I'd be lying if I told you that I'm raising a child with Cancer. I'd be lying if I told you I personally know a child with Cancer. I'd also be lying if I said I didn't care about children who suffer from this horrible disease.
During my freshman year at ASU Prep, we had a guest speaker who spoke about a child she knew who was battling cancer. I don't remember the child's name nor the type of cancer she suffered from, but I do remember this; she was four years old. Near the end of the speech, the speaker brought out a bag and took out a handful of thread.
"Each thread," she told us. "Represents the number of needles that she was poked with during her treatments."
She pulled out a second handful, and then another, and another.
As a child, I was petrified of needles. When I was sent to Phoenix Children's hospital to get treated for an illness that resembled salmonella, the IVs and shots were my biggest fear. I'd have to be distracted with a stuffed animal to get my blood taken and even that didn't work 100% of the time.
It was this memory that got me crying. And, when I saw the guest speaker with two armfuls of over 100 strands of brightly colored thread, I cried even harder. Everyone was oblivious to my tears.
Everyone but Mr. Lebawitz.
As I sat there, the only one left in the auditorium, the sweet gentle old man who served as our vice principal, sat down next to me and asked me what was wrong.
"Is she going to be ok?" I asked him.
He knew who I was talking about. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he lead me through the rows of seats to the stage, where the guest speaker was stuffing the thread back into her bag.
"This young lady has a question." Mr. Lebawitz said.
He patted me on the back and it gave me confidence to ask the question on my own.
"I-is she-" I began.
But, my stutter and tears were overtaking me and I couldn't get the words out. I couldn't stop staring at the bag of thread. I felt an arm wrap around me, felt Mr. Lebawitz's comforting gaze on me and heard him ask the question. The speaker then explained to us that the little girl was doing fine, that she was responding well to treatment and her hair was growing back.
"You see, sweetheart." Mr. Lebawitz said, leading me off the stage. "She'll be alright."
From that day forward, not only did Mr. Lebawitz become my dearest friend, but I became determined to be a voice in the fight against Pediatric cancer.
Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly as committed as I am today, so my original high school project to raise awareness of Pediatric Cancer failed before I reached the tenth grade.
Now, I am recommitting myself to that exact same project starting with my writing.
In my memories, the children I knew are small, much shorter than my five feet one inch stature. They are nothing but playful and full of laughter and love, joyful and innocent. I'm constantly questioning why so many little ones are neglected and abused. Anyone who knows me knows how angry it makes me, how it makes me cry when I see stories like that of eight year old Gabriel Fernandez. But, I know in my heart, that I can help these children. And, if I can be their voice, I will dedicate my life to doing so.
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for children. At the early age of sixteen, I decided that I wanted to be a mother, but knowing the consequences of teen pregnancy, I thought it best to wait until I was ready. In the meantime, I did my very best to help children during my last two years of high school, which was made easy by the fact that ASU Prep taught kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Volunteering in the after school program was one of the most rewarding experiences of my Junior and Senior year. At the end of my first day with the children, the entire group of them ran up to me and hugged me, thanking me for being there. By the end of the first few weeks, I'd nursed cuts, dried tears, gave lots of hugs and yes, received even more hugs right back.
When Miss Wright, my speech therapist asked me if I wanted to stay and work with her next group, a group of young children, I was ecstatic. I could hardly contain myself when they walked into the room. There was Layla, a talkative girl of nine with dark hair eyes and pink glasses. Then, there was Daniel, a boy of ten who was rather tall and mature for his age. Then, little Katelyn, a shy girl of eight who's smile melted my heart every time she looked my way. And, little Lucas, a boy of the same age who's light blue eyes captivated me with every glance.
Throughout the span of a year, I worked with them, playing games and making arts and crafts, practicing our speech as we did so. We made paper turkeys for Thanksgiving and elves for Christmas. We laughed together, even shed a few tears over our struggles to speak. But, most of my happiest memories were made outside of the speech room and with only one of the four children.
The day after I'd let them, I was walking into school, cold winter air biting at my nose and cheeks, when I heard a tiny voice call my name. When I turned, saw Katelyn, the sweet little girl who said so little and smiled at me so much, waving at me from her circle of friends. I waved back at her and started to venture inside.
I turned around again and saw her running towards me, her skinny arms spread open. She crashed into me and held me, tightly.
I hugged her back, just for a second, not wanting to keep her from her friends, then I let her go, watching as she ran back into her world of play. Though it was cold outside, I felt warm. Tears were frosted to the sides of my face and cheeks. Little did I know, that first hug would be one of many.
Out of all the rewards I expected to receive from working with her and the other children, this was the most unexpected. She loved me. I could see that. I felt it in her hugs. And, she'd only known me for a single half an hour Speech session.
For nearly two years, an unbroken pattern occurred. I woke up in the morning with a smile on my face, knowing I'd always get on a hug from Katelyn before class started. She doesn't know this, but her hugs got me through many of my toughest days at school. If I'm being honest, school hasn't exactly been my greatest achievement. If not for Katelyn's friendship, I surely would've lost it.
I'll never forget, for as long as memory serves, the one and only day that she didn't rush up to hug me.
It was a day of Cambridge testing and us high schoolers were directed downstairs to test in the a classroom that the little ones used due to the change in our schedules. Because of this, we were also asked to use the kinder through third grade bathrooms to keep from disturbing the students upstairs. When nature called, I went into the first girl's bathroom I could find. Upon my entrance, I heard gagging, then a splash, like someone, a little girl, was vomiting. When I heard crying, I stood perfectly still, not knowing whether to step out or go on with my business. I stayed where I was, staring at the pink tiles of the wall and wondering why the school would put a rack of paper towels right next to a hand dryer that had, "Save the Trees!" written in bold letters on its front.
Finally, the stall door creaked open and the girl stepped out. The girl's smile, the same beautiful smile that caught my eye the first day I met her, was gone. Her blonde hair was pasted to her face.
This was not the same little girl who hugged me each and every morning. This was a little girl who needed me to hug her. And, so I did.
Her face was hot like she was running a fever. She cried into my shirt. I kissed her head. She held me tighter. I stroked her hair. In that moment, I didn't care what trouble I'd get into coming back late to finish my test. I've always been one to follow the rules. On this day, when the rules meant everything to some, they suddenly meant nothing to me.
Out of every hug that Katelyn and I shared since that day, this one will always be the one that I cherish forever.