"A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without adversity."
- Donina Va'a Renata
A lot goes through your mind when you're dying. What they say about life flashing before your eyes is true. You remember things from your childhood and adolescence - specific images, vivid and real, like brilliant sparks of light exploding in your brain.
Somehow you're able to comprehend the whole of your life in that single instant of reflection, as if it were a panoramic view. You have no choice but to look at your decisions and accomplishments - or lack of them - and decide for yourself if you did all that you could do.
And you panic just a little, wishing for one more chance at all the moments you didn't appreciate, or for one more day with the person you didn't love quite enough.
You also wonder in those frantic, fleeting seconds, as your spirit shoots through a dark tunnel, if heaven exists on the other side, and if so, what you will find there.
What will it look like? What color will it be?
Then everything finally makes sense to you. You are no longer afraid, and you know what lies ahead.
In this remarkable, complex world of ours, there are certain people who appear to lead charmed lives. They are blessed with natural beauty, have successful and fulfilling careers. They drive expensive cars, live in upscale neighborhoods, and are happily married to gorgeous and brilliant spouses.
I was once one of those people. Or at least that's how I was perceived.
Not that I hadn't endured my share of hardships. My childhood had been far from idyllic. My relationship with my father was strained at best, and there were certain pivotal events that I preferred to forget altogether - events that involved my mother, which I don't really wish to discuss right now. All you need to know is that for a number of years my life was perfect, and I found more happiness than I ever dreamed possible.
* * *
My name is Sophie. I grew up in Camden, Maine, but moved to Augusta when I was fourteen. I have one sister. Her name is Jen and we look nothing alike. Jen is blonde and petite (she takes after our mother), while I am tall, with dark auburn hair.
Jen was always a good girl. She did well in school and graduated with honors. She went to university on scholarship and is now a social worker in New Hampshire, where she lives with her husband, Joe, a successful contractor.
I, on the other hand, was not such a model student, nor was I an easy child to raise. I was passionate and rebellious and drove my father insane with my adventurous spirit, especially in the teen years. While Jen was quiet and bookish and liked to stay home on a Friday night, I was a party girl. By the time I reached high school, I had a steady boyfriend. His name was Kirk Duncan, and we spent most of our time at his house because his parents were divorced and never around.
Before you pass judgement, let me assure you that Kirk was a decent, sensible young man - very mature for his age - and I have no regrets about the years we spent together. He was my first love, and I knew that no matter where life took us, I would always love him.
We had a great deal in common. He was a musician and played the guitar, while I liked to sketch and write. Our artistic natures gelled beautifully, and if we hadn't been so young when we first met (I was only fifteen), we might have ended up together, married and living in the suburbs with a house full of children. But life at that age is unpredictable. It's not how things turned out.
When Kirk left Augusta to attend college in Michigan and I stayed behind to finish my last year of high school, we drifted apart. We remained friends and kept in touch for a while, but eventually he began dating another girl, and she was upset by the once-a-month letters we continued to write to each other.
We both knew it was time to cut the cord, so we did. For a long stretch I missed him - he was such a big part of my life - but I knew it was the right thing to do. Whenever I was tempted to call him, I resisted.
I went on to study English and Philosophy at NYU, which is where I met Michael Whitman.
Michael Whitman. The name alone had a sigh attached to it...
He was handsome, charming and witty, the most perfect man I had ever seen. Every time he walked into a room, I lost my breath, as did every other hot-blooded female within a fifty-yard radius.
If only I knew then, when I was nineteen, that he would be my future husband. I probably wouldn't have believed it, but there's a lot I wouldn't have believed about the extraordinary events of my life. I doubt you'll believe them either, but I'm going to tell them to you anyway.
I'll leave it up to you to decide if they're real.
Michael was nothing like Kirk or any of the boys I had known in high school. His parents owned a corn farm in Iowa, but he looked as if he'd been raised by aristocrats in an English country house and had just stepped off the cover of GQ magazine.
