Tag Archives: Isa Mireles

Miracle

12 Dec

img_0612My youngest daughter, Isa turns twelve years old today. I guess you could say she’s a bit of a miracle–born to a mother in her forties whose other three kids were practically grown up when she entered the world with a lusty cry and a head full of thick, black hair. Then, when she was a toddler, this miracle girl did something even bigger: she was diagnosed with cancer and after a fierce battle, she survived. And as a family, we also survived. The greatest miracle of all is that through this nightmare of cancer, Isa taught us how to live.

Today is a special day: Isa’s golden birthday. She is 12 on 12/12. It’s also the birthday of the Virgin de Guadalupe, who is an iconic saint in Mexican culture. When Isa was going through treatment, when her hair fell out and her belly swelled from the medication, Rene took a short trip back to Oaxaca to see his family. While in Mexico City, he went to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe to make an offering to the Virgincita and to pray for Isa’s life. Now, my husband could certainly win the prize for the best lapsed Catholic, but going to that shrine somehow comforted him, offering him hope during a very dark time.

Since that time, our family has made it a tradition to go to Olvera Street in Los Angeles on Isa’s birthday to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church to offer our thanks for another year with our beautiful daughter. We went last night and had a wonderful time, marveling at the beautiful culture of Mexico and deeply grateful that Isa is still here with us.

Happy Birthday, Isa!

img_0633img_0631img_0622img_0623img_0615img_0613img_0610img_0630img_0643img_0644img_0627fb936be8-01fb-4586-a712-ec23d1e897fc

The Long Road Home

26 May

Eight isa pile of puppiesyears ago, our lives changed forever.

The doctor sat us down in the hospital room, his face full of concern. “We finally know what it is,” he said, quietly, “She has a form of leukemia.”

For two agonizing days, my husband and I had been pacing the hospital hallways waiting for the bone marrow biopsy to tell us what was wrong with our daughter. Now a pediatric oncologist with tired eyes and a stethoscope around his neck was telling us that our fourth child—our baby girl—had cancer.

Those ominous words should have expelled all the air from my lungs, buckled my knees out from under me, or caused me to run screaming down the hospital corridor—but they didn’t. Oddly, I felt only relief. We finally had a definitive answer as to why my two year-old was so sick. Yes, it turned out to be cancer—but at least we knew what it was and could immediately get started on saving her life.

I can do this, I told myself, not realizing that our ROAD TRIP TO HELL was about to begin. For the next two and a half years, our family would travel down that bumpy, pot-holed road, the gas tank running on empty, the tires balding and the radiator constantly threatening to overheat as we navigated our way through a cancer diagnosis without a map. Isa, strapped into her car seat, would thrash about in the back, sweaty and miserable as she crammed Lays potato chips into her mouth, the salty snacks the only food she ever wanted to eat. In the rearview mirror I watched in horror as my beautiful daughter morphed into this hairless, grotesque creature with a protruding belly and swollen cheeks. Her normally sweet brown eyes were filled with an unrecognizable fury caused by the steroids that we crushed into a white powder and mixed with cherry syrup, feeding it to her each night like a special treat.

The constant fear was the worst part—the multiple surgeries to infuse chemo into Isa’s spine; the weekly lab reports signaling her low blood counts which indicated a non-functioning immune system. This meant staying indoors, constant hand-washing and no visitors. A high blood count report meant that I could actually breathe again until the next round of chemo started. For years my hands rarely left Isa’s body as I felt her skin for any sign of fever. When her skin burned with a temperature over 101.5 it meant a trip back to the hospital—cool skin under my fingertips meant no infection and it was such an enormous relief it was like diving into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot, summer day.

Now, eight years after Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, the lives of our family have returned to normal—if there even is such a thing. Isa is perfectly healthy with no long-term effects from the chemotherapy. Now I can’t even remember the names of all the medications she took. Our daughter is blossoming into an intelligent and thoughtful young girl with a wicked sense of humor. Every day when I see her beautiful smile and hear her laugh, my heart fills with gratitude.

