Every one that sees you always wants to know you . . . and everyone that knows you always has a smile . . . You're a standing ovation after years of waiting for a chance to finally shine . . . Every calls you amazing . . . I just call you mine. ~ Martina McBride
Ask anybody and they'll tell you that tragedy creates heroes. When catastrophic events shake and shatter the very foundation of everything we know, and we find ourselves navigating strange new worlds, aspects of our personalities emerge to help us survive. And in the case of heroes, to thrive. There is no doubt that Cancer kids are heroes -- not just because of what happens to them, but what they become in spite of it. Some leave their inspiration, their smiles, their inexplicable strength of spirit behind, while others live on to grace this present world and change it with their lion hearts.
But there are other ways to get there . . . there's another kind of hero. Imagine you are forced to sift through feelings of fear and abandonment when compassion and self-sacrifice is the expectation. Now imagine it when you are five, or seven, or maybe ten years old and for years, the subtle message that you've been interpreting to mean "It's not about me" becomes internalized. Such is the life of a cancer sibling. Such was the life of my Brittany. Imagine you are five years old, teaching your little sister how to ride a tricycle, about to get your own training wheels off and getting ready for kindergarten. It's high summer and you live on the beach and play in the woods and you're part of a family where everything is fair and equal. And then one sunny morning your mom takes your sister to the doctor and later you watch her fly away over your house in a helicopter. With her goes everything sure and stable in your world. The bike is abandoned, the sand and sun are replaced with sterile hospital halls, kindergarten will have to wait. . . and the focus of everyone's attention has shifted in a bewildering direction that seems to have very little to do with you. Who would you become if this were your foundation? What choices would you make for your own life? And how would your struggle for your own identity and your place in the world work in a family where the very survival of someone else must always take precedence?
Of course everybody's story is different, but I can tell you a part of Brittany's. I say a part because she is more than qualified to tell her own. Among all the heroic roles she took on along the course of her journey was that of a writer . . . Go to her website Little Mountain Momma and she'll tell you all about it. But there's an awful lot she doesn't say that I'll tell you about . . . because true heroes are humble, and their stories often require a mother's perspective . . .
One of the first things Brittany did when she realized the gravity of her sister's situation on that bright July morning in 1991 was hand over her teddy bear. It had been placed in her own hospital bassinet on the day she was born, and it had become a part of her. I had stood blinking in a haze of shock as the attendants loaded my baby onto a helicopter that had no room for me, and they had to remind me to kiss her good bye. But five year old Brittany had the presence of mind to make sure that Kelsey had a part of her to carry with her wherever she went. Kelsey still owns the teddy bear with the pale yellow rosebud patterned pajamas and nightcap that is older than she is.
As Brittany grew in compassion and intuition, she became the kind of kid that would stop on the soccer field to help up an opponent who had tripped . . . the kind of kid who watched my face to catch any fleeting emotion that she could soothe. It was unnerving when I would have a thought and she would say something like, "I know, Momma . . . I don't want her to die, either" or "I'm scared, too." It made me angry, too, but not at her. I just wanted her to be a kid and I was angry at the circumstances that made her say such things. Her art therapist told me that she was angry, too, but I didn't want to believe that a heavy black crayon could tell that story. So we became divided in our anger and our fear. It was part of our journey.
In early summer of 1992, Brittany broke her arm and sported a hot pink cast for the next four weeks (this is actually a favorite family story). On a balmy, clear night we sat at the top of a gently sloping incline to watch the fireflies blink, and the girls got the idea to roll down the hill. In a freak occurrence, Britty rolled funny over her wrist and broke it. She basked in the glory of attention for only a few days before the attention shifted back to her sister. As fate would have it, Kelsey Brooke began running a fever late one night, which for Cancer kids, requires a mandatory trip to the ER . . . and in our house, that was a family affair. The all clear was given and it was back home to bed. As we were tucking them both back in -- Brittany on her top bunk and Kelsey on the inverted lower, Kelsey lamented her circumstances with, "I hate having a fever" at which point Brittany saw fit to reclaim her territory in the spotlight. She leaned upside down way over the bar of her bed, looked hard at her sister, and said, "Be QUIET, Kelsey . . . I have a BROKEN ARM and that's BETTER than a fever!" It was one of the greatest lines ever spoken.