Well-dressed and devastatingly handsome - with dark, wavy hair, pale blue eyes, and a muscular build - he had a way of making you feel as if you were the most attractive, witty, charismatic person on earth. And it wasn't just women who worshipped him. He was a man's man, too, with a number of close, loyal friends. His professors respected him. He was an A student and the class valedictorian at graduation. And then - big surprise - he went off to Harvard Law School on scholarship.
He was your basic "dreamboat," and though he spoke to me now and then on campus, like everyone else, I mostly admired him from afar.
It wasn't until four years after graduation, when I was interning in the publicity department at C.W. Fraser - a major publisher of non-fiction books and celebrity tell-alls - that I became the envy of every single young woman in Manhattan and beyond.
It was June 16, 1996. I was twenty-six years old, and had helped to organize a book launch party that Michael attended.
We saw each other from across the room and waved. Later that night, we went out to dinner, and when he escorted me home, I invited him inside. We stayed up all night, just talking on the sofa, listening to music, and we kissed when the sun came up.
It was the most magical, romantic night of my life.
One year later, we were married.
* * *
During our honeymoon in Barbados, Michael confessed something to me that he'd never been able to talk about before, not with anyone.
When he was twelve years old, his older brother Dean had died in a tractor accident. The vehicle slid down a muddy embankment, rolled over and landed on top of Dean, killing him instantly. Michael was the one who found him.
His voice shook as he described Dean's lifeless body, trapped beneath the heavy tractor.
I hadn't known about the accident when we attended university together. I don't think anyone did. Michael had always seemed so strong and dynamic. It seemed as if nothing bad could ever touch him.
As soon as I heard this, I understood that we shared something very profound - a common experience that left us both broken in unseen places, for I had lost my mother when I was fourteen.
I was still angry with her for leaving us.
Because that's what she did. She made a choice, and she left us.
I, too, shared these things with Michael, and we grew even closer.
* * *
When I mentioned earlier that I had once led a charmed life, I was referring to this stretch of time, which began on my wedding day and lasted for ten wonderful years.
Michael and I were crazy in love as newlyweds. He rose quickly at the law firm, and we both knew it was only a matter of time before he became a partner.
Things were going well for me, too. Six months after we began dating, I was offered a full-time, permanent position in the publicity department at C.W. Fraser, and with Michael's encouragement, I pursued my first love - writing - and began submitting stories to magazines. We dined out often and connected with all the right people. Before long, I was leaving my job in publicity to write for the New Yorker.
Everything seemed perfect, and it was. We made love almost every night of the week. Sometimes Michael came home from work with a Victoria's Secret box containing something lacy, wrapped in pink tissue paper, and we'd make love during Letterman.
Other times, he brought ingredients for chocolate martinis and we'd go dancing until midnight.
We were as close as two people could be, and just when I thought life couldn't get any better, the most amazing thing happened. I found out I was pregnant.
How effortless it all seemed.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder if it was all a dream. I suppose it was, because eventually I did wake from it. In fact, I sat straight up in bed, gasping my lungs out.
But let's not talk about that yet. There are still a few miracles to explore.
So let's talk about the baby.
Here's the thing about motherhood. It exhausts you and thrills you. It kicks you in the butt, and the very next second makes you feel like a superstar. Most of all, it teaches you to be selfless.
Let me rephrase that. It doesn't really teach you this. It creates a new selflessness within you, which grabs hold of your heart when you first take your child into your arms. In that profound moment of extraordinary love and discovery, your own needs and desires become secondary. Nothing is as important as the well-being of your beautiful child. You would sacrifice anything for her. Even your own life. You would do it in a heartbeat. God wouldn't need to ask twice.
* * *
Our beautiful baby Megan was born on July 17, 2000. It was a difficult labor that lasted nineteen hours before ending in an emergency C-section, but I wouldn't change a single second of it. If that's what was required to bring Megan into the world, I would have done it ten times over.
For the next five days, while recovering from my surgery, I spent countless hours in the hospital holding her in my arms, fascinated by her movements and expressions. Her sweet, chubby face and tiny pink feet enchanted me. I was infatuated beyond comprehension by her soft black hair and puffy eyes, her sweet knees and plump belly, and her miniature little fingertips and nails. She was the most exquisite creature I had ever beheld, and my heart swelled with inexpressible love every time she squeaked or flexed her hands.
