Tag Archives: Santa Barbara California

A Different Outcome

21 Feb

It’s difficult to believe that an entire year has passed since Lexi Krasnoff died from her leukemia. I’m re-posting this in honor of her precious memory. She will never be forgotten.

Lexi Krasnoff died on a Friday afternoon at four thirty. It had been a glorious Santa Barbara day—the kind of day when we forget that we’re still in the middle of February. A soft breeze drifted through the newly budding trees and pointed its finger in the direction of spring. It was the kind of day when the air was scented with a hit of early blooming flowers, offering a sense of anticipation and hope for what was ahead. It was not a day when a beautiful and precious three year-old girl should have died.

But there’s never a day when it’s tolerable for a child to die.

When I told my seven year-old daughter that her little friend, Lexi had died, she didn’t believe me at first.

“Isa,” I told her, pulling her onto my lap. “I’m so very sorry to have to tell you that Lexi died this afternoon.”

She stared at me with a half smile on her face. “No she didn’t, Mommy—you’re just kidding around with me!”

My eyes filled as I choked out the words. “No, Honey—I’m not joking. Lexi died a few hours ago. I’m so sorry, sweetie.” I cradled my daughter’s warm body to mine and cried into her sweet-smelling neck.

She pulled away from me. She still didn’t believe me. “Mommy, Lexi didn’t die! That’s not funny!”

I took her by her shoulders and looked into her face. My voice cracked.

“Isa—I’m sorry, but it’s really true. Lexi was very sick and her little body couldn’t fight the leukemia anymore and she died a little while ago at the hospital.”

She saw the tears on my cheeks and finally realized I was telling her the truth. And then she began to sob. I’d never seen Isa this upset before. She cried uncontrollably for almost an hour and there was nothing I could to do to console my daughter. Her friend was gone.

Lexi and Isa three weeks before she died.

What I admire most about Lexi’s mother, Kat is that she never gave up hope that Lexi would make it. She spent day after day in a hospital room waiting for her daughter to get well again. When Lexi was moved to the pediatric intensive care unit, she became a mother lion who would not stand for tears or sad faces from visitors because that meant they did not have hope.  As she watched and waited while the leukemia ravaged her daughter’s little body, I know she held onto that hope until the very last moment.

Since I learned of Lexi’s death, a sensation of pressure has been building in my chest like a vice has been carefully positioned on either side of my lungs. It squeezes a little tighter every day, making it more difficult to take a deep breath. I thought my bouts of tears would help loosen the tightness in my chest, but it’s not going away. It sits there—rock hard and unbreakable, making my heart feel heavy and my body fatigued.

At first I thought it was only the grief and sadness over losing Lexi that was filling up my chest and clouding my thoughts with despair.  After all, Lexi was an extraordinary little girl who charmed me and everyone else around her with her sweet smile and sassy personality. She was special, and it wasn’t just because she had cancer—from what I’ve heard from her family and friends, she was born that way. I feel a deep sadness about her death that weighs heavily on me, but it’s more than that—the pain I feel is mixed with an emotion which burdens me in a more profound sense: I feel guilty.

Isa at Lexi’s memorial.

I feel guilty because by some luck of the draw, my daughter lived, and Kat’s daughter did not. Although I’m filled with an unending gratitude that Isa is still here with us, I’ve become fully aware of the unfairness of Lexi’s death. I also know that what I’m experiencing is “survivor’s guilt” and that it’s a common emotion for parents of children who survive their cancer.

Isa’s oncologist warned me about this condition four years ago after a little boy named Jeffrey died of the exact type of leukemia that killed Lexi. We had befriended Jeffrey and his family in the hospital when Isa was first diagnosed, and our families developed a bond that only families with children suffering cancer can form. When Jeffrey relapsed and died, it was a crushing blow to our entire family. The intense fear that I felt about Jeffrey’s death caused my panic level to rise to a fever pitch because it made the possibility of Isa’s death that much more real. If it happened to Jeffrey, it could happen to Isa.

I remember feeling guilty that Isa was doing relatively well during her illness, but because I was in the throes of her treatment and so terrified of losing her, I set aside those feelings of guilt and placed my complete focus on taking care of my daughter. For my own psychological survival, I had to shut myself down. At that time, I didn’t think about how unfair Jeffrey’s death was. I convinced myself that there was some predetermined reason for our friends to lose their only son to this horrible disease, and that someday we would all realize the good that came from it. I shoved all of those intense feelings of guilt and loss into a hidden chamber in my heart and left them there, unresolved and festering like bacteria growing in a Petri dish.

So here I am again, in the same place I was after Jeffrey’s death, but the difference is that now Isa is healthy, and I’m strong enough to face the pain and the guilt about Lexi’s death. This is why I’m walking around in a daze and can’t snap out of it. This is why my heart hurts so much. I finally understand the unfairness of it all and I feel the pain to the core of my being. I wish there was something—anything—that I could do to take Kat’s suffering away, but I know that no matter what I say or do, it will never be enough.

