Life Lessons I Learned from #AftonStrong

#AftonStrong

It’s so much more than a hashtag. #AftonStrong is a cause close to my heart.

Afton Wallace is my second cousin on my mom’s side. Her dad, Rob, and my mom are first cousins. My grandma and her grandpa are brother and sister. Afton and I share great-grandparents. I think that’s how second cousins work.

Afton Wallace is more than just my second cousin. In the last year Afton has taught me to live more fully and love more deeply. She has taught me about courage and fortitude. She has taught me what a real Superhero looks like. She’s half my age but has taught me about the kind of person I want to be: strong, brave, fearless, positive, inspiring, formidable, optimistic, loving, generous.

Afton is a senior in High School in Mississippi. Afton was her high school’s Homecoming Queen last Fall, she was named Miss Warren Central High School, she was voted Class Favorite, was the captain of her swimming team this year,  scored a 33 on the ACT (that’s the 99th percentile), earned a full-ride scholarship to BYU for this Fall, took AP classes her senior year, and is graduating with honors this month [1] . She is quite a smart, accomplished young woman. But the truly remarkable thing is she has done all of this while battling Stage 4 Ewing Sarcoma, a very rare childhood bone cancer that is very aggressive [2] [3].

Afton was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma on May 22, 2014 and was only given a few days to live. Afton had tumors on her pelvic bone, spine, liver, and kidneys. She immediately started chemotherapy and radiation and her progress far exceeded doctor’s expectations. In January of this year we thought things were starting to turn around when doctors declared her to be in remission. However, a short month later Afton relapsed with a significant tumor on her brain. In March scans showed that Afton has numerous tumors growing throughout her body. Since last May, Afton has spent over 120 days in the hospital, undergone 45 radiation treatments, and received 70 doses of chemotherapy. [2]

And through it all Afton has “just kept swimming,” her motto from the movie Finding Nemo. Swimming is something Afton knows well considering she has been competitively swimming since she was in grade school and was a star athlete on her swimming team. Afton’s positive attitude in the face of insurmountable odds has inspired thousands of people, including me, her older cousin. On her Facebook page, Afton Wallace #mymissionisremission, she and her parents post countless videos of Afton singing after chemo treatments and pictures of her bright, smiling face [4]. Afton acknowledges she has her hard moments as well. “You can have breakdown moments cause everyone has breakdown moments, and sometimes you have them every day,” says Afton. “But you have to keep a smile on your face to make it through. You really do.” [1]

As I have watched my sweet cousin face this impossible battle over the last year I am continually humbled by her optimism, good humor, and ability to give to others during, which should be some of her darkest moments. As part of her occupational therapy, Afton has been crocheting infinity scarves and donating them to a clinic for abused women in California. She also reaches out to other cancer patients and lifts their spirits. Anyone would be justified in being angry at their situation and not want to help others and maybe sometimes Afton does feel that way, but she does not show it publicly and instead her generous spirit shines through every time.

8-life-lessons-from-helen-keller-13-728

This quote by Helen Keller is one of my very favorites. If anyone had reason to give up and wallow in the unfairness of life, it was Helen Keller. Instead she overcame all her disabilities to be a social justice warrior and an iconic and inspirational American. This quote exemplifies Afton to me. Afton has opened a new doorway for the human spirit. Before her, I never knew that a young person could be so hopeful, optimistic, brave, wise and mature beyond her years, and heroic. She has reminded me just how precious and beautiful life is. She has taught me to never take a single day for granted. Her parents, Rob and Sheri, have taught me how precious our children are and how to be a rock of strength when everything inside you is crumbling to pieces. The Wallaces have taught me what true courage looks like. They have taught me more about unconditional love, sacrifice, and faith than I could ever learn from any book. And like I said at the beginning, Afton has taught me to live more fully and to love more deeply than I ever would have before her diagnosis.