How clearly I remember lying on my side next to her in the hospital bed with my cheek resting on a hand, believing that I could lie there forever and never grow bored watching her. There was such truth in the simplicity of those moments.
Michael, too, was captivated by our new daughter. He went to work during the days, but spent the nights with us in our private room, sleeping in the upholstered chair.
When we finally brought Megan home, I came to realize that Michael was not only the perfect husband, but the perfect father as well.
He was nothing like my own father, who had always maintained an emotional distance. No... Michael changed diapers and couldn't seem to get enough of our baby girl. He carried Megan around the house in his arms. He read books to her and sang songs. A few times a week, he took her for long walks in the park so I could nap or have some time to myself, simply to shower or cook a meal. I felt like the luckiest woman alive.
Later, when Megan was out of diapers and had finally given up drinking from a bottle at the age of two, I began to feel that I was ready to start writing again.
Michael - always so generous and supportive - suggested that he take Megan to Connecticut every Sunday afternoon to visit his sister, Margery.
It worked out well. Margery was thrilled to spend time with them, and those happy day trips out of the city created an even stronger bond between Michael and Megan.
It wasn't long before I was submitting feature stories to a number of national parenting magazines. Always, in the back of my mind, however, was the dream of returning to the New Yorker, perhaps when Megan was older.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have done anything differently in those blissful days of new motherhood if I had known about the bomb that was about to drop onto our world. I believe I will always wonder that, and there will be no escaping the regrets, rational or otherwise.
When Megan was three-and-a-half years old, my father came to visit us in New York. It was the first time he had seen our house (we lived in a brownstone in Washington Square), and he mentioned repeatedly that he was sorry for not coming sooner. He said he was a "terrible grandfather."
"Don't worry about it, Dad," I replied as I passed the salad bowl across the table. "I've been terrible about visiting you, too. Life just gets so busy sometimes. I understand. It's hard to get away."
It was a lie, casually spoken, and we both knew it. Nothing had ever been easy between the two of us. There was an awkward tension that was obvious to everyone, including Michael, who was the one person in my life Dad actually approved of.
"You caught yourself a good man there," he gruffly said on our wedding day, then he patted Michael on the back and left early.
But of course he would love Michael. Everyone loved Michael. He was a handsome, charming, witty, Harvard-educated lawyer. A good provider and a devoted husband. As far as my father was concerned, Michael's small-town upbringing on a farm in the Midwest was the icing on the cake. I think Dad was still in shock that I had managed to marry such an amazing man.
We finished dinner and dessert, then Dad went off to bed at nine, not long after Megan fell asleep.
He planned to stay only twenty-four hours.
The following day, I worked hard to keep him busy and avoid any awkward silences or conversations about the past. Mom especially. It was not something we ever talked about.
Megan and I took him to the top of the Empire State Building, then we visited the Museum of Natural History, and of course, Ground Zero.
As he drove away, waving out the open car window, Megan slipped her tiny hand into mine, looked up at me with those big brown eyes and asked, "Will Grampy come back again?"
I hesitated a moment, then wet my lips and smiled. "Of course, sweetie, but he's very busy. I'm not sure when that will be."
We went back inside.
Michael was at work. The house seemed so empty and quiet.
"Want to make some cookies?" I cheerfully asked.
Megan gave me a melancholy look that will stay with me forever, because it was the first sign of the terrible nightmare that was about to befall our family.
I didn't know that then, of course. At the time, I didn't know anything.
"Okay," she replied.
I picked her up and carried her into the kitchen.
* * *
The following morning, Megan didn't wake until 8:30, which surprised me, because she was usually climbing onto our bed at six a.m. sharp. She was more dependable than our digital alarm clock.
When eight o'clock rolled around and she was still sleeping, I assumed she was tired from our sightseeing trip the day before.
I was wrong about that. It was something else entirely - something I never imagined would ever happen to us.
That was our last day of normal.