Caleb, Jonathan, Kat and Lexi Krasnoff

What I hold close in my heart is the knowledge that Lexi brought so much love into this world during her short life. I saw how much the doctors and nurses at the hospital loved having her as their patient. I witnessed it at her memorial service when her father spoke about how Lexi was his best friend. I listened when her grandfather talked about how Lexi taught him what pure love was. I cried when one of Lexi’s neighborhood friends got up in front of all those people in the church and sang a song dedicated to her. Finally, I watched as hundreds of people let go of pink balloons into the clouds above, on each one a personal message written to this sweet little girl who died too soon. Lexi, just by being who she was, had managed to change them forever.

Messages sent to Lexi

But I also realize that it’s not fair that the world doesn’t get to watch this adorable little girl with the big brown eyes and pouty lips grow up into a sparkling young woman full of life. It’s not fair that my daughter lost her little friend to cancer. It’s not fair that Lexi’s little brother Caleb will never know his big sister.  It’s not fair that I get to watch Isa grow and learn and play and dance and laugh and go to college and get married and have children and Lexi’s parents do not get to watch their daughter do these same things. I’m sad and sick and angry about this. Why do I get it all and they don’t?

Pam, the nurse (and close friend) who has helped take care of Isa these past four years helped put things into perspective for me. She told me that it’s normal to feel guilty when your child survives cancer when other children die. She said that my experience dealing with Isa’s cancer is every bit as painful and life-changing as that of a parent whose child has died from this insidious disease.

“In your mind’s eye,” Pam told me, “you probably watched Isa die and may have may have even planned her funeral—every parent who has a child with a life-threatening illness goes to that dark place, so your pain is just as weighty as anyone else’s. From what you’ve been through, you know intimately how that pain feels. It’s just that you had a different outcome.”

Yes, my outcome was different—I was one of the lucky ones.  And I’m sure the guilt will stay with me, but it’s imperative that I feel it and deal with it and not run away from it. It’s important for me to use my experiences to help others should they need it. I know that it’s my responsibility to offer my love and support to those families who will benefit from hearing my story, because I was one of the ones who had a different outcome.

No matter what happens, every parent who has a child with cancer needs to know that Isa made it, because then they can have the hope that their own child will survive. Hope is really the essence of life, and the one thing we all can hang onto. Hope is what kept Kat going until Lexi took her last breath.

And yes, it’s true that sometimes children die from their cancer.

But sometimes, they don’t.

The Tree of Life

19 Oct

There are those who claim that we have no real seasons in Southern California, and who can logically argue with them when the temperature is a balmy 75 degree on Christmas Day? But I know better—there are definitely seasons— and though their entrances are often subtle, I watch and wait for those changes just like any seasoned Easterner who anticipates the first sign of spring’s crocus popping up out of the frosty ground after a long winter. Luckily, I have a dear friend who helps me discern the change in seasons, and she lives right outside my front door.

I’m fortunate to have lived in the same house practically my entire life. My parents migrated west in 1960 from Baltimore in a faded black, beat-up old Chevy to sunny Santa Barbara, California, with nothing but a few hundred dollars in their pockets and a shining hope for their new life in a warmer climate. They scrounged together a meager $500 for a down payment on a brand new three-bedroom tract home that cost less than twenty thousand dollars, which included a magnificent view out the front window of the purple and blue Santa Ynez mountain range.

Life was good indeed.

I was born a year later and have never lived anywhere else except for a four-year stint at college in smoggy Los Angeles. During my senior year at USC, my father passed away suddenly, and so after graduation, I brought my brand new husband to Santa Barbara to live in my childhood home so that he could get started on his own education. A few years later, we purchased it at a very good price from my mother (the price was really a bargain because she came along with the transaction, although I’m not quite sure if my husband still thinks it was such a good deal.)

The tiny house has grown larger over the years. Additional rooms have been added on to make space for a growing family; first when my two brothers and I were growing up, and later as my husband and I created our own brood of four children.  A backyard pool was added. Weekends were spent re- landscaping the garden and colorful flowerbeds were planted.

Our neighborhood has changed since I was young; children have grown up and left, and then returned, just like I did, with their own families. There are more cars parked on the street than before. The elementary school I attended nearby closed long ago because of a decreasing population, and the last of the original lemon orchards that we played in as children were razed to build condominiums.

My daughter, Isa, contemplating life under the Liquidambar tree

Throughout the years, though, there has been one constant friend in the neighborhood: the Liquidambar tree that grows in the parkway in front of our house. She stands tall and grand; her dark and rough fifty year-old bark resembling the hide of an old elephant. In this Mediterranean climate where the weather is warm year-round, my front yard friend is my secret weapon which lets me know when the seasons are changing.

Haphazardly taped into our old family photo album are the faded snapshots of our tree in its infancy: a spindly, pathetic little thing that couldn’t offer much shade to a bug. Half a century later, no one could’ve ever imagined she would tower over our street one day, creating a canopy of shady respite from the heat of summer, or offering a burst of such intense color in October and November that you might think you’re somewhere in Vermont in autumn.

Having fun at a neighborhood block party. You can see the young tree on the right.

