September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day I will feature a different guest blogger who will generously share their personal experience with childhood cancer. Stories are always more potent than statistics. The hope is that by learning about children with cancer, readers will be more invested in turning their awareness into action. Read more about this series and childhood cancer HERE.
By Randee Donovan
When I was growing up, my mom kept all of our family photos in albums. They sat on a shelf in our living room. Each album was burgundy, and it was numbered on the spine. The photos were labeled with our names, dates, and little captions that she carefully hand-wrote on paper that stuck to the magnetic pages. The first albums began with my parents, then me as a baby, and they went on and on, following all six children in my family through the years.
When my brother and sisters and I were kids, we would sit in the living room, and flip through the albums, admiring ourselves and memorizing our family history: birthdays, dance recitals, Thanksgivings, and vacations. Now, some thirty-eight years later, when my family tells the stories of our childhood, we often don’t know what is real or what is built around one of the photos in the album. Over time, my family’s stories have become part fact, part legend, part lore. The photos have shaped our memories or become our memories, and no one can say for certain which.
Losing a child to cancer has had a similar effect on my surviving children’s lives. My son Gabriel was born in May of 2006. He was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, the childhood leukemia that does not have a 90 percent cure rate, in November of 2007, five days after Thanksgiving. He was treated at Ann and Robert H. Lurie’s Children Hospital of Chicago, which will always be Children’s Memorial to me.
Gabe’s doctor called us around 6:00 p.m. to tell us that he had leukemia. We were told to be in Chicago less than 12 hours later so that he could begin his treatment. His first stay in the hospital lasted a month. For the less than six months that Gabe survived, he spent one night in the hospital for every night he spent at home. He died very unexpectedly four days before his second birthday in May of 2008. His wake was held on Mother’s Day. He was buried the next day.
My son Jack was four when Gabe was diagnosed. He was five when Gabe died. Every weekend that Gabe was in the hospital, Jack was there by his side. Even as the chemo ravaged Gabe, he would perk up for his big brother, have a bite to eat for his big brother, sit up and play with his big brother. Today, Jack is 10-years-old. He is smart, funny, and outgoing. He is also a little bit nervous, a little bit outspoken, and a little bit angry.
When he talks about Gabe, Jack remembers how “FUN!” the hospital was, that he got to eat breakfasts, lunches, and dinners from McDonald’s, and that he was a hero for his brother. When he talks about Gabe, he also remembers helping us pin his screaming and flailing little brother to the floor so that we could give him the oral meds that he hated with a passion, he remembers putting on gloves and a face mask to “help” clean the rubber tubing that was inserted directly into Gabe’s chest to administer IV drugs, he remembers me pounding on the side of Children’s Memorial ambulance that was sitting at a red light in Chicago traffic on a rainy morning and begging the driver to take us to the hospital the day that Gabe died.
My daughter Grace was born 14 months after Gabe died. Today, Grace is four-years-old. She is bright, independent, and strong willed. She is also a little spoiled, a little wild, and a little bit of a handful. Grace never met Gabe in person. Yet she also “remembers” Gabe and talks about him too. Many nights, as we cuddle in her bed before she falls asleep, she says, “Tell me about your baby Gabe.” And I do. I tell her about the doctor taking him out of my belly, about bringing home a perfect, beautiful boy and watching him grow to love binkies, bubbles, his brother, his dog, toy tools, and cars. I tell her about bringing him to the pediatrician and being told that he was very sick. I tell her about taking him to the hospital where he had to sleep for a long time and get strong medicine that made him bald, weak, and sicker. I tell her that one day, he died and went to Heaven. I tell her that we all cried every day and every night for a long, long time. And I tell her that one day, I asked God for another baby, and God said yes, and that baby was her.
Grace retells me this same story. She looks at Gabe’s baby photos and the photos that I took nearly every day of Gabe’s treatment. She inserts herself into Gabe’s story and into our memories. She calls Gabe her “little brother.” One day I corrected her and said, “No, Gabe is your big brother.” She was so angry, and she said, “NO! I am bigger!”, and I thought, “She is right.” So now, she calls him her little brother, as in size, not age, and I let her, because technically she is right, and with age and experience, she will make that correction on her own.
So what is the reality of losing a child to cancer? It is sad and dark and full of pain, anger, and destruction. But over time, there comes light from memories that are shared and cherished and passed on by the people that were there and by the people that weren’t. Which parts of Gabe’s story are fact, legend, or lore? Many days, I’m not really sure. Some days, I hold a toy that he held or a pair of his pajamas, and I wonder if any of it really happened. Was he even really here? But then the memory of that little boy, with the darkest, most beautiful brown eyes that I have ever seen, grounds me. That boy shaped my family’s past, and he continues to touch every day, every experience, and every future memory that we create.
I got to meet Gabe in the hallways of Children’s Memorial. Both Gabe and Donna had the same idea of fun — pacing laps around the floor, IVs trailing behind. I first spotted Randee across a crowded playroom. No joke, but I instantly loved her and instinctively knew we would be friends. She was my first teacher of what it was to be a grieving mom, and for that I am extremely blessed. And somehow, whenever we are together, we laugh and we laugh and we laugh. I love you, Mama.
If you’re looking for all of the posts in the Childhood Cancer Stories: The September Series, you can find them catalogued HERE.
If you don’t want to miss a single child’s story, you can subscribe to my blog. Please and thank you!
Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.