only said it because I believed it was true. That first critical surgery, where doctors cut open the skull of her five-year old daughter to remove a “bad rock” from her brain, had been successful. And so they would move on, going through the miserable motions that are childhood cancer treatment, and then they’d get on with their lives. Becca would get on with her life. Or so it seemed.
I spoke with more truth recently, after they discovered her cancer was back and treatment options nearly nonexistent, when I told her that she had entered a realm I knew very little about. Because, while I’ve heard the words “Your child has cancer,” on three separate occasions, I’ve never heard the words, “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Quite honestly, I don’t know a thing about death. Not in any real sense at least. And yet I’ve become this de facto expert, helping people prepare their children, helping people grieve and heal, planning and organizing and gathering, comforting the mom whose husband died suddenly, giving advice to the friend whose mother is getting close.
But I haven’t experienced any of it myself. I’ve never lost anyone. Besides my grandparents, I haven’t lost my parents or my in-laws (nor even had a significant scare). I’ve never lost a cousin or a sibling or even a friend. I’ve barely experienced death at all.
I have glimpsed it though. Like a shadow lurking behind me. I’ve felt it there, hovering over my shoulder, slipping just out of view when I turn to stare it straight in the eyes. It’s been present enough so I can smell it and almost taste it in my mouth. I’ve had those words, “Palliative chemo” uttered to me, but only in response to a What If question (“What if this treatment protocol we’re about to start doesn’t work?” . . . “Palliative chemo.”) I smelled death around me for the sixteen days back in May 2012 when we thought his cancer had come back for a third, and final, time. Just enough so that I’ve vacillated between two equally horrible extremes: One in which, in strange moments of calm, I could almost allow a slow but steady acceptance to seep through me. I could say to myself, “Okay. This is coming. This is really and truly happening. And we will make it the best, most peaceful and most comforting death ever. And then we will pick ourselves up and we will move on. We will be okay.” And as soon as I’ve dared to allow such traitorous thoughts into my mind, they are knocked out with pure and absolute refusal. This thing will not happen. I refuse to allow it to happen. “No, you will not take my child. I WILL NOT let this happen. I will fight, scream, beg, plead, claw my way to him and I will hold on with a grip so tight that nothing, no one, will be able to pry him from my arms.”
I imagine Kat and Eric go through that particular roller coaster ride several times each day now, as they watch their seemingly healthy daughter run around the playground, perform in the kindergarten concert in full princess attire, squabble with her friends over toys. And yet they know, they know what is coming. What might strike on any given day. Death is lurking in the shadows, hovering over their shoulders. And if they fight it, refusing to allow it to come into full view, then I wish them all the strength and luck in the world. And if, given their sad reality, they accept their fate with broken hearts, then I wish them all the strength and luck in the world.
This might be part one in a series titled Death in the Age of Facebook, about which I have a fair amount to say. But let’s start with this:
Positive thinking does not cure cancer. A good attitude will not help you survive.
It’s a lovely idea, of course, one that makes us feel like we have a tiny bit of control over our destinies. Be strong, keep your chin up, and this too shall pass. Only that’s not true. And not only is it not true, but it’s harmful and hurtful to those who don’t survive, those whose cancers simply can’t be beat with a smile and a sunny outlook.
Look at the language we use around cancer: This person “succumbed” to the disease, while that other one “overcame” it. Patients are warriors fighting a battle that requires strength and courage, a willingness to charge forward and face any challenge, no matter how terrifying and no matter how futile.
There is a lot about Facebook and social media that is wonderful when you’re faced with a crisis. You’re able to connect with others who’ve experienced what you’re going through, you’re able to share information in an honest and direct way with large numbers of people, and you’re able to draw strength and love from the strength and love of those around you. The online response, even if it’s just the click of a Like button, can be overwhelming and heart warming. It’s a sign of the invisible thread that ties us all together, caring about one another, wishing each other well.
But it also gives us a glimpse into how differently people handle the tragedies that befall us, tragedies like death sentences for five-year olds. Now, I know these are treacherous waters to wade through, that no one truly has the right words, that no one can take away the pain and suffering of the family, no matter how badly they may want to. And I know that any of us might say the wrong thing at the wrong time, in a misguided attempt to be helpful.
But one thing that I wish no family would have to bear is the idea that they should “keep their heads held high” and not “give up.” As if they themselves, their grief and their despair, are somehow responsible for their lack of options. Sometimes, as horrid as it is, there simply are no options. Or no good options at least. Now I’m not saying give up; I believe in holding on to hope until the very last second. But be sad. Let your head hang down and cry when you need to because this is devastating. There is no “chin up” attitude that can bolster a family faced with this reality, no “rah rah” mentality that can keep death at bay.
Although I sure as hell wish there was.
