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Today She’s Okay

While we were in Florida on Rebecca’s Make-A-Wish trip to Disney (and other parks), we were asked a few times which of our kids was the Wish kid.  And I suspect that quite a few more people just assumed it was Carolyn, since her hair is still buzz-cut short.  Rebecca was able to fully enjoy the trip and be an active part of it, every bit as much as her siblings and cousins, and the pictures and videos we all took are full of laughter and excitement from all of the kids.

This has been one of the many fortunate aspects of our misfortune: Rebecca has never really been sick, in the “I feel ill” sense of the word, since she recovered from her surgeries last fall.  The tumors in her head haven’t had any measurable neurological effects, and if they’ve made her a little more irritable or irrational, well, this is a five-year-old we’re talking about.  How could anyone tell?

Even the chemotherapy and radiation therapy had no major side effects.  We tend to think of cancer patients as thin, pale, bald, weak, and vomiting, as much from the toxins we pour into them as anything else.  Rebecca has remained as energetic, luminous, and irrepressible as ever.  Now that she’s stopped her Avastin treatments, she’s able to go back to gymnastics class, and is eager to do so.  She’s even kept a full head of hair, albeit with some loss of hair volume.  We can see that there’s less hair, but a random passerby on the street would never suspect she was a cancer patient, let alone near-terminal.

Thus our new mantra: “Today she’s okay.”  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring; but really, who ever does?  We live with a more present, known danger than most, but today she’s a normal kid.  She’s so normal that even we can forget, sometimes for hours at a time, that she’s terminally ill, that a lump of runaway growth sits behind her eye and threatens to one day kill her.  She’s so normal that we have the space to make our family’s life (mostly) normal.  We hope that tomorrow she’ll be the same.  Whenever our fear of that tomorrow rises, we say to ourselves and each other: “Today she’s okay.”

We’re still working to find treatment options, of course.  There are some promising leads developing even as other leads that looked promising have been closed to us.  A driving force in that search is the desire to keep her as healthy as possible—to preserve her quality of life while still trying to extend the quantity of her life.

It’s a balance almost incomprehensible in its gravity: to decide how much quantity to risk in exchange for protection of the quality, to decide how much quality we can sacrifice in an effort to add quantity.  Before all this, I would have thought maintaining that balance would be paralyzing, but it isn’t.  If it ever starts to become so, we have only to look at her, still full of life and vigor, to know what to do.  We may be the captains of the ship that carries her, but we steer it by the light of her star.

Today she’s okay.  And so today we’re okay.

All the Way to the End, All of Us Together

Our first day here at Disney World, we tried to go on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but it was closed “for refurbishment”, so we decided to try Splash Mountain instead.  In addition to being a ride that was right there where we were, it promised to cool us off a bit.  Going from 30ºF to 90ºF in the space of a day was a bit rough on everyone.

Carolyn and Uncle Jim sat in the front seat of the log boat, and Rebecca sat between me and Kat in the next seat back.  Things started well enough as we splooshed and bobbed around bends, but fairly near the beginning of the ride, you get a glimpse of its (sort-of) end: a fifty-foot drop down to a splash pool.  Rebecca, seeing a log full of people fly past us down the ramp, the screams of its riders trailing in its wake, wasn’t at all happy.  She switched instantly from being amused at the water occasionally splashing her parents to scared of what was going to happen.

The various animatronic displays along the way helped distract her, but she kept returning back to her fear of the big hill.  Kat and I soothed her as best we could, telling her it would be all right.  She generally accepted this, calming down until the next time she remembered the big hill that lay ahead.  She never cried, exactly, but the fear was still there, an almost physical thing at times.

“I don’t wanna go down the big hill!”

“Honey, it’s all right.  It’s going to be okay.  We’re right here.  Mommy and I will keep you safe.”

“No, I don’t wanna, it’s too scary.”

“I know, sweetie.  I know you don’t.  But there’s no need to be afraid.  It’s coming and it will happen and then it will be over.  Try to enjoy all the little shows before.”

“Daddy, please let me get off the ride.”

“I can’t, honey.  If there was a way to get off, we’d take it, but there isn’t.  The ride goes where it goes, and we’ll go with it, together.”

“I wanna get off this ride!”

“I wish we could get off, Rebecca, but we’re on the ride now and we have to take it all the way to the end.  I know you’re scared, but we’re right here with you.  We’ll keep you safe, sweetie.  You don’t have to be afraid.”