And although we are beyond delighted with our happy outcome, we do carry residual sadness in our hearts from losing children we have known and loved during this long trip. That sorrow gets easier as time goes on, but it will never go away. And I believe that’s a good thing—because in remembering those who have died, we are more apt to cherish those who are still here with us.

Aug 30 07 022

As we approach the eighth anniversary of Isa’s diagnosis, I’m truly thankful for what our family went through all those years ago. I’m grateful for the friends, family and those in the medical field who supported us back then—and who still support us today. I’m grateful that this experience changed me, and that I’m not the same woman I used to be. I’m more loving, more appreciative, more present in the moment, and more at peace with myself than I was before Isa got sick. I’ve realized how incredibly strong I am. I understand that there is only right now, and most importantly, that not only is it acceptable for me to put myself first at times—it’s often necessary. After all, I’m the one behind the wheel.

Our long road trip was arduous and exhausting and I consider it a miracle we arrived home safely. I’ve no doubt there will be other journeys as our family navigates down that long road of life, but lately it’s become a much smoother ride. So smooth, in fact—that now we can actually take time to roll down the windows, breathe in the sweet spring air and marvel at the scenery.

A Happy Ending

18 Feb

RANDOM 122Days go by when I don’t stop to remember that my daughter is a cancer survivor. I even forget to be grateful that Isa is still here with us. Sometimes it feels like the whole cancer experience was a just a tragic movie that our family acted in a very long time ago—a movie filled with fear, angst and sadness but ultimately concluded with a triumphant and happy ending.

I’m to the point now where life is so normal that I actually hear myself complaining about the weather—and this is when it’s eighty degrees outside in February. Isa is nine now, completely cured of her leukemia, growing tall and lithe; busy with singing classes, piano lessons and Girl Scouts. She’s a joyful and funny child—at that lovely pre-adolescent age when everything about life is still fun and exciting—where she wakes up overcome with exuberance as she meets each new day. The beauty of her smile is intoxicating.

This is in stark contrast to me at age fifty-one, when I don’t recognize the old woman with wiry hair and bags under her eyes who stares back at me in the mirror each morning. My body aches as I tightly grip the handrails of the menopausal roller coaster as it throws me into loop after loop of hormone diminishing mood swings, memory loss and weight gain. It would be easy to complain about it all, but I won’t. Because compared to that movie I acted in a few years back, a few aches and pains, forgetfulness, and some grumpiness are really nothing at all.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been granted the luxury of complaining about insignificant things like menopause because I’m no longer stuck in a hospital room with my daughter tethered to an I.V. line as I watch the chemotherapy wreak havoc on her little body.

There are so many families out there right now who don’t have that luxury—families who are going through what ours went through—some who have little or no hope that their child will survive. I read about them on Facebook and my heart breaks with every story because I know their fear. I know their sadness. I want to promise them it will all get better, and for some it will, but for others there will be no happy ending to their movie.

I’ve realized that when I start to complain about the unimportant things and forget that I had my happy ending, it’s time to bring out that movie and watch it over again—to be reminded that there is still so much to be done to raise money and awareness for cancer research so that eventually, every family with a child diagnosed with cancer will have a happy ending.

My husband, Rene is running his eleventh Marathon in a few weeks, and my daughter, Leah has taken it upon herself to help him raise money for the Pablove Foundation for pediatric cancer research. Here’s the link: http://www.stayclassy.org/fundraise?fcid=257002  Check it out. Maybe your small gesture is just what’s needed to help a child have a happy ending like Isa’s. A little goes a long way.

From this…

Aug 30 07 022

100_0069

isa on horse

IMG_0758 Isa Mireles 4-26-13 - Copy

To this.

Out of the Darkness

9 May

isa and me in hospitalThis morning, I was interviewed on K-Lite Radio for Santa Barbara’s Cottage Children’s Hospital. To most people, I’m sure it was no big deal, just a mother talking about her young daughter’s cancer experience to encourage listeners to donate to the local hospital where she was treated and cured.