Sadly, our hearts all broke last Friday, May 8th, when Sheri made the announcement that Afton’s latest CT and PET scans showed that her latest chemotherapy was not working and her tumors have tripled in size and dramatically increased in number. There are no more standard treatment options available to Afton and her body will not be able to recover enough to participate in a clinical trial. The doctors believe that Afton has less than 3 months to live. [5]

I read the news when I was checking Facebook on a break and I broke down in tears. I cried for Rob and Sheri and the devastation they must be going through. I cried for Afton’s siblings, Kaylynne, Abigail, Scott, and Katie. I cried for Afton and for the life and future she deserves. I cried for Afton’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, 58 first cousins, extended family, friends, and hometown of Vicksburg, MS.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair when this happens to those who want to live the most and have the most to live for.

I thought about Afton and what I could do to help, and there’s nothing I can do except contribute to her GoFundMe page [6]. I thought about how selfless and giving Afton has been through all of this. I remembered that she always felt better after having blood transfusions, and though I have never done it before, I made an appointment for the very next day with the Red Cross to donate my blood. I learned that my blood will help save the lives of three people. If I can’t save Afton’s life, I can at least help someone else. [7]

Despite the odds, Afton is not giving up and neither are the people who love her. We don’t give up. We just keep swimming and we petition the Lord constantly with prayers for continued miracles.

I can’t let myself think far enough ahead into a future that doesn’t include Afton. If and when she passes from this life, whether that’s 90 days or 90 years from now, Afton will leave a great legacy of love, courage, optimism, enthusiasm for life, endurance, strength, grace, and success.

emerson[8]

Afton your life has been a success because you made the lives of those who love you better by simply being you.

There are no words in the English language adequate enough to express my deep love and gratitude to Afton and her family. They are a miracle, and through the atonement of Jesus Christ, no matter what happens, we will all be together forever. There is no mutant cell that could ever take that away. Because of His grace, cancer will never win. It can destroy a physical body, but it cannot harm an eternal soul.

Don’t give up. Never quit. Just keep swimming. Just keep smiling. Just keep loving. Give more. Love more. Live more. Enjoy more. Seek out joy. Look for miracles. Never let go.

Those are the lessons I’ve learned from my dear, sweet, younger cousin.

“…unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3

This article is posted with the gracious permission of the Wallace family.

The article was featured on The Huffington Post where Afton herself picked the beautiful pictures that were featured. RIP Beautiful girl.

Sources:

[1] MS NEWS NOW | WLBT, WDBD (http://www.msnewsnow.com/story/28949637/afton-wallace-her-fight-for-life)

[2] The Vicksburg Post (http://www.vicksburgpost.com/2015/05/03/just-keep-swimming/)

[3] WebMD (http://www.webmd.com/cancer/ewings-sarcoma)

[4] Afton Wallace #mymissionisremission (https://www.facebook.com/aftonwallacemymissionisremission?fref=ts)

[5] Facebook post (https://www.facebook.com/aftonwallacemymissionisremission/posts/447679728744143)

[6] GoFundMe – Afton Wallace (http://www.gofundme.com/tf5qfc)

[7] American Red Cross (http://www.redcross.org/blood)

[8] Quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life Lessons I Learned from my Dad

Me and my dad in 1978
Me and my dad in 1978

The older I get the more I realize how much I’m like my dad. From overly critiquing the logistics of car commercials or only wanting to eat popcorn for dinner, I’m more like my dad than I ever thought. I was a mama’s girl growing up and thought every attribute of my personhood was a direct result of her influence. Now that she has been gone for a little over six years, I’m starting to recognize how very much like my father I am as well. My dad has dissimilar life philosophies than my mom did. They say opposites attract, and in their case, this is very true. I believe I benefited from having two very different people with different beliefs about life raise me and influence who I would become one day. These are the life lessons I learned from my dad:

1. Cross that bridge when you come to it

My mother was a world-class champion in worrying. She could come up with any disastrous scenario of any situation and worry about every minute detail until she was sick to her stomach. My dad has always been decidedly more laid-back. I remember many times worrying about something completely out of my control and him reminding me not to worry about it until it actually happened. When I was little I had no idea what the idiom “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” actually meant, but as I grew I began to appreciate my dad’s way of handling the unknown. As an adult I have really benefited from not being riddled with the anxiety constant worrying brings and appreciate my dad’s approach to life. Why worry about something that may never happen?

