Leah’s Story: Bird by Bird


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 Shannon Anderson

December 18, 2011 . . . The Bears were playing Seattle.  My husband and I had been gifted tickets to a game and were so excited to be able to share the tickets with one of my husband’s best friends and his wife.  I remember vividly that it was a gorgeous December day . . . bright, sunny and very unusual for Chicago.  I had just begun my Winter Break from teaching sixth grade and I was thrilled about the possibility of spending more time with my two children Leah (6) and James (2).  My husband and I had already decided we would not be traveling over the holiday and would be spending Christmas at home.  I relished of all the things I could do with my two children over the next week that I was off before Christmas.  My husband, a life-long Bears fan, could not have been happier that day.  He was in his glory, as many men in Chicago would be.  In my mind I remember thinking . . . does life really get any better than this?

My question would be answered a lot sooner than I thought and with an answer I never expected.  Later that day my children came home from their grandparent’s house.  Leah’s eye looked funny.  It was slightly droopy and her pupil appeared to be enlarged.  My husband and I called her doctor and were told to bring her in the next day.   After seeing one doctor after another over the next three days we ended up with our daughter in an ER at 2 A.M.  A shaken ER doctor approached us and told us, “She has a mass in her brain.”   What?  Impossible.  Not my child.  I just went to her conference a month ago and found out what a gift she was in the classroom.  This can’t be happening.  The news would only get worse.  After arriving at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago we would learn that not only did Leah have a mass in her brain, but also her chance of survival was virtually impossible.  We were four days from Christmas and looking at a ten percent survival rate for our oldest child.

Go, Sox!
Go, Sox!

Leah, an amazingly empathetic girl and out of this world big sister to James, lived for less than a year from that Bears game.  We never spent another Christmas with her.  She endured two brain surgeries, countless MRI’s of the brain and spine, two different chemotherapy treatments, six weeks of radiation, several hospital appointments; ER visits, and was eventually put on a clinical trial.  She did all of this with a grace and style that is hard to even put into words.  She finished kindergarten and even began first grade.  She truly LIVED, even with everything she was going through.

We lost Leah on 12/12/12.  That’s a hard date to forget.  It’s ironic how we (my husband and I) thought at the time that living through her treatment was rough.  Now we KNOW that that time was a drop in the bucket compared to our lives now.  Nothing in this world can compare to the life we live now.  A life without Leah.  Leah died three days after her little brother turned four.  He never even knew it was his birthday.

We have managed to survive one Christmas without Leah.  My husband and I have no other choice; we have to help an innocent four year-old boy navigate a world without his beloved older sister.  Leah is the first thing we think about every morning and the last thing we think about before we go to bed.  As of late, with the beginning of a new school year, my mind has been overwhelmed with thoughts of her.   This school year should have welcomed our Leah into the second grade with her 8th birthday quickly following.  But that is not to be for our family.

Happy family.
Mom, Dad, Brother, Sister

I started back to school this month and was having a difficult time doing so.  I found myself thinking about Leah constantly as she loved to come to my school and help me get my classroom ready at the beginning of a new year.  I saw her writing her name on my chalkboard, drawing myself and other colleagues pictures, and forcing James to play school with her.  It was tough.

That same day during a faculty meeting one of my colleagues shared a story with our entire staff.  He read aloud a quote from one of his favorite books.  This is the passage from the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott that he read:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s it.  Bird by bird, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute.  Life without Leah is bird by bird.

We never know what life is going to throw at us.  It is completely unpredictable.  I NEVER would have believed that my seven year-old daughter would be diagnosed with not only a brain tumor, but also one that is inoperable in our day and age.  One where we would be faced with literally no treatment options, but a diagnosis of almost certain death and all we were left with to keep us going for almost a year was hope and hope alone.

Life can and will change in an instant sometimes.  Mine did in December of 2011, along with my husband’s, my son’s, and most importantly, Leah’s.  For the rest of my life, the holidays and special days Leah will never get to attend (Christmas, her birthdays, the first day of school each year) will be hard.  I will get through them bird by bird.

Leah and her Mom, Shannon
Leah and her Mom, Shannon

The Anderson family has established a foundation to honor Leah’s memory and help both raise awareness for pediatric cancer and fund research.  You can learn more about the L.E.A. Foundation and the work they do here.  Grateful thanks to Shannon for sharing her daughter’s story today, Leah’s would be/should be 8th birthday.  Kraft och omtanke.

If you’re looking for all of the posts in the  Childhood Cancer Stories: The September Series, you can find them catalogued HERE.  

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