We’d arrived at the bottom of the last climb, the one that would take us to the big drop.  She looked up the ascending tunnel into the bright, bright light streaming down, and shrank back, quivering, her eyes wide with fear.  She knew the moment was close.  I leaned in next to her, keeping my voice level and light.

“I know, Rebecca.  I know.  I know you’re scared, but it’s going to be all right.  It’s going to be all right.  It’ll be all done very soon.  Mommy’s here, and I’m here, and we’re with you until it’s over.  We’ll stay with you all the way to the end, all of us together.  We’ll be right here with you.  Always.”

The log was drawn up the hill, the drop coming closer and closer, relentlessly.  My arm around her shoulders, Kat’s arm around her shoulders, both of us hunched toward her tiny, trembling body pressed against our sides; and as we came to the precipice, she shut her eyes and squeezed our hands tight.

On Writing

Our situation, and my posts, have been the cause of sleepless nights and fallen tears for a great many people.  In some ways I feel bad about that; it occasionally feels like I’m forcing our pain onto other people, which isn’t exactly a friendly thing to do.  But I know you’re here because you want to be here for us, and here, words are how we commune.

But why, I am occasionally asked and occasionally ask myself, am I writing about Rebecca’s cancer instead of doing other things?  There are a number of reasons.

Part of it is that I’m creating a precisely timestamped chronicle for later, the historian in me asserting itself.  This is where a lot of my tweets come from, as well: the desire to record something at the moment, so that later I’ll be able to say whether X happened before or after Y or how many days apart two events actually were.

But it’s also for Joshua, if he wants to know more about his sister and what happened to her, when he’s older; and for Carolyn, if she ever wants to revisit this time or see it from my perspective, to compare against her memories.  And perhaps for others, if I ever decide to collect these fragments into some sort of longer work.

More importantly, writing about what’s happening and how I feel about it allows me to organize my thoughts and give some structure to what’s happening.  In a situation where so much is beyond our ability to do anything at all, this is something I can shape directly.  It allows me to feel some small measure of influence.  It lets me face my fears by naming them.  It helps me get a handle on a few shards of this overwhelming thing that defies any real understanding.

And of course I’m grieving online.  I do that here so that I can put it away elsewhere, so to speak.  When I’m with the kids, I can be there for them as the father I’ve always been and hope to keep being, rather than the hollowed-out ruin I sometimes feel like.  Grieving here, through the words that come to me, makes that easier to do.  So I write and tweet.  A little bit of pressure release.

But most of all, I am sharing Rebecca with you, with anyone who will listen.  We’ve always felt it’s up to our kids to become themselves and then bring themselves to the world in their own way, to meaningfully affect it and be affected by it.  In the words of Khalil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

We’ve always meant for our children to fly free of their own accord, on the arc of their choosing, when they were ready.  Rebecca will almost certainly not have that opportunity.

So now we are her archers.  In the Web, I have a bow that can send her arrow all the way around the world.  If her flight is to be short, then let it be far, a trail of purest fire etched across every sky, more beautiful and wondrous than any comet could ever hope to be.

The Evening

We had guests for dinner, as we often do, a house full of squealing, laughing children and their grownups, preparing dinner and trying to figure out who would get stuck with setting the table.  We’d all gone up the street to the elementary school to test out their new playground equipment and try to fly a kite in the random spring breeze, running around an open field and trying not to slip in the mud.  Now we were back and ready to eat.

Rebecca played and laughed with the other kids, all obvious traces of our conversation earlier that day erased by the simple joy being a five-year-old, living wholly in the moment.  Playing impromptu tag, hiding around corners to shout “Boo!” and cackle with delight, singing pop songs and musical numbers with her sister and friends.  Because for all that’s going on, you would never know to look at her that anything was wrong.  We can even forget, from time to time.  She lives just as she always has, full of energy and smiles, and we’re determined to keep it that way as long as we can.

Eventually, it was time to take the little ones up to bed, which Kat and I divided up with a family friend.  Suddenly, I heard Kat’s voice breaking.  She was in the nursing chair we still have hanging around the house, Joshua on her lap, ready to read his bedtime stories.  Rebecca was standing next to her, still and calm.  I sat on the footstool, my legs just behind Rebecca’s.

“Rebecca told me she’s scared that she’s going to die and be all alone.  Baby, we will be always be with you, always always always.  You will never be alone.  Okay?”