And it really wasn’t a big deal, except that it was. Because, almost six years later, after my life has spun itself into a comfortable pattern of normalcy, I’m compelled to remember those dark days by once again sharing my story with others.

Over the past few years I’ve become quite adept at weaving those painful memories into the back of my mind like a skilled seamstress who has managed to hide that dark strand of yarn underneath the clean white stitches. But by reliving those frightening first days in the hospital, I’m obliged to unravel the memories and bring them back to the surface again.

I’m wise enough now to realize those memories are a gift; the surgeries and the blood transfusions; the unimaginable pain of witnessing a two year old suffer through chemotherapy treatments; watching Isa lose her hair until there was nothing left but a smooth dome of skin; seeing her belly bloat from the steroids; waking up in the middle of the night to touch her puffy cheeks to check for a fever; the overwhelming feeling of fear in my stomach that never went away; and all the while wondering if my baby was going to die.

Because if I don’t remember, I will return to the way I was before Isa got sick, when life was not as miraculous as it is today. These memories remind that I have to let go of what is not important.  I have to be thankful that my little girl is healthy and beautiful and that she is still here with me. I have to remember that what I have right now in this very moment is enough, and that my gratitude has the power to disentangle those little worries that I so expertly knit together into a tangled ball of dissatisfaction.

I have to remember the joy of coming out of the darkness and into the light.

Happy and healthy at eight years old.

Happy and healthy at eight years old.

My List

21 Dec
Isa's first Christmas after being diagnosed with cancer

Isa’s first Christmas after being diagnosed with cancer

Christmas is right around the corner, and as I wrote about in my last blog post, my tradition is to send out a family photo and annual newsletter detailing our family’s experiences and accomplishments over the past year.

This year, in honor of my eight year-old daughter, Isa who celebrated her fifth year of being cancer-free (and is now considered completely cured) I decided to write a different kind of letter—one that focused on what our family has learned over the past five years since Isa was diagnosed with leukemia.

I’ve decided to post part of my letter for my blog readers because sometimes it helps to have an actual list right in front of you.

 

The Most Important Things the Mireles Family has Learned over the Past Five Years Since Isa was Diagnosed with Cancer

  1. It shouldn’t take almost losing someone close to you to make you realize how important they are.
  2. People in general are inherently good and will always step up and try to help in times of crisis.
  3. As much as we try, we cannot control everything. Sometimes it’s best not to fight too much and instead just let it happen.
  4. Allowing others to help and love you does not make you a weak person, it makes you human.
  5. The more love you give, the more love you get in return.
  6. There’s no reason to hold onto the past or worry too much about the future—it’s really the right now that matters. Live in the moment.
  7. Being critical and judgmental does not make you feel better in the long run. It actually makes you feel worse.
  8. People are who they are—it’s pointless to try to change them. It’s easier to just love them.
  9. Wanting what you have is way better than trying to have what you want.
  10. Although having money is great, feeling gratitude for all of the “insignificant” things in our lives makes us far richer than any amount of money ever could.
  11. Never take anyone for granted.
  12. Laughter and tears are equally important.
  13. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE and then LOVE some more. Then TELL those people how much you love them.

I am so grateful for all of you who read and comment on my blog! I hope this Holiday Season overflows with love, joy and laughter, and…

May the coming year reveal the blessings that are already right there in front of you!

isa xmas tree

She's come a long way!

She’s come a long way!

 

Time to Remember

23 Oct

I almost didn’t do it.

Halloween will be here soon, and we had already decorated the front porch with strands of cottony spider webs and dangling skeletons. We’ve been planning our costumes for weeks now and a tiny witch’s costume and black hat dangle spookily in the closet when it’s not being tried on over and over again. Bright orange pumpkins, swollen with seeds, sit on the hearth waiting to be hollowed out and turned into grimacing goblins.