Over the next seven days, Megan grew increasingly lethargic and took long naps in the afternoons. Her skin was pale and she slumped in front of the television without ever smiling - not even for Captain Feathersword.
By week's end, she was irritable and couldn't bear it when I touched her, so I made an appointment with our doctor, who told me to bring her in right away.
As I was dressing Megan for the appointment, I noticed a large bruise on her left calf and another on her back. I mentioned this to the doctor, who sent us to the hospital for blood work.
Everything happened very quickly after that. The results came back an hour later, and Michael and I were called into the pediatrician's office for the results.
* * *
"I'm so sorry to have to tell you this," Dr. Jenkins said, "but Megan is very sick. The tests have indicated that she has acute myeloid leukemia."
She paused to give Michael and me a moment to absorb what she had told us, but I couldn't seem to process it. My brain wasn't working. Then suddenly I feared I might vomit. I wanted to tell the doctor that she was mistaken, but I knew it wasn't true. Something was very wrong with Megan, and I had known it before the blood work even came back.
"Are you all right, Mrs. Whitman?" the doctor asked.
Michael squeezed my hand.
I turned in my chair and looked out the open door at my sweet darling angel, who was lying quietly on the vinyl seats in the waiting area with a social worker. She was watching television and twirling her long brown hair around a finger.
I glanced briefly at Michael, who was white as a sheet, then faced the doctor again.
"I'd like to admit her through oncology for more tests," Dr. Jenkins said, "and start treatment right away."
No. It wasn't true. It wasn't happening. Not to Megan.
"Mrs. Whitman, are you all right?" Dr. Jenkins leaned forward over her desk.
"I'm fine," I said, though I was nothing of the sort. There was a crushing dread squeezing my chest as I imagined what was going to happen to Megan in the coming months. I knew enough about cancer to know that the treatment would not be easy. It was going to get much worse before it got better.
She was just a child. How was she ever going to cope with this? How was I going to cope?
"You say you want to begin treatment right away," Michael said, speaking up at last. "What if we don't agree? What if we want to get a second opinion?"
I glanced quickly at him, surprised at the note of accusation I heard in his voice.
"You're welcome to get a second opinion," Dr. Jenkins calmly replied, "but I strongly recommend that you allow us to admit Megan today. You shouldn't wait."
Michael stood up and began to pace around the office. He looked like he wanted to hit something.
"Is it that bad?" I asked. "Is there no time?"
There was an underlying note of confidence in the doctor's eyes, which provided me with a small measure of comfort. "Of course there's time," she said. "But it's important that we begin treatment immediately. It's also important that you try to stay positive. You're going to have a difficult battle ahead of you, but don't lose hope. The cure rate for leukemia in children is better than seventy-five percent. As soon as we get her admitted, we'll prepare the very best treatment plan possible. She's a strong girl. We're going to do everything we can to get her into remission."
My voice shook uncontrollably as I spoke. "Thank you."
I stood and walked out of the office in a daze, leaving Michael behind to talk to the doctor. I wondered how in the world I was ever going to explain any of this to Megan.
There is nothing anyone can say or do that will ease your shock as a parent when you learn that your child has cancer.
Your greatest wish - your deepest, intrinsic need - is to protect your child from harm. A disease like leukemia robs you of that power. There is no way to stop it from happening once it begins, and all you can do is place your trust in the doctors and nurses who are working hard to save your child's life. You feel helpless, afraid, grief-stricken, and angry. Some days you think it can't be real. It feels like a bad dream. You wish it was, but you can never seem to wake from it.
* * *
The first few days in the hospital were an endless array of X-rays, blood draws, intravenous lines, and lastly, a painful spinal tap to look for leukemia cells in the cerebrospinal fluid.
Not only did Michael and I have to get our heads around all of those tests and procedures, we had to educate ourselves about bone marrow aspirations, chemotherapy and all the side effects, as well as radiation treatments and stem cell transplants. In addition, we had to notify our friends and family. Everyone was supportive and came to our aid in some way - everyone except for my father, who remained distant as always.
He sent a get well card. That was all.
I pushed thoughts of him from my mind, however, because I had to stay strong for Megan.