My hand was on Rebecca’s back, tears in my eyes but not on my cheek.  I asked if she understood what Mommy had said.  She nodded, her eyes cast down in thought.  We thanked her for telling us what she was feeling, for trusting us.  She nodded again, and turned to look at me.  Looked into my eyes, and saw everything that was there.  Gave me a sad, affectionate smile, put her arms tenderly around me, and kissed me gently on the cheek.

My little girl, my child, trying to soothe my pain.


Later, as she lay under her princess blankets to read her own bedtime stories with a family friend, I came in to tell her good night.  She was holding a book about kids who have cancer.  We have such books, now.  I perched on the edge of the bed next to her and smoothed back a riot of her curls.

“Can you tell Daddy why you picked this book to read?” our friend prompted.

“Daddy, I’m reading this book because it will help me be strong—”, she curled her arms in classic strongman pose, then dropped them, “—and brrrave.”  She beamed up at me.

I smoothed back another curl, affectionately tweaked the end of her nose, and looked directly into her eyes as I said, “Sweetie, you are already by far the strongest and bravest person I have ever met.”

A wide grin, a little chortle, and then she flung her arms wide.  I leaned down and she leaned up, our arms circling each other, squeezing just hard enough.  I held her lean, solid weight close, her body strong and light, and for those moments I felt no sorrow, no fear, no pain, not for her and not for me, not for any of us.  There was just a calm peace rooted in the strength of her love and the bravery of her heart, and nothing else.

The Truth

We asked Rebecca to sit with us on the half-couch situated against the short wall of the child psychologist’s small office.  She clambered up into Kat’s lap, facing toward me, looking at me sidelong with her unique mixture of shyness and impishness.  I was already having trouble drawing my breath, arrested by her affection for and trust in us, and pierced by the knowledge of what we were about to do to her.

“Honey, we want to talk to you about something.”

Her eyes dropped, her face melting to something wary and withdrawn.  She knows, I thought.  She knows, and we have to say it anyway.

“Remember the bad rock?”  No expression on her now as she began to curl up, slowly, so slowly.  “The tumor in your head that the doctors can’t take out?  And you know how Mommy and Daddy have been looking for special medicine to make the bad rock go away?”

We waited for a nod, some signal that she understood.  After a moment, her eyes darted to the side as if looking for escape routes.

“We haven’t been able to find special medicine, sweetie.  We’re still looking, but we might not be able to find any.”  Tears were streaming down Kat’s face.  Down my face.  I could barely see Rebecca’s face, she had lowered her head so far as she hunched forward, away from Kat, into the space between her parents.

In a small, choked voice: “Do you understand, honey?”

A pause.

Her head nodded fractionally, spasmodically.  And then her jaw started to quiver.  Silent.  Quivering more and more and her face twisting in anguish and then she started to wail.  She collapsed backward into her mother’s embrace, still curled into a ball, crying desolately, hopelessly.  Keening.

All three of us, sobbing and clinging to each other.

She had known ever since the tumors returned.  She had expressed her fear in a few whispers, soothed by our reassurances that we were still looking for special medicine, and now she knew we were telling her she was going to die.  She knew, and was terrified, curving her small body into a ball surrounding her pain as we tried to make a shield of our arms, futilely trying to protect her when the killer and the pain were already inside the shield.  Inside her, where nobody could get it out.  So our arms and bodies instead became a blanket inside which she could mourn her own life and try to cope with her terror of going away forever.

We wept what seemed like an endless ocean of suffering, but after a time, it started to ebb.  We could speak again, barely, and thought she could hear us when we did.  We had to ask her, even though we knew.  Even though I would given much to never say or even hear what was coming next.

“Are you scared, Rebecca?”

A nod through tears, her jaw quivering again.

“Can you tell us what you’re scared of?”

She wept again, unable or unwilling to say the words.  Kat and I choking on our pain and her pain as Rebecca sobbed with renewed terror, clinging to Kat and squeezing my hand in hers.

We asked her again, as gently as we could through our anguish.  And again, later, when we had all recovered enough.  And again.

Finally: “Baby, can you whisper it to one of us?”

She nodded, miserably.

“Who do you want to whisper it to?”

She pointed at Kat.  Shifted her head up and around.  Whispered, her voice so tiny and full of pain and fear and breaking into another wail:  “Of dying.”

I will never know how long we wept with her.  What we said to try to soothe her pain even a tiny bit.  How we tried to comfort and protect her.  I will always remember how utterly helpless and wounded and shattered I felt, the sick ache in the center of my chest.

