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

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For Whom Mother’s Day is Difficult

Mother’s Day is this Sunday and we will collectively celebrate the women who either gave us life or raised us. We will make phone calls, or take them out to lunch, send them flowers, buy them meaningful cards, and express gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us.

Except some of us won’t be doing any of those things on Sunday for a variety of reasons. There is a small club of us for whom Mother’s Day is difficult. This post is for us.

Mother’s Day is difficult for those of us who have lost our mothers, either through death, estrangement, or other reasons. It’s difficult for those who deal with infertility and Mother’s Day is just a reminder of what we don’t have. It’s difficult for those who have lost children and it’s a day that reminds us of what we used to have.

I remember the first Mother’s Day after my mom died. I was 8 months pregnant and completely dreading that Sunday. We all met up at the cemetery to see my mom’s headstone for the first time. She died six months previously and the ground was too hard to install it earlier. I think we went out to lunch afterwards. I can’t remember. Grief has a way of erasing memories. Self-preservation at it’s finest. The next month I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and my mom wasn’t there to hold my hand this time.

Mother's Day

The advertising industry doesn’t realize how hard this holiday is for some of us. They don’t realize how triggering it is to see the umpteenth commercial about the perfect card/flowers/fruit bouquet you should send your mother. They don’t realize how triggering it is for women who are experiencing infertility, or are childless due to life circumstances, to see commercial after commercial reminding them that they’re not a mother when they desperately want to be. And unfortunately some bloggers are devoid of empathy and compassion and like to shame those of us who have deep-seated hurt around this day.

That is why we need to be patient with our tender little hearts. We need to do some self-care and allow ourselves to feel what we feel, without guilt or shame. (For self-care I like to take baths and read, exercise, watch silly movies with my kids, and make snarky jokes). If Mother’s Day is difficult for you for any reason your feelings are valid. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel bad for feeling bad. Give yourself the same empathy and compassion you would give your best friend. Celebrate, or don’t, however you choose this day. For this one day, it is all about you and your tender heart. Protect it.

I acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky. I have four children whom I love and who love me. They keep talking about the things they are making at school for me or the present they all want to buy me to celebrate me on Sunday. They are so sweet. What I want to do on Mother’s Day is gather them around me and embrace each one of them and tell them just how lucky I am to be their mother. They are such good kids with such big hearts. I also have a wonderful mother-in-law, who has always treated me like one of her own kids and is just about the best grandma in the whole world. I have no problem honoring her on Sunday and thanking her for all the sacrifices she has made for her family. All the things she has given to us to help us make our lives better.  All the times she has cheered us on and picked us up when we’ve fallen. Even when we’re ungrateful or don’t acknowledge just how special she is. Sometimes angels masquerade as people, and she is one of them.

mother day

However, Mother’s Day will always be bittersweet to me. No matter how thankful I am to be a mother and to have had a wonderful mother and mother-in-law, there is a part of my heart that will always be missing. It’s in the shape of my Mama Sue. On this day I will wear the necklace I gave her on the very last Mother’s Day we celebrated with her when none of us knew she was sick. I will lay flowers on her headstone and I will thank my God above that one of the bravest, funniest, most loving people I’ve ever known gave birth to me. But I will also mourn because I wish she were here for me to tell her why I’m so grateful I was lucky enough to be her daughter. Alas…alas…

Happy Mother’s Day, to all of us, the motherless, the neglected, the infertile, the childless, the discarded, the abandoned, the weary, the sad. This day is for you too.

This post was featured on The Huffington Post

I can’t get out of my sweat pants – an essay on depression

I have clinical depression.

Despite all social stigmas to the contrary or people accusing me of being “crazy”, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have depression. Just like I’m not ashamed to admit that I have asthma.

The first time I experienced depression I was in 7th grade. I think it had something to do with the onset of puberty coupled with my entire life changing. After 7 years as a stay-at-home-parent, my mom went back to work full-time and I was suddenly responsible for caring for my 6 year old brother after school until my parents got home from work. I started junior high this year and didn’t cope well with changes in friendship and harder classes.

The way I dealt with it, because I had  no idea why I felt so sad all the time, was to stop eating. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. The stress and anxiety of my life made me lose my appetite. I remember going through the lunch line at school and getting my tray and turning right around and throwing everything on it away. After a while, one of the lunch ladies caught on and scolded me. So I learned it was best to take my tray, sit down, mess with the food but not eat anything, and then discard it. After 7th grade I asked my mom not to buy school lunch anymore. I don’t want to make it sound like I had an eating disorder because I didn’t. Not eating was a coping mechanism I unconsciously used when the stress and anxiety was overwhelming, and it wasn’t overwhelming all the time.

Sometimes when the depression got really bad in junior high, I would come straight home from school and change into my pajamas. My dad caught on and he said something to me at dinner time about being in my pajamas several days in a row way before bedtime. I learned it was better not to change into my pajamas until bed time. People who are depressed like to hide their problematic behaviors because they are so ashamed of the way they feel. I was very ashamed and yet I didn’t have the words or life experience to voice what I was going through.

For most of junior high and high school I didn’t know that what I had was called depression. And that’s not to say I was depressed all the time. I was able to function and get good grades. I just had a few overwhelming bouts off and on and when it got bad I would stop eating and wear my pajamas every chance I could get. I also couch-potatoed with reruns of The Real World (this was back in the ’90s when the show was good).

