How Cancer Made Me More Than a Sheep
Being faced with a terrible tragedy can do one of two things to a person: make you crumble and die or fortify you and cause you to prosper. This all depends on the heart that one possesses. Either you’re a coward or a King right? A knight or a jester? A rock star or a back-up dancer? Well this is the story of how I blossomed from a tabby to a lion, and it’s all thanks to my Mom and her aggressive non-hodgkins lymphoma.
I was about thirteen years old when I had my first formal dance, and let me tell you, I was beyond stoked. Belting out the lyrics to the latest song blasting out of my radio, using my brush as an impromptu microphone, and twirling around in my gorgeous peach prom dress. Frantically I applied eyeliner, shadow and mascara, pulling a comb through my curls I was almost ready to go. As I turned around to berate whoever was turning my music down, I quickly closed my lips at the look on my Mom’s face. Her eyes were stony and cold, like she was about to say I couldn’t go to the dance because someone had just thrown a grenade out onto the dance floor and blown the place to smitherines. But what she actually said was even worse. “I have cancer.” And the tears began to roll. I don’t know why but it seemed like I could hear a death toll ringing in my ears, and it was so deafening and the air got so thick I couldn’t even catch my breath. All I could do was cough and gurgle and cry like an infant into my mother’s bosom. She was my rock, my protector, my one and only… I had no siblings, no father, and no one else to depend on! How was I going to go on if she wasn’t right behind me, with her encouraging smile and warm words. I felt I had it too, and that I would die too. “The doctor’s say I’m already in stage four; and all they can do now is help make me feel more comfortable. But baby, the Lord will be watching over me, and if it’s his will, I shall live…”
The next days, weeks, months, all became a blur. With doctor’s appointment after hospital appointment after radiation treatment after bone marrow transplant after test and chemo session, I felt my life getting grayer and grayer by the minute. I couldn’t cheer for my school anymore; practice didn’t interest me. I lost fifty pounds and dropped out of all the clubs and extracurriculars I used to do, and only had time to follow Mama to each appointment, dying a little inside with every needle prick, every bad test result, every shake of a doctor’s head… It was the worst feeling I’ve ever known. I loved my Mama so much… if she was gone so was the sun. So was springtime and happiness and laughter and contentment. Crushed under the foot of some malignant disease, taking control of my Mother’s body via her lymph nodes, contaminating her blood and slowly seeping away the life that blossomed so beautifully within her. So one day I began to research. I was tired of all the same answers to the awful questions… Her white blood cell count is too low; she’s not eligible for surgery yet. No more chemo until she’s stronger. I was sick of delays and tests and answers that either didn’t make sense or didn’t make me feel any better. I wanted my Mom to dance with me again, to sing along with the radio and make dinner and read to me and hold me close and teach me how to be a woman! I had just begun on this long and mysterious journey; I was not going to finish it alone and without guidance. I had to find a way to save my Mom, and fast. So I started accumulating all the information on stem cell replacement that I could.
The day came when I had enough material to present the idea to my Mom and her doctors, and the former was completely ready for any and all of the consequences, while her doctors gawked at me and quickly dismissed my case as ludicrous. Well my Mom and I quickly dismissed them as quacks. We travelled north to find more experienced and innovative doctors. The staff at MUSC in Charleston could not have been more helpful. They were our angels sent from heaven. After having three catheters inserted incorrectly in various parts of her body, my Mother was suffering from extensive chemical burns from her chemotherapy. They immediately nursed her back to health, and got her white blood cell count up to near-normal levels, and finally made her strong enough for the stem cell replacement surgery. It was all going to come down to this, it was our last hope, our last resort, and our last ray of light at the end of the tunnel. If she could pull through this, maybe she could get over this cancer and get on with her life! I missed her so much, and I was deathly tired of sleeping next to her in those tiny, stiff and uncomfortable white linen beds. So one bright and breezy morning in August of 2007 (we had been battling now for three years), she and I drove to the hospital, I kissed her cheeks until they were bruised and she went in for surgery… It may have only taken half a day but it felt like years, or at least a whole month while I sat in that too-bright, too-cold waiting room with my head spinning.