Eventually the tears came to an end, as all things must.  She hadn’t moved from her place, curled up against Kat, still holding one of my hands.  Her face was clouded and stormy with the echoes of her tears, but there was some measure of calm.  It let Kat and me come to the same place, quiet and still in the shadow of all our grief.  We asked if she had any questions; she shook her head.  We told her we loved her.  She whispered, almost but not quite crying again, “I love you too.”  We kissed her, almost but not quite crying again.

And then it was time to tell her sister.

Flare Sites

Further review by several radiologists of the cranial MRI from last Thursday has identified multiple flare sites throughout Rebecca’s brain.  These are areas of irritation that indicate emerging tumors.

So we won’t be going to Philadelphia for surgery.  The recovery time afterward, and the possibility of brain damage from the resection, mean that removing the large tumor might actually reduce the amount of quality life ahead of her.  The odds are overwhelming that there will be no surgery at all.

We are meeting with the Cleveland Clinic team on Monday morning to work on finding a clinical trial that is open and would be appropriate for her medical condition.  There are other, more experimental treatment ideas we will investigate, again as appropriate for the situation.  But the sad truth is that she may not live long enough to get into a trial or attempt a new treatment.  The fact that there are tumors emerging in multiple places means she never really had a chance to be cancer-free.

All we can hope to do now is delay the progression of the cancer as much as possible, without unduly sacrificing her quality of life.  It’s theoretically possible that the right treatment, whatever that might be, can bring the tumors to a near-halt, but that would be a miracle in itself.  To see a regression would be a miracle beyond miracles.  The cancer is just too aggressive and too pervasive.

The doctors tell us she’ll be completely fine right up to the point where she suddenly isn’t, and then it will most likely be over within a few days.  Much like last August.  That will almost certainly be within weeks, or maybe a few months from now.  Or it could be today.  They can’t say, and even if they could, I don’t know that we’d ask.  It really is better not to know what day your child will start to die.

I just wish they could tell us how the process will unfold, so we could prepare for it and make it as comfortable and free of fear as possible for her.

It is still possible that treatments will push that day off, maybe far enough for Rebecca to turn six and go to Cedar Point as soon as it opens this summer.  That was her top wish when Make-A-Wish came, to go to Cedar Point and win all the boardwalk games.  Being Cinderella at Disney was her runner-up wish.  We hope that we have enough time to make at least that wish come true.

We told Carolyn and Rebecca this morning.  They took it very well, because they still trust and believe in us and our ability to fix this, and we can’t bring ourselves to take that away from them.  Better to let them hold on to that sense of safety, even if just for a little while longer.

White Blotches

Yesterday, the news came that Fred Phelps had died.  A lot of things have been said about him, some reflective, many unkind.  I always thought that whether or not he actually believed it, he promulgated a particularly consistent (and therefore, it might be argued, honest) strain of theology.

Because if you truly believe that everything is in God’s hands, that everything happens due to God’s will, and that God should be praised for His works, then yes, if you thank God for good fortune and miraculous happenings, then you should also thank God for MH370, for 9/11, for dead soldiers, for abortions, for tragedies, for anything and everything that happens.

You should thank Him for the tumors in a little girl’s brain.


Yesterday, we got the news that a new tumor has emerged, far from the site of the first tumor, outside the proton radiation zone.  It’s growing incredibly fast.  The MRI eight weeks ago showed nothing unusual there, and now there’s a white blotch almost the size of her left eyeball.

From what we can see on the MRI, this tumor is intermingled with brain tissue.  To remove it is to cut out a piece of her brain.

It may still be removable, despite the damage that will inflict.  We are waiting to hear from CHOP whether they feel surgery is an option.  If so, then we will go back to Philadelphia, whenever they tell us to be there.  This time, the whole family will go together.  After the surgery, if it happens, there will probably be another two months of radiation and chemotherapy.

If surgery is not an option, then Rebecca most likely has no more than a few weeks to live.  The tumor is growing too fast to expect anything else.  She will never be six, or graduate kindergarten.


I want to tell you that I have hope and confidence in a good outcome, but I can’t.  Because, for the first time, I don’t.  I expect that the pain and grief I feel now will soon seem like the smallest of aches.

We haven’t given up on her or her treatment.  We will still do everything we can for her.  Including, when the time comes, making the best decisions we can about the length and quality of her life, when one must be sacrificed for the other.  Those choices will be in our hands, and I hope we’ll have the strength to choose wisely.

