Guest Post by Gail Pomeroy Doktor
I should say that not all children have the privilege of reaching commencement, or the opportunities just beyond it. I have known amazing high school seniors who cheerfully filled out college applications, one while she turned dark green due to liver failure in the wake of relapse with cancer (people thought it was skin paint in honor of St. Patrick’s Day).
On the other hand, I have known cancer and transplant survivors who celebrated their graduation … maybe late, but they got their diplomas and finished school, despite extended time in the hospital and bouts with a life-threatening disease.
As my older daughter Sarah’s graduation ceremony approaches, I am fully aware that every breath and step she takes is a gift. None of us know how long we’re given, we can only use our time as best we’re able. I know she is the only living child in our family; she has this chance, and she’s grabbing hold of it.
I recognize that many parents may never experience this rush of fear and pride that we feel right now. And there are many reasons why this will be so … and each version of why a child doesn’t graduate from high school or obtain a GRE and start the next step in an unfolding life … each one of those stories is heartbreaking in its own way.
I’ll relate a few anecdotes about our friend Emily. She was in her last weeks of life. She received permission to leave the hospital with friends for a few hours. Her dad fussed about her staying out late and taking chances, maybe because she was under-age and maybe because her organs were slowly failing. She teased him. Suggested that nothing she did could hurt her much more than she was, and she needed the chance to taste whatever moments life could offer her. She went out dancing with friends at night in Boston. Came back smiling. Tired. Ready for a nap.
In the same few days, as I recall, she used a chef’s torch to make a crème brulee. She loved to make those, and to do it right. (A skill I don’t possess.)
She craved fish tacos from California. And a lip balm of a berry-flavor (something fruity, I think, anyway) you couldn’t get in New England. The tastes of home.
Instead, her friends from the West Coast came and surrounded her. So did her family, from everywhere.
Her room was filled with laughter and wisdom. She knew she was leaving us. It wasn’t fair, but she didn’t spend her time filling up the world with heaviness and rage … she was lighting desserts on fire, sipping drinks, dancing with friends, going out, singing at the top of her lungs, wearing bling to watch televised Hollywood shows like the Oscars, painting her bald scalp, making her dad nervous a few more times, snuggling with her mom for a comforting cuddle, having long deep talks about everything important (because if she’d had time, she could have fixed a whole lot of world problems, trust me). Whatever life could offer, she claimed.
And she filled out her college application forms. Wrote her essays. Believed in that possibility, against all odds.
(Note: Emily’s death, like my daughter Jessie’s passing, was … and is … not the only possible outcome. The majority of pediatric cancer patients survive, although those numbers are averaged, and change dramatically based on the type of cancer. Cancer remains the leading “natural” cause of death in children. It isn’t cured or beaten yet.)
OMG, there are so many ways that an almost-grownup child is at risk. Some ways we can predict. Some fates come unexpectedly.
Yet we must let our living children go … and inhale … and hold it, and hold it, and hold it … and exhale. Because every breath and step is a gift.
And each movement and respiration belongs to our child, though our own toes flex and our own lungs expand and contract, keeping time with theirs, connected as we are to these beings we have raised and loved.
On this graduation weekend, let us be inspired by the children who get there. And remember those who wanted it, and reached for it, but didn’t have the opportunity to taste it.
Originally published on Gail Pomprey Doktor’s blog: Journeyz.org.
(Image: by ralph and jenny)