2. No good deed goes unpunished

I’ve heard my dad say on more than one occasion that no good deed goes unpunished. I’ve come to realize over the years that this means that even when I have good intentions and do something good for someone else, that doesn’t mean that my actions will always be appreciated. Sometimes they are even unwelcome. I used to say this mantra a lot when I worked in my first job as a social worker. I would work my tail off for the benefit of a client and not only have it not appreciated, but criticized. I had to realize that I’m not always going to get the praise and adulation I expect when performing “good deeds,” and yet I still need to do and be good.

3. Don’t always work up to your full potential 

My mom had a very strong work ethic. She believed if someone is paying you, you work as hard and adeptly as you can to accomplish the task. While I admire this, I noticed that when she came home from work she was so exhausted she had nothing left to give to her family. When I was older and able to articulate my feelings into words, I told her she gave so much of herself at the office that she had nothing left for her children at the end of the day. I know she listened and heard me, but the work ethic that she had learned from her parents won out every day. When I got my first job my parents gave me very different sets of advice. My mom told me to work as hard as I could and to do my very best every day. My dad told me not to work up to my full potential because then my employers would always expect me to work that hard and that was a quick way to work myself to death. I could still adequately perform my job duties without giving myself ulcers and a heart attack by the age of 30. More often than not I have stuck to my dad’s philosophy of not working up to my full potential. That is, until I had my first social work job and I loved it and was so dedicated to my clients. I noticed after a few years I had missed out on things like trick-or-treating with my children, my daughter’s first piano recital, and my son’s birthday party because I was working. I would come home so exhausted I was literally too tired to make a sandwich for dinner, let alone be a good parent. I know the job I was doing was important, but my family is more important to me.

4. There are jerks every where you go. 

I remember complaining to my dad once about a jerk I worked with and how I couldn’t wait to get a new job and be away from this jerk. My dad just chuckled and said that he has encountered a jerk, or several jerks, at every job he’s ever been at. There were jerks in the Army with him, there are jerks at church,  there are jerks at every job, and there are jerks in your neighborhood. The only person I can control is myself and how I react to the jerks.  I’ve had to learn to deal with the jerks and get on with my life, my job, my church work, and my job assignment. There are always going to be jerks. What’s important is that I’m not one of them.

5. Appreciate Nature

My dad loves nature. If you are Facebook friends with him you know that he likes to re-post pictures taken at various National Parks. Growing up in Utah, I had an abundance of nature to appreciate just off my front steps. My parents were always taking us for drives in the mountains and pointing out the beautiful views and the gorgeous changing of the leaves in Autumn. Whenever family from Back East came to visit he would take them to Antelope Island, in the middle of the Great Salt Lake, and show off the spectacular scenery. My dad loves to go camping and would accompany me and my friends on a church youth group trip up to Jackson Hole every summer for some river rafting. My mom stayed home and read her book. I’ve hiked with him in Zions and Arches National Park. We’ve enjoyed the sunrise over the ocean in Florida together. And whenever I leave the state of Utah and return, I see the beautiful Rockies rising in the distance and my heart thrills. I believe this is because my dad taught me to appreciate the beauty of the nature around me.

113 Dan and children KOD
Our family at Arches National Park in 1992

6. Stay true to your own conscience

One of the greatest things I admire about my dad is that when he was drafted into Vietnam he went as a conscientious objector. Because of his religion he is a pacifist and does not believe in taking a life for any reason. In the Army he was trained as a Medic and took care of POWs instead of taking more lives. I am proud that he was able to stay true to his religion and fulfill his duty as a citizen at the same time. My dad once told me that I always had a deep sense of what was right and wrong and was fair and what was unjust. I believe I got this from him. As an adult I refuse to be a party to things that offend my conscience, even if my culture, my religion, or my community tell me that what I believe is wrong.