It’s that season again, when the days shorten and the change of light paints shadow pictures on the sidewalks as the sun settles lower in the sky. I knew that there was still one thing left to be done, but I thought that I just didn’t want to do it again this year. My husband, Rene still hadn’t brought it up, so I figured that we just weren’t going to get around to it.

Selfishly, I was relieved that he hadn’t said anything, because I just didn’t feel like digging through the shed to look for all the boxes. The thought of having to sift through all of the stuff was more than just a bit overwhelming. Besideswhy do I always have to be the one who does everything around here?

Then last Saturday evening, my oldest daughter, Nora said, “Mom, I’m going to set up the altar—want to help?” and I suddenly realized that I did want to help.

We moved tables and covered them with white cloths; we emptied boxes of candles and vases and arranged them around the centerpiece of a grinning papier-mâché skull. My daughter Isa and her best friend, Tali helped tape tissue paper onto an arch that stretched across the window in a rainbow of pink, orange and yellow flowers. Lastly and most importantly, we lovingly dusted off the photographs and placed them on the altar. The following day, we took a trip to the farmer’s market and bought bunches of fresh marigolds and gladioli and came home and filled up the vases.

Isa and Tali helping to set up the altar.

The altar was ready for Dia de los Muertos. It’s time to remember.

I’d been trying to ignore the importance of this celebration because I’d been thinking all along that it’s only for Rene that we do it each year. After all, it’s his Mexican culture, not mine.  Yet in the process setting up the altar; through the act of looking at all the photographs of the people who have died and really thinking about them, I always realize how important this celebration is to me.

Time has a way of robbing us of that deep connection we once had with our loved ones, no matter how devastating their deaths were to us. People die—even children die—and yet somehow life manages to continue on no matter what. Our memories fade and those of us who are still here on this earth tend to let those memories slip into the recesses of our consciousness. As we move on with our lives, we forget to remember. And in forgetting, we lose that sense of emotional connection that we once held so deeply in our hearts.

I want to remember these people because in doing so, they continue to stay alive.

Lexi died last February, so this is the first time she's been placed on our altar.

Lexi Krasnoff died last February, so this is the first time she’s been placed on our altar.

Rosie Chavez was a star who still shines brightly on our altar. We left her some red lollipops.

Michael “T.T” McGrew and Jessi Modeen both died from their cancer. I never met Jessi, but found out after Isa was diagnosed that her mother, Denise used to live three houses down from us and I babysat her when she was a child. She always loved my name, and gave it to Jessi when she was born.

It’s impossible to forget little Jeffrey Zamora! Rene’s parents, Herlinda and Elias Mireles watch over him in the background.

Our altar at night with all of the candles lit. My dad is right above the skull.

Our precious Gillian Winters.

Cancer Causes Love

26 Sep

On a recent sultry September afternoon, I watched happily as my seven year-old daughter, Isa scrambled around with other children at the park, her long, dark hair swinging across her back as she dodged the hot sun under a canopy of shady oak trees. She’s come a long way since that time five years ago when her little bald head was as smooth and hairless as a ripe honeydew melon.

Last Sunday, our family attended the annual reunion party for the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Pediatric Oncology Department where Isa was treated for her leukemia when she was two years old. We always look forward to going to this event because we get to see the many friends that we’ve made at the hospital, but mostly we go because sometimes we just need to be reminded of how lucky we are.

Isa, about a month before her cancer diagnosis.

Isa has now been cancer free for over five years, and so our day to day lives no longer revolve around chemo treatments, bone marrow aspirations, spinal taps or blood and platelet transfusions. No longer do I wake up in a panic in the middle of the night because my daughter is running a fever and I have to rush her to the hospital. It’s been a very long time since I had to cradle her head as she vomited from the chemo or deal with her black moods brought on by the steroids.