No matter what, we’ll be there for Rebecca, all of us.  Kat and me, Carolyn and Joshua, our family and friends.  For her, and for each other.

What Cancer Can Kill

Cancer is insidious, of course, but its tendrils spread in more ways than you might think.

(This is all true for pretty much any cancer, even the ones that aren’t aggressive and aren’t pediatric, but I’m the parent of a child with aggressive pediatric cancer, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.)

The most obvious insidiousness is the way that many cancers send out thin fibers, interpenetrating healthy tissue, hiding literally microscopic reservoirs in places it can’t be seen.  That’s bad enough, of course.  It’s what the surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy are meant to combat, and if they’re successful then we’ll have saved her life.

What’s almost as bad, from a long-term perspective, is how, for us as her parents and therefore for her, cancer shades everything that happens in our daughter’s life.  Kids are supposed to play and run and fall down and get scrapes and bumps and then get back up again to get on with life.  They’re supposed to push themselves too hard, get exhausted, catch colds, run fevers, build up their immune systems and their experiences.

But then here comes cancer, and we second-guess every part of that.  If she falls and gets a bruise, we have to watch it carefully to make sure it doesn’t blossom into a hematoma or worse, a side effect of the chemotherapy.  If she runs a fever, we have to keep an incredibly close eye on how high it rises, because fever could be the onset of neutropenia.  If she complains of a headache, we immediately wonder if we need to get her to an MRI to make sure the tumor hasn’t come back.

Or, you know, she might just have a headache, or a viral fever, or a scrape that will quietly heal up.

Even if a child is lucky enough to survive cancer, there is the very real danger that it could effectively steal their childhood.  We can’t just let Rebecca be a kid, however much we might want to do so.  And we do.  Oh, we do.  We always wanted our kids to have the chance and the time and the space to be kids.  To make mud pies, nail together scrap wood to make a fort in the backyard, wreck the kitchen trying to make a chocolate cake, properly learn to chop vegetables, climb trees and take gym class and wrestle with siblings and just be a kid.

And it’s hard.  It is so hard, because some of those things we have to just flat-out forbid her to do because of the risks, and other things we have to treat as way more serious than we ever would have.

There are no more mud pies, because tetanus is in all the soil everywhere.  Gym class is out, because of the risk of internal bleeding as the result of a normal fall.  We can’t just tell her to “walk it off”; now there’s three rounds of washing and antibiotic cream and two crossed bandages over the smallest of scrapes, which risks making all the kids germ-phobic and hypochondriac by example.

There’s no more “too bad about the cold, but at least it will strengthen her immune system”, no more shrugging off a low-grade fever with Tylenol, chicken soup, and a day in bed.  Now we own a hospital-grade oral/axillary thermometer, disposable probe sleeves and all, because if Rebecca’s temperature ever rises above a very precisely defined threshold, we take her straight to the hospital.  Not because we want to, but because the doctors have made it very clear that an elevated temperature might be nothing, or it might be the beginning of a week or more in the hospital as she fights to survive what would merely inconvenience (almost) any other child.  We can’t even give her Tylenol, because its magic fever-lowering properties could mask a much deeper problem.

For that matter, we’ve always had a relatively lax attitude toward germs and allergens.  We didn’t let the house become a pigsty by any stretch, it’s not like we were smearing them in filth; but now we have hand sanitizer bottles mounted on walls all over the house and two high-grade high-capacity dedicated HEPA filtration units.  Not because we want them, but because our daughter might one day need them.

Helicopter parenting?  Please.  Try NSA parenting.  What’s more, try it even while you hate every inch of it, because it’s forcing you to be the kind of parent you swore you’d never be.

We want our kids to learn that cuts and bumps and bruises are part of life and something you shake off and move on from.  Instead, we risk teaching them that cuts and bumps and bruises are sources of deadly danger, something to worry about and obsess over, something to avoid at all costs.

Sure, we can talk about everything with them, and we do, but children pay more attention to what you do than what you say.  We try to balance things out, find ways to show that life is more than dealing with cancer, and fervently hope that they learn the lessons we want them to learn instead of what we’re afraid they’re absorbing.

I know it’s possible to do right, I do.  I’ve seen it done before, and lived the results.  I know that we’ll do our utmost to make it happen.  It’s just so very, very hard not to constantly worry that even if we do save her, it will be at the cost of her childhood, and the childhoods of her siblings as well.

April 2014
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