That hardest part about dealing with depression as an adolescent, for me, was that no one seemed to notice. Research has shown that depression is genetic,  and I watched both of my parents struggle with depression. I think both of them were too depressed to notice that I was also depressed. There were many nights I had to make dinner for the family, make sure my brother did his homework and practice the piano, and put myself to bed. I don’t blame my parents…I think they did the best they could with what skills and knowledge they had at the time. And I know what it’s like to barely have the energy to get through the day that any additional problem seems insurmountable.

I struggled with bouts of depression until I was 20 years old. That is when my fiance (now husband) and caring roommates interceded and got me help. I learned that a lot of my depression stemmed from a hormonal imbalance because it often got worse when my hormones were at their lowest levels during my menses. Since that time I’ve either been on birth control or pregnant and my depression abated for a very long time.

For 15 years I was depression free. Even when I lost my mom to cancer I can’t say I was depressed because I didn’t experience the same symptoms. Yes, I was unbelievably sad and grieving. But grief is not depression and I sought ways to cope with my grief so that I didn’t become depressed. I attended a grief support group, went to a few counseling sessions, and let myself feel every sad emotion I had when I had it. It’s actually very emotionally healthy to let yourself feel sadness instead of repressing it.

What I didn’t know was my depression was lying in wait ready to take over my brain chemistry at any time I was not vigilant. Last September my husband, a long with 30% of his company, was laid off. He was out of work for four months, which in retrospect doesn’t seem like very long, but at the time it was the longest four months of my life. I was in a constant state of panic wondering if we were going to lose our house and end up living in a van down by the river. Not that we could have even afforded a van. We depleted our savings and racked up some credit card debt, but with the unfailing support of family members and friends we pulled through. And we were treated to some of the most humbling displays of generosity and love our family has ever seen. We survived it and now he has a great job and we’re in a much better place.

But…

It was after my husband went back to work that the depression hit. I was in full-on survival mode for four months and I didn’t allow myself to process what I was going through, which I think is fairly typical. I couldn’t understand why getting out of bed and taking care of my children was harder than ever when I no longer had the threat of a van and a river hanging over my head. It wasn’t until a good friend interceded, who could tell what I was going through, that I finally admitted that after 15 years of keeping my depression at bay, it was back. Thanks to her I started taking a supplement that improves the serotonin levels in your brain and now I finally feel like I’m back to my regular self.

What is absolutely infuriating about depression is other people’s perception of it. I hate it when people tell me when I’m depressed to just think happy, positive thoughts. Having depression is not the same as having a bad day and a picture of a fluffy kitten will NOT lift my spirits. Depression is more than being sad. Or when people tell me I need to forget about myself and serve others and that will cure my depression. I hate to break it to people, but most people with depression are able to function in life and they are serving others and the joy from serving others doesn’t fix chemical imbalances in your brain.

So let me tell you what depression is like for me. It is debilitating. It makes mundane, ordinary tasks like taking a shower or making the bed seem impossible. It is soul-sucking. It breaks you down into a person who no longer feels anything but apathy. It also makes you feel completely worthless and unlovable. When I’m in the throes of depression my brain lies to me and tells me that I am worth nothing. No one cares about me. The world would be a better place if I died. And when you have all this negative self-talk running through your head all day long, no amount of fluffy kitten pictures is going to take that away. No amount of weeding your neighbor’s garden is going to take all that negative self-talk away. If anything, you just tell yourself how worthless you are because you could have weeded that garden better and/or faster. Another thing that happens to me when I’m depressed is I isolate myself from others. The internet and Facebook has made it super easy for me to be social without ever having to leave the house, and well, never leaving the house when you are physically capable of it is not healthy. Every human being needs real-life human contact and SUNLIGHT!

So what do you do when you suspect a friend is depressed? I would say the best thing you can do is reach out. One of the first lies our brains tell us is that no one, absolutely no one, cares about us. You reaching out and expressing concern proves our depressed brains wrong. Once you’ve expressed your concern, don’t offer them dumb platitudes (“the sun will come out tomorrow”), don’t try to minimize what they’re going through (“some people have it way worse than you”), just listen, listen, LISTEN! If they express their negative self-talk to you (I’m worthless and no one loves me) validate that what they are is experiencing is real but what they’re telling themselves is not true (“If you were worthless and no one loves you, why would I be here reaching out worried about you?).

I think I’m pretty lucky that my friend reached out when she did. I was in a swirling vortex of despair and didn’t even realize it. Most of the time I can recognize when my depression is coming on and combat it with exercise, going outside for a walk, talking to a friend, reaching out to my husband and letting him know what’s going on, or watching a really funny movie and laughing my guts out. Once I’m in a full-on depression those things don’t work anymore, so it’s best to head depression off at the pass. Like when I start to feel like my asthma is acting up, I start using my rescue inhaler more and resting.

To those who are currently clinically depressed I would ask that you reach out. To a friend, neighbor, family member, spouse…anyone you trust. Sometimes medication helps, sometimes it doesn’t. I just want you to know that you’re not alone. You’re not worthless. And there are people who love you deeply.