As time goes on it gets easier to forget that scary time in our lives. Things have returned to normal—or to whatever “normal” is. My husband and I still experience the usual day to day worry that many other married couples do—such as how to pay the bills, how to pay the bills, and how to pay the bills, but this particular worry is nothing compared with the added anxiety that our child could possibly die.  Luckily, we’re now home free and we get to cross cancer off our list.

Isa, bloated and bald after six months of chemo.

This is why I’m writing about pediatric cancer again. At the hospital reunion party I saw children of all colors and sizes—more than a few of them with bald heads, and I was reminded that there are still too many families who have yet to cross cancer off their list. I was reminded of three year-old Lexi Krasnoff, who at last year’s party, took off all of her clothes and ran naked through the park, the dome of her fuzzy head gleaming in the sun. Lexi wasn’t with us at the party this time because she died of her leukemia last February. Her parents have crossed cancer off their list, but not in the way they had prayed.

Cancer is always a very nasty thing, especially when it comes to children, and it’s always a struggle no matter what the circumstances are. Yet there is one beneficial side effect from cancer, whether your child lives or dies from this disease: It is LOVE.

During those first days when Isa was in the hospital, when I was as terrified and vulnerable as a child lost in the wilderness, I experienced a huge shift in my consciousness. I became aware that I was not all alone in this universe and that there were multitudes of people around me—hospital staff, family, friends, and even complete strangers whose love for Isa and our family enveloped us in huge bear hug and lifted us out of that all consuming darkness and fear. I was open to something I would have never known before Isa’s cancer diagnosis: the genuine connection of pure love that exists between each and every one of us.

There’s just something about a child with cancer that makes you forget that negative way of thinking—you know what I’m talking about—those feelings of judgment, resentment, envy and hate with which we’ve become so damn comfortable.

When you learn of an innocent child who’s been diagnosed with cancer, your first reaction is “That poor family! What can I do to help?”  You stop thinking of yourself for a moment and your heart opens up a little more. Your perspective on life changes and you realize how lucky you are that your child is not experiencing something so dire. Perhaps you even begin to appreciate those around you more and your capacity to give and receive love becomes more significant. Your connection with others begins to synchronize and you begin to understand that all of us are exactly the same on the inside.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could experience this profound connection with others without a child having to suffer through the disease of cancer? Wouldn’t it be incredible if it didn’t take something as hideous as pediatric cancer to allow us to love and appreciate each other on a deeper level?  Wouldn’t it be perfect if no child ever had to suffer through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation again in order to teach us about this magnificent gift of love?

There’s no doubt about it—love grows and evolves when a child is diagnosed with cancer. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. And because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a time when we all need to be reminded to nurture this love and spread it around. There is ample opportunity to help: volunteer for an organization that helps children with cancer, make a donation to cancer research, or reach out to a family whose child has been diagnosed with cancer.

Let’s keep this awareness alive and do all we can to find a cure so that someday, an innocent child won’t have to suffer through the pain of cancer treatment just so you and I can learn to love each other the way we’re meant to.

http://teddybearcancerfoundation.org/

http://www.sbch.org/OurHospitals/CottageChildrensHospital/tabid/150/Default.aspx

http://www.curesearch.org/

http://www.lls.org/

Riding the Waves

14 Jun

My seven year-old daughter is Hanging Ten this week. The soggy gray drizzle of Santa Barbara’s typical June weather doesn’t discourage my little brown “Wahine” as she dons a miniature wet suit and wades into the frigid Pacific Ocean. Spread with a thick layer of sunscreen and a light dusting of sand on her cinnamon skin, she is as delicious as a warm sugar bun fresh from the oven. Isa giggles and shrieks with delight as the foamy tide hungrily swallows up her feet and as I watch her leap and dance upon the shore I’m so full of gratitude that my heart physically hurts.

This week, Isa gets to do something for which I would never consider paying good money for her to learn to do: SURF. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a California girl born and raised, and I most certainly do appreciate the sport (or art form) of surfing—it’s just that the $400 for five days of surf camp isn’t something our budget can realistically handle at the moment.

