An Aunt's Perspective

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Your sister calls you one afternoon and says she's noticed some things that are not normal about your two year old niece. You might think it sounds like it could be anemia or a growth spurt, but cancer doesn't even enter your mind because the odds against it being something that devastating are in your favor. You suggest going to Urgent Care for peace of mind since it would take a few days to get into the pediatrician's office. When she gets sent to the ER because the Urgent Care doctor is concerned he can't get blood work back fast enough, you begin to understand that something is critically wrong, but cancer still doesn't enter your mind because now you just won't let it. You stay calm to avoid sounding any alarm bells because you can already hear the fear taking root in your sister's voice. In your mind, you start bargaining with God for lesser diagnoses and telling yourself that she simply has to be okay. But then the phone rings again and on the other end your sister is choking out the word 'leukemia'. This is the moment when life as you know it splinters off into obscurity. She tells you where the ambulance is taking them and asks you to call your youngest sister. Sometime after you hang up, you realize your heart is still galloping inside your chest, you can't quite catch your breath, and maybe it's a good idea to sit down. As you wait for your baby sister to answer, you know that you are about to break her heart. There are no magic words to lessen the shock, so you hear yourself say, "It's bad, okay...Naiya has leukemia. Get mom and get on the road." While your husband races home, you hold your own daughter who is just one year older than your niece, and you think to yourself how it was a dream come true for three sisters to have three little girls born so close together. You think about all the milestones you have anticipated them sharing as they grew alongside each other. In your mind's eye, you see the snapshots from sleepovers, vacations, holidays, graduations, weddings and more as the years roll on. You wonder now if that future has silently disappeared right out from under all of you. You close your eyes and try to will it back into existence. Somehow, your husband makes it home so fast you are able to be outside the ER as they wheel your niece out for transport to the nearest children's hospital. In an attempt to ease her fear, you tell her how special the ambulance is and how fun it is to ride in one, but then you zero in on your sister, completely broken, as she comes to hug you. You might understand her heartbreak on some levels, having survived a different kind of brokenness all your own, but you know her path has just detoured off from yours and she must now continue on with her daughter into places you've never been. As they close the ambulance doors, you want to sit down right there on the pavement, place your hands on your head, and tell everyone to just let you think a minute because this does not make sense and if you can figure out exactly how it can't be possible, then someone has to take it all back.

When you get to the children's hospital, you are so scattered that you don't even recognize family members sitting in the waiting room. You look at your mother's hands because it's how you check her stress level. You all sit there, completely at the mercy of fate, and wait for a diagnosis. You want to be with your sister and niece more than you've ever wanted to be anywhere in your life while simultaneously wanting to run as far as you can so that you won't have to hear an unbearable prognosis.

If you spend any amount of time in a pediatric oncology unit, you do not walk out unchanged. You can feel your heart crack wide open as you see telltale bald heads on the small & innocents. Kids who should be outside running & playing are watching the world go by from a window high above it. They are battling for their lives, even though some are too young to comprehend any of it. There's a whole spectrum of emotions accessible at any given hour. You may see a family celebrating good test results, or that their child feels like riding in a wagon down the hallway that day, but you turn a corner and find those who are newly devastated by the polar opposite. You are also at the mercy of the professionals and not all of them are created equally. Some have found their calling in life, true angels walking among us, and some have no business being there. The interesting part lies in how often the children know who's who before the parents do. There were hospital staff members who, even if they had to do something painful, my niece rebounded and liked talking to them. There were others who had to be reminded that a pediatric cancer patient was not 'being difficult' when she screamed at the sight of them in a gown and mask, she was a traumatized child who was justifiably frightened. One night, during a sleepover at the hospital, your niece may sing in her most precious little voice 'You Are My Sunshine' and when she gets to 'Please don't take my sunshine away' you will have to fight tears harder than you've ever had to in your life because you're thinking to yourself, 'God, please, please, please be listening right now.' 

Somehow, time keeps moving forward and the family learns to excel at adaptation. Even the littlest ones learn to play by video chat and seem to accept that life has fundamentally changed. Work schedules must be flexible, family gatherings for holidays rely on technology so that we can all "be" together, and there are contingency plans for multiple theoretical emergencies. But, no one acclimates like your sister. Suddenly, she is fluent in words you didn't even hear in your medical terminology class years ago. The free-spirited, organic mama has ground down into a world of schedules, pharmaceuticals, and necessary procedures. She recites the names of chemotherapy drugs with ease and can mitigate almost any physical crisis at hand. Mama-bear 110% has got this. That is not to say others haven't been in the trenches with her, I just see her as the lieutenant pulling you up by your bootstraps in the middle of mayhem when the entire platoon seems paralyzed with fear.

Processing the trauma of the diagnosis takes time, and looks different for everyone. In the beginning, you may not be able to stop crying for days, or you may slip into shock and find yourself staring blankly. Sometimes, you can't quite remember why you came into the store because you have suddenly been thrown off balance by an analogous song playing overhead. In your spare time, you might have become a novice researcher out of desperation to find a magic wellness bean which sprouts a long, healthy lifetime of remission. Even a few months in, when your sister calls and doesn't speak right away, your stomach may drop because you think she is trying to catch her breath from something terrible that has happened. You get fooled into thinking you've found your footing, but then a routine procedure has some unexpected complications. You may feel your humanity a little deeper than you did before. All children become extraordinarily precious. Seeing them suffering or being mistreated in public is intolerable. The evening news and internet can be entirely overwhelming. You could find yourself softened toward grown children, too. We're all someone's precious baby. If you zone out at a red light and somebody honks, you may think about all the times you've ever honked out of impatience, or reacted unkindly. You might look around at other drivers and wonder if they are worried, heartbroken, or missing someone they love. If friends, coworkers, or strangers are being dramatic or operating from their Egos, you may look at them and see how futile it all seems. If you catch yourself wasting energy in those ways, maybe you can come back to loving kindness faster than you used to. Once you glimpse the bigger picture, it's hard to deny the necessity of loving and seeing each other through it all, despite our differences.

One day, the girls can play together again and it seems like one of the sweetest days you've ever known. And, it will give you hope for an abundance of days just like it. You may plot future endeavors like day trips, sleepovers, the Drive-In, or communal living. You might come to understand that the world is a mercurial place and our time here is incredibly it becomes your highest priority to never take a single day or loved one for granted. You give up the need for any of this to make sense, because it never could. You start calling your niece a tiny guru...because you see her as a little lotus flower blooming despite the mud she must grow through.

You know you will feel humbled and blessed to be her aunt for the rest of your life.

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