Lukas, you don’t know me, but my heart breaks for you. Only two years old with so much more life to live ahead of you. I spent a lot of time contemplating why in the world this happened to you, and why it happens to so many children like you. Reiterating the concept of childhood cancer triggers many unfavorable emotions: hopelessness, anger, despair, and somberness. While I was experiencing these emotions in a wave of perplexity, I paused a moment to try and comprehend what your mother must be feeling. If my mind was struggling to find a light at the end of this very bleak tunnel, I could only try to pretend to understand what alarming and intimidating thoughts and scenarios were swirling around your mother’s mind.
How do you comfort a friend whose world just came crashing down around her? How do you try to shine a shred of light into a seemingly dark, scary, and downright confusing new “normal?” Well, if you know me, you know I had to try to offer as much support as I possibly could.
GETTING TO KNOW THE SUPER-WOMAN
First off, let me enlighten you with a little background knowledge on how I know this amazing superhero of a mother. I met Nicole about a year ago when I was transferred from one of the elementary schools to her school within the district we both worked. Being the new person in a new place is always intimidating and nerve-racking. I loathed the idea of leaving behind the school I had grown to love and know. Looking back now, I cannot believe I ever felt that way. I met Nicole on the first teacher institute day, and as most of you know, she broke me out of my anxious little shell in true “Nicole-fashion”. We formed a friendship quicker than I ever have. I quickly learned just how wonderful of a teacher she is and just how much she cares for her students. I cherish the morning meetings, humor-filled spit-fire comments, lunch runs, and talking about our families.
Of course, every mother loves their children, but you can tell how much Nicole truly cherishes her sons just by the way she talks about them. My favorite story about Jakob and Lukas is when Nicole couldn’t find them in the house, and then she finds them both going to the bathroom together with their clothes strewn all over the bathroom, in which Jakob says, “We’re trying to potty train Lukas.” It’s stories like this one that show me they have inherited their mother’s humor. Despite her funny nature, March 19, 2019 was no joke.
THE DAY THE LIGHT WENT DARK
A week or so before that scary day that changed their reality, Nicole was talking at work about how Lukas did not have much of an appetite lately. We chalked it up to him being an almost two-year-old with a picky appetite. Lukas’ pediatrician even agreed and told Nicole not to worry about it too much. However, in the back of her mind, she continued to worry, as concerned mothers do. I remember her taking that Friday off that week to take Lukas to the doctor because he wasn’t acting like himself. Also, I remember she took the following Monday off as well due to the small red dots on Lukas’ body which she couldn’t figure out what they were. She sent pictures of the dots, and to be honest, I thought she was seeing things because I could barely see them myself. I figured the doctor would diagnose him with a rash or a virus that are common in children. I will never forget getting that text on Tuesday morning that said, “Lukas has leukemia.”
I could feel my heart sink. My body felt weak, and I went cold. I could feel the tears swell and fall like anchors from my eyes. I reread that text over and over until the words became a big blur of black, hoping it would disappear or that the doctors had made a mistake. Reflecting on those moments, I think, “Wow, I have never met this boy, but somehow I feel all of this sadness.” Of course, thinking about any child having to endure chemotherapy and all the terrible side effects is a distressing thought, but this situation felt especially close to home. Apart from the sadness and confusion that I felt at that exact moment, I kept thinking to myself, “How do I help them? What can I say to make any of this better?” And the answer was simple. There is nothing I could do to take this pain away or make the words “Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia” weigh less on them. All I could do was push my selfish anguish away and put my focus into what I could do to help make this new reality as normal as possible for my friend and her family.
TRYING TO EASE THE ANXIETY AND DARK THOUGHTS
The next couple of days were filled with medical appointments, intimidating terminology, blood tests and medicines. Poor Lukas was poked and prodded for days on end, to get a better idea of just how advanced this monster was inside of his tiny, happy little body. I texted every once in a while to make sure she was okay but did not want to overwhelm her any more than she needed to be. She kept me updated, and I could tell how overwhelmed and scared she was.
One of those nights that week, she texted around 11:00pm and said she was so anxious that she was having a panic attack and wanted to know if she could talk to me. She had come home to shower and rest from the hospital and was home alone. She was alone with all those daunting medical terms, with the dark thoughts that were left to roam wild about what life would look like now. She needed someone, and I could be that person for her. It will probably always be my favorite conversation with her. We talked about how scared she was, how worried she was that her sweet baby would never be the same, but we also talked about what Disney princess we would choose to be. She picked Ariel, of course. I chose Rapunzel. I cherish that conversation because I was able to offer her some distraction and solace during a very difficult moment. I texted her until she fell asleep, per her request, so she didn’t have to feel alone.
The next morning, (thank goodness she called me because I would’ve been late for work, no surprise there) I woke up to a phone call from Nicole. The worst possible scenarios are going through my head at this moment. I answered in a panic to her hyperventilating on the phone. I had no idea what to do, so I did what I do best, and I talked. I could hear the panic in her voice. I could feel her panic in my bones. She was crying while driving back to the hospital, those dark thoughts brought back from last night. I told her that she needed to breathe and drive safely so Lukas can have his mom to make him feel better through all of this. All the while talking to her, I’m washing my face and getting dressed for work. I stayed on the phone and helped her breathe until she got to the hospital. I didn’t care about being late for work, or even brushing my hair that morning – my friend needed me, and I needed to be there for her.
NOTHING A COUPLE OF FRIENDS CAN’T FIX
A couple of days later, two other co-workers and friends of ours, Terri and Kelly, and myself, traveled out to the hospital to offer support for Nicole and Jeff and to drop off some stuffed animals and treats for the boys. Let me tell you, I had never met Lukas until this day. Now, he’s obviously cute in pictures, but my gosh, that little boy is the cutest, happiest child I’ve ever seen. I began to think that if this little boy, who is so sick, can smile that big, then I have nothing to be upset about. Despite Kelly and I getting lost in the hospital for what felt like 3 days, we found them, and Nicole gave us the biggest hugs, and I could feel just how much of a weight this had put on her shoulders in just a few short days. We laughed, we cried. I felt like the air in the room had become lighter by the time we left.
Now, when I told Nicole we were planning on coming to the hospital and asked her if she needed anything, she told me she wanted her work computer. Despite just finding out her baby has cancer and being distressed about that, she was so worried about her students and making sure they were being taken care of in her absence. She is a wonderful teacher and truly loves her job. Being the fabulous teacher she is, along with being computer savvy and creative, she is continually educating herself on childhood cancer and created her own amazing blog to share with others. As an educator, she took her life-changing, painful experience, and is now using it as a platform to educate and help others! Nicole is an outstanding teacher, wonderful friend, and a “Super-Mom” of two amazing boys!
HOW DO I HELP?
Now, as you’ve read this from a friend’s point of view, my advice for how to help if you’re ever in this extremely unfortunate situation is... offer as much support as you can without adding on to their already overflowing plates. Let them know you are there for them in any way they need but let them come to you. Keep contact a minimum during the beginning – checking in once a day is perfect, but don’t get turned off or angry if they don’t respond right away. THEY ARE BUSY, CONFUSED, ANGRY, SAD, FRUSTRATED, AND LEARNING. They may or may not need you as much as you want to help them. Offer as much support as you can, and just know that they do appreciate you and everything you are doing to support their new “normal.”