Oh, I haven’t written in ages. Not that I don’t have things to say — I always always do — but the longer I go without blogging, the harder it is to start again. I’ve thought a few times this month about writing, but the days go by and it doesn’t seem to happen. And then, something strikes that simply needs to be addressed.
And this time, it’s Justin.
Justin Miller was one of the five 2012 St Baldrick’s Ambassador Kids, alongside our own Austin, and I felt a bit like I knew him. He’s a few months older than Braedan, could be his classmate if he lived nearby. He was diagnosed young, at age 3, with a neuroblastoma that was bad enough for doctors to give him a 30% chance of surviving five years. He did survive five years, then six and eventually seven. But after relapsing time after time after time, he passed away yesterday at the age of ten.
Of all the Ambassador Kids we’ve watched and followed over the years, Justin is, by far, the one with the biggest personality. He was all boy, obsessed with Legos and being a cancer-fighting ninja. He never backed down from a fight against his arch-enemy cancer, rising up and saying, over and over again, “Let’s do this thing.” He became a bit of a cancer celebrity, especially when he represented St. Baldrick’s at the 2012 Stand Up To Cancer telecast, hobnobbing with the rich and famous.
I have to admit that I was a tiny bit jealous when I saw him there on that stage that night. I was watching the show on TV as they announced the exciting (and necessary) new partnership between Stand Up To Cancer and St Baldrick’s, and out walked Justin with someone famous at his side. They showed his video (here) and I thought, for just the quickest little second, “Why didn’t they choose Austin for that role? He plays with Legos too!” Well, the reasons are many why they didn’t choose Austin: first and foremost, he never ever would have stood on that stage and addressed those thousands of viewers with such poise and humor and confidence. (Can’t you just see little Austi, burying his head into my shoulder and refusing to even glance at the cameras?) But there are other reasons too. Like that Austin & Co. had been the poster children for St. Baldrick’s that year and you gotta spread the attention around. And then there’s the biggest reason: Austin was fine, we were done, and Justin was not. As his mother says in that video, his life depends on every single new advance the scientists make; he relies on the research that will come out tomorrow; he needs every additional dollar of funding to go to pediatric cancer. Needs.
I’ve always felt a bit guilty for that fleeting moment of jealousy, especially when St Baldrick’s shared the news of Justin’s sixth relapse. And then the relapse after that. I knew I would give up any bit of recognition or celebrity or red carpet excitement to have what I have: my child, who will stay after school today to practice his running round-off back handspring combination for next week’s talent show. My child, who will snuggle down in bed next to me tonight to read a story. My child, who is, above all else, present in my life.
I hurt for Justin’s parents today, for his sister, his family and his friends. We “fans” might think we’ve lost something too, but our sadness is nothing, nothing, compared to theirs. We didn’t act fast enough for Justin. The world couldn’t get enough funding into the hands of enough doctors to produce enough new research to give Justin one more fighting chance. So let’s act fast enough for the next kid.
As Justin would say, “Let’s do this thing.”
And so, another Childhood Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close. And I wonder if the general public is really any more aware. Did anyone learn anything new this month, anything that will change their actions or their giving patterns or their voting patterns? Did someone in a position of power see an image or read a story and decide to make a big change? Sometimes you wonder what it’s all for. We “like” some sad photos of sad bald children on Facebook and feel like activists. We share someone’s status update or read a heartbreaking blog written by a heartbroken parent and feel like we’ve made a difference.
We’re not really making a difference. Not enough anyway.
We walked on Saturday in the CureSearch Walk for Childhood Cancer. This was our fourth or fifth time walking and the crowd was smaller than ever. It was a gorgeous day, the route takes you through a gorgeous part of Cleveland (a very short, gorgeous part so that can’t be the excuse). There are free bagels and coffee and even post-walk lunch provided by Chik-Fil-A (trying to earn some brownie points with a non-controversial cause, perhaps?). By no one shows up. Like, really, almost no one. There were maybe 150 people registered. Couldn’t have been more than 200 there. 250 with kids and babies?
It’s weird. And sad. I know everyone has their causes and I certainly don’t go to every walk or race or stair-climb I’m invited to. And I’m not at all guilt-tripping my people for not going, I promise — not one tiny bit. I would have asked harder if I wanted you all there. St. Baldrick’s is our thing and that’s more than enough to satisfy us personally. But in terms of the bigger picture, the big, broad, general public picture and its “awareness” of childhood cancer? Well, it seems pretty non-existent.
And if the public is truly aware — aware of the truth that pediatric cancer kills more children than any other disease (and indeed more than the top five other disease killers combined), that one in every five children diagnosed won’t survive, that of those who do survive, more than 60% will have long-term, life-threatening or life-altering side effects, that less than 4% of national cancer funding goes to pediatric diseases, — if we really know all that and we still don’t show up. Well, . . . like I said, that’s sad.