And back when she was first planted, I assume no one in the neighborhood could’ve possibly imagined what a mess she would make one day, either.

Come October, her real show begins in a conflagration of colorful leaves that swoop and swirl in the crisp air like flying bats; endless crimson, gold and orange leaves spin down and litter the streets and gutters. Her dry brown leaves crunch noisily under my feet as I take my morning walk. Add a backdrop of gray clouds, the scent of a little wood smoke in the air, and my senses come alive with the anticipation of the coming holidays.

“How utterly enchanting this tree is,” I think happily. “It’s a perfect New England autumn right before my eyes!”

Every year I’m charmed by the Liquidambar’s preview, and every year I forget that she stars in the main B movie attraction: THE ATTACK OF THE STICKLE BALLS.

There are many names for the spindly and dangerous globes that fall from my Liquidambar tree onto the grass and sidewalks below her boughs. Every year, these miniature weapons stealthily lie in wait for me on the lawn or sidewalk, ready to attack. Often referred to as “Ankle Biters” or “Ankle-Twisters” in California, our family has our own pet name—“Stickle Balls”—because they literally stick to your feet.  The numerous times I’ve stepped barefoot on a stickle ball with my full weight, their sharp prongs have stuck into the bottom of my foot with such razor-like precision, it’s as if I’ve stepped onto a miniature version of a medieval morning-star weapon. It’s probably the most excruciatingly painful experience I’ve ever had other than giving birth.

The evil "Stickle Balls"

These “Stickle Balls” are treacherous things: I’ve seen them get caught in the tires of bicycles, knocking the poor rider onto the street; or even worse, causing such a severe ankle sprain that the victim needs crutches for weeks.  Practically every weekend in November and December, I have to accident-proof the sidewalk by shoveling two or three garbage bags full of those nasty brown orbs from my front yard. When I’m done, I wipe the sweat from my neck and think, “There, that’s it. There can’t possibly be any more balls left to bag up.”

As soon as that thought crosses my mind though, I know I’m in for it. A raging wind storm will undoubtedly materialize that very evening, hurling a surplus of spiked balls against the house like mini hand-grenades, and managing to cover the entire front lawn like a war-time minefield. The thousands of red-brown spheres burrow so deeply into the grass that a garden rake barely suffices—you have to bend down and pick them out with your bare hands.

Unfortunately, even after such a fierce wind storm, many of the spindly balls are apt to to linger in the trees throughout the entire winter. Their tasty seeds draw countless migratory birds to spend hours up on the bare branches, pecking at the pods for their delicious seeds. In the meantime, the chirping devils cover your car with a mosaic splatter of black and white bird poop so meticulous and well-designed that any fastidious artist would be proud.

Come springtime, I’m ready for a change, and my Liquidambar tree doesn’t disappoint.  Her burgundy buds sprout on the tips of the branches like newly manicured fingernails, and soon thereafter,her delicate, shiny green leaves flutter like hand-sewn lace in the breeze.

“Ahhhh….Spring is finally here,” I think, sniffing the sweet smell of fresh flowers. “Now the raking and shoveling and sweeping are finally over and I can concentrate on my garden.”

After almost throwing my back out picking up those nasty seedpods for months, I believe I’m finally done cleaning up after my old friend.  Silly me—I’ve once again completely forgotten about the next bit of sloughing that my Liquidambar tree has in store for me: the blooming phase.

Mid-March is the time for the flowers of the Liquidambar tree to burst forth, dropping her pollen-laden, sneeze-inducing blossoms onto the flower beds, lawn and sidewalks like a miniature bunches of golden grapes. This part wouldn’t be so bad, except that when you try to pick them up, they dissolve into a powdery mess in your fingers. If you leave them alone, they produce brownish blood-colored stains on the sidewalk like a mass killing has taken place in the front yard. The stains on the cement can last for months, until the heat of the summer sun finally fades them away.

Now, I may complain about my dear Liquidambar tree, because she is certainly considered to be a high-maintenance relationship. But even with all of her treachery from fall through spring, she’s worth the effort, as summer approaches and her leaves turn a deep shade of chlorophyll green. The wind blowing through her large maple-shaped leaves is like a musical accompaniment to a rhythmic dance, soothing and invigorating at the same time. The Mockingbirds return year after year and build their nests high up in her branches, entertaining the neighborhood with their vast repertoire of calls.

My dad, standing under our Liquidambar tree, circa 1972

My Liquidambar tree offers a canopy of shade that keeps the lawn lustrous and thick as green velvet—perfect for throwing down a blanket on which to stretch out and stare up at the blue sky. As my mother did with me, I’ve often lounged on the front lawn with my own children, just to gaze up at my old friend and imagine what life has in store for me.

Two generations of children have grown up under the branches of my Liquidambar tree. From a skinny sapling to a tall stately lady (I’m referring to the tree, and maybe myself, too) she has watched over me and kept me company throughout the past century like a close friend. Although she is messy and even dangerous at times, she is a constant presence in my life, and continues to inspire me through her colorful metamorphosis, to dream little and to dream big.