I promised myself I would never cry in front of her. Instead, I cried every time I took a shower at the hospital (I never left), or I cried when Michael arrived and sent me downstairs to get something to eat. During those brief excursions outside the oncology ward, I would take a few minutes in a washroom somewhere and sob my heart out before venturing down to the cafeteria to force something into my stomach.
It was important to eat, I was told. The nurses reminded me on a daily basis that I had to stay healthy for Megan because she would be very susceptible to infection during treatment, and a fever could be fatal.
So I ate.
Every day, I ate.
* * *
Michael had a difficult time dealing with Megan's illness. Perhaps it had something to do with the loss of his brother when he was twelve. Some days he wouldn't come to the hospital until very late, and a few times I smelled whisky on his breath.
One night we argued about what we should say to Megan. He didn't want me to tell her that the chemo drugs would make her throw up.
I insisted that we had to always be honest with her. She needed to know that she could trust us to tell her the truth and be with her no matter how bad it got.
We never did agree on that, but I told her the truth anyway.
Michael didn't speak to me for the next twenty-four hours.
* * *
"I don't want my hair to fall out," Megan said to me one afternoon, while we were waiting for the nurse to inject her with a combination of cytarabine, daunomycin, and etoposide. "I want to go home."
I dug deep for the strength to keep my voice steady. "I know it's going to be hard, sweetie," I replied, "but we don't have a choice about this. If you don't have the treatment, you won't get better, and we need you to get better. I promise I'll be right here with you the entire time, right beside you, loving you. You're a brave girl and we're going to get through this. We'll get through it together. You and me."
She kissed me on the cheek and said, "Okay, Mommy."
I held her as close as I could, kissed the top of her head, and prayed that the treatment would not be too painful.
* * *
Megan's hair did fall out, and she was extremely ill from the chemotherapy, but within four weeks, she achieved complete remission.
I'll never forget the day when those test results came back.
Rain was coming down in buckets outside, and the sky was the color of ash.
I was standing in front of the window in the hospital playroom, staring out at the water pelting the glass, while Megan played alone at a table with her doll. I told myself that no matter what happened, we would get through it.
We would not stop fighting.
We would conquer this.
Then Dr. Jenkins walked into the room with a clipboard under her arm and smiled at me. I knew from the look in her eye that it was good news, and my relief was so overwhelming, I could not speak or breathe.
A sob escaped me. I dropped to my knees and wept violently into my hands.
This was the first time Megan saw me cry. She set down her doll and came over to rub my back with her tiny, gentle hand.
"Don't cry, Mommy," she said. "Everything's going to be okay. You'll see."
I laughed as I looked up at her, and pulled her into my loving arms.
After a short period of recuperation, Megan entered a phase of post-remission therapy, which consisted of more chemo drugs to ensure that any residual cancer cells would not multiply and return.
I wish I could say that our lives returned to normal, but after facing the very real possibility of our daughter's death, I knew the old "normal" would never exist for us again. Our lives were changed forever, and some of those changes were extraordinary.
From that day forward, I saw more beauty in the world than I had ever seen before. I cherished every moment, found joy in the tiniest pleasures, for I understood this amazing gift called life.
I gloried in the time we spent together, knowing how precious and fragile it all was. Sometimes I would look up at the sky and watch the clouds shift and roll across the vibrant expanse of blue, and I wanted to weep from its sheer majesty.
We lived in a beautiful world, and I felt so fortunate to have Megan at my side. I had learned that I was stronger than I ever imagined I was, and so was Megan. She had fought a difficult battle and had become my hero. I respected and admired her - more than I ever respected or admired anyone. I was in awe of her.
In addition, friends and family offered us help and support, and I saw, through the eyes of my heart, how incredibly lucky we all were to be on the receiving end of all that generosity and compassion. It was something wonderful to witness, and I felt truly blessed.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but I sometimes felt that Megan's cancer, even though it was painful, had brought something good. It had taught us so much about life and love. I had grown - so had she - and I knew that this change in us was very profound and would affect both our futures.
Later I would learn how right I was.
For something both glorious and mystifying still awaited us.
... continued ...
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