And so she found her voice and used it often to assert herself. But when she was thirteen she surprised us with it again. One day she asked for voice lessons. Now I have never been one to discourage any endeavor by my girls, but it seemed an odd request and I remember the conversation clearly. "Honey, we don't sing. I don't sing. Daddy doesn't sing . . . nobody in our family sings . . . do you think you can sing?" But she would not be deterred, so I dubiously paid for voice lessons, dropping her off with a voice coach from our church every Wednesday afternoon, thinking nothing would come of it . . . until her voice coach announced a few months later that she would be putting her on stage in church. . . Wait. What? I'll always remember the feeling and the thoughts that came over me when those first few clear, powerful notes of Amy Grant's God is in Control rolled over the sanctuary, belted out by my tiny, ice-blue eyed daughter . . . He surely is, and this girl can do anything she puts her mind to.
Not long after that, she found one of her life's ministries that also directed her career path. She began working at Waltonwood Senior Living Center and began connecting with the residents there in a way that was arguably rare for someone so young. I have a theory about that that we've had very little discussion about, but it's one that I don't think Brittany would argue with. I think that our God, in all His infinite wisdom can and will and does work out everything . . . every circumstance in our lives for our good and for His glory (Romans 8:28) . . . and I think that my daughter is able to deeply connect to the displacement that the elderly often feel because of her own early circumstances. Brittany truly loves "old people". From wrinkles to dementia to orneriness, nothing has ever deterred her. From the time she was fifteen, she has listened to their stories, taught them computer skills, planned and oversaw activities for them, and sat with them while they are dying. It's a remarkable gift to the world that she has woven into the fabric of her life between motherhood and . . . well, everything else . . .
Beyond her compassion for people, another truly remarkable trait I admire in my daughter is her determination. She will be the first to tell you that life doesn't always turn out like you plan, but it's certainly not for lack of trying on her part (actually, one of the running themes and the purpose of her blog is to be real and provide a venue where young mothers can connect in their collective imperfections). After Brittany graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago (with a degree in family ministries with a concentration in geriatrics), she planned her next step. She would run a marathon in October and get pregnant in November. I remember thinking . . . I may have said it out loud . . . that neither of those endeavors is as easy as they sound . . . but I should have known better. In 2008, Brittany ran her first 26.2 through the streets of Chicago and then gave birth to her first child the following July, 2009 (yes, that would put the conception in November;) Not long after, she asserted herself into a leap of faith decision for her little family in moving west to Colorado. Her husband had graduated with a counseling degree from Moody and had only managed to succeed (I'm being proudly facetious) in moving up the corporate ladder of Starbuck's to a position that afforded them a remarkable standard of living for such a young couple living in the city. Brittany wasn't having it. She pushed for a move that would allow him to finish his graduate studies for marriage counseling at Denver Seminary. One day she called me from her cell phone as she was training for the the DC marathon from the top of a mountain. She happened to catch the Denver marathon and inserted herself into it for training . . . but once she reached her 18th mile, she just kept going, and finished the Denver marathon just a few weeks before the DC marathon. Oh, and then, in a calculated decision, she got pregnant with my grandson.
As I said in my previous blog, this is just a small part of the story . . . this one about a girl who refused to accept that life wasn't about her. In spite of all this, Brittany often laments to me her memories of herself as a little girl. She remembers a single mindedness that, to her, amounted to being a pest. It sometimes seems that no amount of reassurance can dispel this thought. I don't remember it and I don't see it that way. I remember a kid who had trouble in math, but managed to pass it while carrying home an armload academic awards for reading and writing with some citizenship awards. I remember a role model for her little sister (we don't EVER lie down with a boy and no kissing below the neck). I remember a kid who never gave up on anything she wanted, whether it was to get a new Snow White deluxe edition backpack to begin third grade or a chance to work for the whole summer as a camp counselor in Northern Michigan at fifteen. I remember a kid that loved her sister and showered her with kindness and compassion and never once demonstrated mean-ness or resentment towards her. I remember a kid, and I know a young woman whom God equipped with everything she would need to make it through life, no matter how messy (one of her favorite expressions) it gets.
Last week I had the privilege of keeping my six year old granddaughter, Mackenzie for an extended amount of time and discovered that, undoubtedly, she has inherited the same eyes, the same golden hair, and the same drive and single-mindedness when she decides that there is something that she wants. She has also inherited the same heart of gold as her momma. She is beautiful and brilliant and relentless and I wished her on my daughter because I have seen the bigger picture. I can't wait to see everything she becomes, because, as life has taught me so far, I am surrounded by heroes.