The most wonderful and marvelous detail about this story is that I don’t have to pay for surf camp—Isa gets to participate in this camp for free. She gets this opportunity because when she was two and a half years old, she came close to losing her life to cancer, and surf camp is just one of the many “cancer perks” she has received since her diagnosis over five years ago.

All of you know that cancer (especially when kids get it) is mostly evil and rotten and torturous, but as I’ve reiterated since the start of our wild journey into the world of pediatric cancer, it’s also responsible for bringing beauty and kindness and love into the lives of patients and their families. One of the most moving aspects of being thrown into this whole cancer mess is discovering how many people out there are willing to help make your life easier. This week, the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation and Surf Happens of Santa Barbara have stepped up for us, sponsoring Isa for a week of surf camp so that she can climb up on a surfboard and ride a wave for the very first time in her life.

Now, over the past five years, I’ve learned to appreciate these “cancer perks” that have been generously given to Isa and the rest of our family since she was  diagnosed with her leukemia. I first heard the term, “cancer perks” from writer John Green, whose teenage characters in his novel The Fault in Our Stars discuss the various perks they receive because they are fighting cancer. (I highly recommend reading this poignant, yet often hilarious love story if you want to understand a little more about how life-changing pediatric cancer can be, not only for the patient but for the entire family as well.)

Some of the “cancer perks” our family has received over the past few years are: financial support during Isa’s initial hospitalization, loads of fun parties, free tickets to events, weekend family camps and presents too numerous to even count. Let’s not forget the Big Kahuna perk—the all expenses-paid trip to Disneyworld (Thank you, Make-a-Wish Foundation for an experience our family will never forget.) We’ve accepted these gifts with great appreciation and gratitude, but now that Isa is coming up on her five year anniversary of complete remission, the idea that we should still be receiving “cancer perks” weighs on my mind quite a bit. The internal struggle I’ve been facing is that I wonder if it’s still all right for Isa to get free stuff even if she’s going to be considered cured in a few short months?

You may not realize it, but a ton of guilt attaches itself to a family of a cancer survivor. Bottom line is that your child is alive, while some of your friends’ children have died. The guilt that comes with this experience is often wrenching (although I know our pain is only a minute fraction of the pain that my friends feel after having lost their child.) Then there’s the guilt you feel when your child is done with her treatment and is now living a happy and healthy life, while other children are suffering through their chemotherapy and are constantly miserable. You are beyond elated that your child made it and want to shout it to the mountaintops, but feel the need to keep it to yourself so as not to make anyone feel too badly that they’re still in the thick of it.

A few weeks ago Isa and I attended the annual “Family Fun Day” event put on by The Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation. It’s a chance for families to get together at a ranch in our local mountains and just relax and have fun with other families who have children battling cancer. I was surprised to have met so many new families whose children have recently been diagnosed, and as I watched the parents interact with their kids, I could see the fear in their eyes, even though they were smiling and laughing and acting as if they were having a good time.

I know exactly how they feel—how their world has shrunk into a place where you only think about cancer and treatment and worry and fear; a world where you carry plastic bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere you go to kill any microscopic germs that may infect and sicken your immune-suppressed child; a world where you try to get your kid to eat even a tiny bit of healthy food even though they shake their heads and cry and tell you that they’re not hungry.

I talked to a few parents whose children have been diagnosed with the same leukemia that Isa had. I remember when Isa first got sick, any story of survival gave me the faith I needed to get through another day, so my hope is that by relating our happy ending to them, they are comforted by the fact that if my child survived, theirs will too.

I guess I’ve just answered my own question about whether or not it’s all right for us to still be receiving “cancer perks.” Of course it is. Our role is that of cancer warriors—if we beat it, then so can you. If our presence offers hope to others, then accepting perks like surf camp is the right thing to do.  If we turn our sad story into a triumphant one,  then perhaps the guilt can be left behind.