She came out groggy as ever, and complaining about a horrific pain in her butt (they had to drill a hole into her spinal cord to extract new stem cells) but she was perfect. Her face was shining like I hadn’t seen it more than three years, and I could tell in her voice that some change had come over her…
A week after surgery and they finally allowed my Mom to be dismissed. We were both so excited, and waiting for her test results to come back. Palms beyond sweaty and our tongues seemed to have morphed into sandpaper but we were ready for the worst, whatever the doctor was about to say, we had braced ourselves.
When he finally strolled into the room and closed the door behind him, we jumped when the threshold locked into place. He had the softest voice I’d ever heard from a man, and we had to lean forward and practically cup our ears to fully understand him. But he had the sweetest eyes and his demeanor gave you the feeling that you could run up and give him a huge hug and he’d smell just like your own grandpa. “Well your test results have come back, and to tell you the truth they are extremely odd. I can’t come up with a logical explanation for this…” he said, shaking his head and lowering his eyes, “ but your white blood cell count is normal, and the rest of your blood work is excellent.” The smile that spread across my face exploded so abruptly I thought it would rip my cheeks apart. “So what does this mean for her?!” I blurted, probably right before he was about to explain further. “Well it definitely means that she can go home, but despite your miraculous recovery, I’m going to put you on a few cautionary prescriptions, to help build up your immune system and make you less susceptible to any infection or disease.” “Yes sir,” Mama nodded vigorously, taking notes on all the precautions she was supposed to take in order to stay healthy. I was jumping out of my skin I was so excited! Now all there was to do was wait for the nurse to bring the prescriptions so we could go fill them, and we’d be on our way! The nurse eventually came back with what seemed like an entire pamphlet of tiny prescription papers. Take this one three times a day, and the little blue one twice after meals, and these two take together, right before bed… the list went on and on for at least a quarter hour, with both of us bobbing our heads like mad and straining to remember all of the instructions.
When we got in the car and buckled up to return home, my Mom turned to me and said, “Baby, you know the night before I went into surgery I had the strangest night terror. It rocked me down to my soul, but I knew that night that I was gonna pull through.” She wiped a tear that slid out of the corner of her lashes, and continued, “as I was laying there, I saw my Aunt Mamie and my Gramma and Uncle Shorty and a couple of my friends I used to know from school… I also saw your little brother.” (My baby brother had died at birth when I was seven years old.) “They were all closing in on me like they were going to take me with them, moving closer and closer so slow at first I wasn’t sure they were moving at all! Then once they finally touched my skin, the room got so bright, as if the sun were right there in the room with us, and it was 3:00am! All of a sudden my Gramma started scolding me. ‘Laine, you know you ought not act so! I raised you to be stronger than an ox, tougher and a bull and stubborn as an ass. Why are you laying up in this bed moaning and complaining when you know you could have kicked this thing years ago? When you wake up tomorrow you better have a clear mind and an open heart, and we’ll all be there to give you strength.’ Before I could answer her they all began to dissipate, and I was asleep before I knew it.” At this point tears were tears streaming from my eyes too, and in a minute we were both bawling and slobbing down each other’s shirts. I knew Mama’s vision was true because I could hear my Great Gam-Gam’s voice in Mama’s words. I felt so proud at that moment, because I knew it must have been her that lead me to research new ways to battle cancer and her that gave Mama the strength to pull through it. I thanked God over and over again for allowing our guardian angels to send us a message, to remind me that I wasn’t a sheep,that I didn’t have to listen to what man told me because God is so much greater. And that summer I graduated high school, and my Mom had a front row seat. No catheter, no oxygen tank, no shackles. We were free.
By: McDuffie, Jasmine