As the COVID-19 virus continues to affect our world and our daily lives, I have been reminded of another time in my own life when my plans were canceled, and fear of the unknown loomed heavy. As I’ve reflected on that time, I’ve been comforted by the reminder of lessons learned.
Because these lessons were derived from pain and trial, I certainly don’t want to take them lightly or waste them by not applying them when they could once again be relevant and uplifting. Therefore, it is with that heart and motive that I share these thoughts with you.
In 2007, my husband and I were told that our then only child, our two-year-old son, Karson, had cancer. Our toddler entered a three-year chemotherapy regimen involving port chemo, oral chemo, steroids, 22 spinal taps, injections, and more. Karson’s immune system was hit hard, and we therefore had to self-quarantine for months on end. We spent the first year of his treatment in very strict quarantine; wiping down surfaces and hand sanitizing became second nature to us. We practiced social distancing, even with relatives, and we kept in touch by sending VHS tapes of cousins playing and chatting before the days of FaceTime would have made this much easier! I remember looking at my calendar during those years and having absolutely nothing scheduled other than chemo or clinic appointments.
If you had told me, before that dreadful day of Karson’s diagnosis, that I would basically have to cancel my life, I would have told you I couldn’t do it.
If you had told my busy and social self that I’d have to stay home and away from friends and family for the sake of potentially saving someone else’s life, I would have doubted if I could make the right choices to comply.
If you would have told me that many hardships were in my future, the stuff of parenthood nightmares, I may have fallen into the fetal position and begged it not to be so.
And yet, through those three years of pain, isolation, fear, and unknowns, there was goodness too. There was mixture of tears and laughter, dread and hope, exhaustion and persistence.
And three responses rose to the top of the heap of emotions.
Grief, gratitude, and giving.
I grieved. Oh, did I grieve! I grieved the loss of life as I knew it. I was sad that I would not experience the normal “preschool life” with my little boy. He would not be allowed to have the typical play dates and parties that his buddies enjoyed. And neither would I. I would miss out on many events, and my dreams were shoved to the back burner.
The grief would come in waves. Some days I’d feel in control. I’d be okay. I’ve got this. I can do this. I’d think. Other days, I knew I could not. It was unpredictable and often, life felt surreal. But, I learned to look grief in the eye and call it by name. I didn’t have to like it, but I needed to acknowledge it. How else could I move forward if I did not acknowledge it as a barrier to my healing?
Now, with the changes to our lives and plans due to the Coronavirus, I think we need to grieve. It’s okay to give yourself permission to be sad. I’ve heard of family vacations to Disney being canceled, anniversary trips to Italy sidelined, senior athletic seasons being abruptly cut short. It hurts. These things are heartbreaking and deserve to be grieved. Grief is not reserved for death alone. Grief is valid for any loss. And so I think we should grieve these personal losses, and the changes brought on by this new period of quarantine and social distancing. If they aren’t worth grieving, were they really worth doing in the first place?
In between the waves of grief throughout our long cancer journey, I also experienced swells of gratitude. I learned to be thankful for things to which I’d never before given much thought. A late night playing with toys on the family room floor by the light of the Christmas tree with my little boy who was healthy enough to use his imagination and laugh. Friends who took the time to bring a fast food meal to my front door. The fact we lived in a world where our son could have access to medication and benefit from brilliant minds who commit their time to research.
Gratitude was a game changer for me. It rerouted my train of thought from self-pity to the realization of the gifts I already possessed.
Today, in the midst of the chaos of COVID-19, I hope we can all strive to be grateful. We can hope to spread something that is not viral, a new perspective and goal of aiming to find the good in the difficult. To realize the gifts we have in 2020. Internet connections, which allow virtual meetings, emails, video games, and e-learning. What an amazing opportunity to connect and dream together about how to not just survive, but thrive. Our virtual capabilities are now our reality. Thank goodness we have such a wonderful ability! Board games, television, face-to-face conversations with our quarantine pals, phone calls, books. These things are all gifts. Have we noticed how wonderful they are recently? Have we been thankful for them or have we been taking them for granted? And once again, I’m so thankful for those who dedicate their time and talent to finding treatments, tests, and cures for our ill. It’s impossible for me to fully express my gratitude to these selfless and brilliant individuals.
And finally, the third response that rose out of the fire of our childhood cancer journey was the desire to give. Obviously, I first wanted to give all that was needed to my son. I gave him love, syringes full of medication, rides to the ER, and mashed potatoes at 3:00am when his little steroid-filled body craved them. But I learned to not just think of our family and myself, but to see the bigger picture. There were many families on the 5th floor of our children’s hospital who fought cancer just like us. Many had it worse than we did, and my heart broke for them. I wanted to give back when the timing was right, and in the years since we climbed out of the cancer trenches, wounded, but not lifeless, we have given back. We’ve served on committees, shared our story in front of crowded gymnasiums and banquet halls, attended chemo appointments with other sick children, answered the questions of panicked parents who are following in our path, donated our money, and more. And I don’t say that to get credit or recognition. I say this to show you that the desire to give grew out of pain. And it produced beautiful fruit!
In the midst of this pandemic, I hope we can all remember to give. We can remember there is a bigger picture. It’s not all about us. There are many who are weak and marginalized who can use our help. Part of that help looks like us following directions to quarantine and utilize social distancing. Part of that help may be leaving some items on the shelves once we have enough. Not plenty, but enough, so that others can get what they need as well. Some of that giving may be with your own children while they do their schooling at home. What atmosphere are you creating in your home in which they are learning? Is it one of panic, dread, and complaining, or one of hope despite grief and gratitude despite disappointment?
In April of 2010, our son received his last dose of chemotherapy. That too did pass. Now he’s 15, cancer-free, and healthy. We didn’t know this would be our happy ending when we first heard his diagnosis. We didn’t know that someday he’d be a tall, smart, and happy high school student instead of a chubby, bald and sickly child. But our journey did come to an end. We eventually returned to our regularly scheduled life, though we were changed tremendously through the battle. We learned many things, not the least of which were three main responses: grief, gratitude, and giving.
This Coronavirus pandemic will someday be finished as well. We’ll look back at these weeks and months and tell our next generations about our losses and quarantine adventures. This too shall pass. It’s true. And what do you we want to remain? What will rise to the top of the heap when all the dust settles?
For me, I hope to once again find I’ve learned to grieve, have gratitude, and give. Lessons far too precious to waste.