7. When it’s important to your kids, you show up

I can’t say that my dad loves choir concerts, or piano recitals, or school plays, but he showed up to every one his kids were in. Even when “the game” was on. I can’t even imagine how many excruciatingly boring performances my dad sat through over the years but I never heard him complain (not to me at least). My dad and I are different religions and he often attends religious rituals that he doesn’t necessarily understand and can’t participate in.  That hasn’t stopped him from supporting me, my siblings, or his grandchildren in these rituals. He once told me that he may not understand something, but if it’s important to one of his kids, it’s important to him.

8. Unconditional Love

The greatest life lesson my dad taught me is the hardest one to write about. When I was in 3rd grade my mom was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition in her breasts. This was the late 1980s and there weren’t a lot of good options. My parents decided together that my mother would have a bilateral mastectomy. It was very scary to me as an 8 year old to have words like “cancer” and “surgery” bandied about. It was also scary to see my mom’s body forever altered. Her breasts were never rebuilt and she lived the rest of her life with scars across her chest. I saw the unconditional love my dad had for my mother during this time. She couldn’t lift her arms up very far and couldn’t do a lot of things for herself. He bathed her, helped her on the toilet, gave her enemas when the pain pills caused her constipation, affirmed to her that he still loved her and was attracted to her even though her body had changed, and cheered on her recovery in his own quiet and supportive way. This had a lasting impact on me as I grew. I knew that marriage wasn’t a relationship to take lightly and sometimes when it comes to “for better or for worse” the worse is really much worse than you ever anticipated. Twenty years after my mom’s mastectomy, my parents were dealt an even more devastating blow. My mom was diagnosed with stage IV inoperable pancreatic cancer. Yet again, I watched my dad take care of my mom in a way that left her with the dignity to make her own choices. He protected her wishes. He supported her when she decided to do chemo, even though it caused more pain and didn’t prolong her life. He helped her make the decision to end treatment and opt for hospice care. And he was the person in the room with her when she died. Through their 36 year long marriage, through the fights and disagreements, through the births of three children, through illnesses, and mortgage payments, and choir performances, and summer camps, and finally an empty nest, my dad remained loyal to my mother. He taught me more about unconditional love through his example as a husband to my mother than he ever could with any words he’d ever speak. My dad taught me how to be a committed spouse and I only hope that I can show my husband the kind of unconditional love my dad taught me through the way he lives his life.

Happy Father’s Day, Dadoo! I love you.

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Hugging my dad after he married my step-mom in 2008

 

Cross-posted  at The Huffington Post

In Honor of Father’s Day

My Dad, Me (baby on the right), and my cousin Krista
What Is A Dad?

A dad is someone who
wants to catch you before you fall
but instead picks you up,
brushes you off,
and lets you try again.

A dad is someone who
wants to keep you from making mistakes
but instead lets you find your own way,
even though his heart breaks in silence
when you get hurt.

A dad is someone who
holds you when you cry,
scolds you when you break the rules,
shines with pride when you succeed,
and has faith in you even when you fail… –Unknown


Thank you, Dad, for coming to every piano recital, choir concert, and Awards program, even though you would have rather been at home watching the game. Thank you for getting up early and going to work each day to support our family, even when we were ungrateful. Thank you for your steadfastness and example. Thank you for always being proud of me. Thank you for participating in things you didn’t always understand, but were important to us. Thank you for never acting like you owned me and always encouraging me to be my own person. Thank you for accepting me for the person I am. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for treating my husband like your son. Thank you for being a WONDERFUL grandpa. My children adore you. Thank you for being the kind, gentle, decent man you are. I’m proud to be your daughter.

I love you, Dadoo! Happy Father’s Day!