I believe that because Isa had cancer, she will never again be just an ordinary girl. Her cancer experience has turned her into something special because she’s a survivor and for this reason alone, she’s a bright light of hope for those families who are waiting and watching as their own child goes through treatment. It’s our responsibility to do whatever we can to ease the pain of others who find themselves navigating helplessly through the rough waters of pediatric cancer.

My sweet little bald Isa.

I’ll never forget that I was once caught in that storm, feeling as if I was about to capsize without a lifejacket. Even today, I think about cancer every morning when I run the hairbrush through Isa’s long, tangled hair while she whines and complains that I’m such a mean mommy to be hurting her this way, and I remember the time when there was nothing growing on her bald little head. I think about cancer when she comes home from school and runs into my piano studio to kiss me hello and gushes on about what her teacher taught her, or what her best friend said, and these seemingly mundane moments make me happier than I ever thought I could be.  I think about cancer when I tuck her in at night and kiss her smooth cheeks, and I no longer have to force her to swallow four different kinds of chemotherapy pills before she drifts off to sleep.

I’m not able to leave the cancer world behind because as I’ve said so many times before, I don’t want to. Isa’s cancer has helped turn me into the person I needed to become. I refuse to stop thinking about cancer because if I do, I might lapse back into that woman who I used to be—the one who was ungrateful and disappointed and dissatisfied for so long—the one who used to stand on the beach and moan and groan about the sand and the tar and the freezing water.

I realize now that I’m lucky to be where I am today. All of that pain and suffering that our family went through has made me aware that the beauty and magnificence of life is hurtling down upon us every minute of every day, just like those perfect green waves that form and curl, and then break upon the shoreline, never resting, never stopping, never giving up.

So I’ll take the “cancer perks” for as long as they’re offered, and in turn, I’ll be right there, holding Isa’s hand as we stand on the beach, the frothy waves crashing over our feet, our presence there offering absolute proof to others that anything is possible.

Waiting

6 Jan

Two beautiful ladies: Kat and Lexi

My friend Kat is waiting. She waits while she puts the dirty laundry into the washing machine, she waits while she scrubs the kitchen sink, and she waits as she bends over to pick up toys strewn about the living room floor. Every time she takes a breath she is waiting.

When your child has cancer, you wait.

It’s exhausting—all of this waiting.  It’s especially wearisome when Kat has to wait in her daughter’s hospital room while Lexi gets her most recent dose of chemotherapy. I know firsthand how difficult it is to spend all day and night in a bleak hospital room, where time drags on and on and terror makes itself comfortable in your stomach like an unwanted house guest.

When the current round of chemo is finished, Kat takes Lexi home, where she waits to see if her daughter’s suppressed immune system will be strong enough to fight off any infection. She waits for the fever to come, and it usually does. She travels back and forth to the hospital (sometimes every day) to draw blood and check Lexi’s hemoglobin and platelet counts.

Lexi in the hospital.

At the clinic, Kat waits patiently while the nurses fuss over her daughter—they can’t help it because Lexi is special. She’s smart and funny and precocious, and she’s one of their favorite patients. Kat laughs and jokes along with the staff, even teasing the doctors at times like they’re family—and indeed, because of this nasty thing called cancer, they have become just like her family.

She waits for Lexi’s white cells to go back up. She waits for her daughter to feel better. To Kat, seeing Lexi feeling good is as calming as putting on a pair of warm pajamas fresh from the dryer—soft and safe and comforting, even though she knows the warmth will only last for a short while.

Then Kat waits for the phone call from the clinic to see if the chemo has done what it’s supposed to do. This is the most excruciating waiting of all. It’s especially difficult when the voice on the other end tells her that Lexi is not in remission and that she has to go back into the hospital for more chemo—this time for a stronger form with even more side effects.

Kat has been waiting a very long time for her three year-old daughter to go into remission.  And she can do nothing but pray and hope and wait, because Lexi must have a bone marrow transplant to live.

Lexi, before her diagnosis of leukemia.

A mother should never have to think that her child could die. It’s an agony beyond comprehension. The love that we mothers hold for our children is so infinite that the mere idea of the possibility of their death drags us into that suffocating room of unthinkable anguish.

Before my daughter Isabella’s diagnosis of leukemia over four years ago—before I even knew what real fear was about, I foolishly tormented myself by visiting that room in my mind every so often.

For years I had a bad habit of waking up in the middle of the night and letting my imagination run away with me like a child on a bicycle speeding down a steep hill. I’d squeeze the hand brakes a little so that the fleeting images in my head would start out slowly and relatively innocuous. Maybe I’d picture one of my kids falling and chipping a tooth, or perhaps slamming their fingers in the car door.

It never stopped there, though. As I pedaled down that dangerous hill of make-believe, the pictures in my mind always became more graphic. Within a few minutes, I’d have come up with some insidious scenario involving my children and electrical sockets, watching them running out in front of a speeding car or worst of all—finding their lifeless bodies at the bottom of our swimming pool.

It was a very sick habit—this making up of horror stories. I don’t even know why I allowed myself to do this, but the more I practiced the better at it I became. I was like a veteran film director shooting a climactic scene; it was absurd the variety of dreadful endings I could come up with! And my mental movies never had a happy ending.

At times, these visions snatched the breath right out of my lungs as I laid there in bed, the stillness of the night amplifying my terror. But even then I knew these thoughts were just figments of my neurosis, that it was just a stupid game I played in my head. I could shake it off, pull the covers back up to my chin and go back to sleep. I could forget all about it.

And then I couldn’t forget about it, because it became real. And never once did I imagine my child getting cancer as the ending to one of my movies.

So I went through my journey with Isa’s cancer, because I had no other choice. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t close my eyes and go back to sleep—I had to face the reality that my child could die.

I sat and waited in the very same hospital rooms as Kat. I’ve made friends with the very same nurses and I’ve even teased the same doctors. I’ve waited in agony for those anxiety-producing phone calls. I’ve cried, I’ve worried, and like Kat, I’ve had some very bad days.

Isa in the hospital on her third birthday, bald from chemo and bloated from the steroids.

Fortunately, I’ve had more good days than bad. I’ve made it through to the other side. Isa’s leukemia was the kind that has the highest cure rate, and she had all the criteria for a good outcome: her young age, her genetic and chromosomal make-up and most importantly, she responded rapidly to the chemotherapy.

I’ll never forget waiting for the doctor to call and tell us whether or not Isa’s cancer had gone into remission. On that warm summer afternoon when I answered the call from her pediatric oncologist, my stomach knotted as I braced myself for the worst. When I heard those words on the other end of the phone “absolutely no more leukemia cells in her bone marrow,”I sobbed tears of joy and relief as I fell into my husband’s arms—so thankful that such a burden had been lifted off our shoulders.

Mommy and Isa at the beach, December 2011

Since I began this  journey with Isa’s cancer, I’ve stopped my late night visits to that room of imaginary horror—there’s no need to go there. There never was. I’ve grown and changed and learned to live more in the moment. I’ve felt the love and concern from friends, family and even strangers pour into me like warm milk and honey. I’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer goodness of people and I’m forever grateful that my real-life movie turned out to have a happy ending after all.

Isa today, hair all grown back.

Though I don’t presume to speak for Kat, I know that she has had many of the same kinds of experiences and is thankful for those who have helped her along the way.

Lexi has a long road ahead of her. Her leukemia has been difficult to treat. When she finally reaches remission (and I believe with my heart and soul that she will—I have to believe this), Kat will have to begin the process of waiting again as she takes her baby girl through the bone marrow transplant. She will have lots of help along the way because although cancer is a terrible disease, many incredible things begin to happen when a child is diagnosed.

And Kat will have her happy ending, too—I just know it.

A mother will wait for as long as it takes.

Lexi and Kat at the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation Christmas Party