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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A Month of Gratitude

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” – Melody Beattie

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year my bestie K and I went to a yoga class at the gym and our favorite yoga instructor read us this quote by Melody Beattie.  It was one of the best yoga sessions I have ever attended because our instructor set the entire intention toward gratitude.  She reminded us that during this crazy holiday season where stress is really high while we attend a million activities and parties while trying to decorate our houses and make holiday treats and buy a ton of presents for our kids, family, and friends, that it is good to slow down and really appreciate the blessings in our lives.

A lot of my friends have been posting on Facebook something they are grateful for every day until Thanksgiving.  Other friends have created a “gratitude tree” where they have a paper cut-out tree and every day they put a leaf on the tree with something they are grateful for until Thanksgiving (kind of like an Advent calendar) and I like this idea so much I think I will do it next year with my kids.  Last year I wrote an A,B,C post about things I am grateful for inspired by my friend Mitch.  All those things I’m grateful for still stand, but I wanted to re-iterate what I’m thankful for this year.

-I’m thankful for my family of origin.  God blessed me with two loving parents and two incredible siblings.  Even though my Mother is now in heaven and my Dad is far away, I still feel their love every day.  And my brother and sister are two of the greatest people I’ve ever known.  I’m grateful for their friendship, love, and support.  I love the people they are, the people they married who couldn’t be more perfect for them and add so much to our family, and the little people they created.  My nephews and niece are the cutest kids ever!  I’m glad that my nephews are such good friends with their cousins and that they love spending time together.  It’s true that some of your first best friends are your cousins.

-I’m thankful for the family the hubs and I created.  I married the best man I’ve ever known and not a single day has gone by where I didn’t think that marrying him was the best decision I ever made.   My sweet children add so much to my life and as usual they teach me more than I teach them.  It has been such a joy to watch them learn and grow.  I’m so grateful for the ease at which we have been able to add children to our family.  Working where I work, I can never take our fertility for granted.

-I’m thankful for the family I married into.  I’m so thankful for what a great family the hubs comes from because my mother and father-in-law are two of the nicest, kindest, most loving people I’ve ever known.  They accepted me as part of the family the day I met them.  They have helped the hubs and I out so much and they’ll never know how much I appreciate it, especially since they are the only grandparents my kids have who live nearby.  I love that my kids are so close to their grandparents and have such a bond with them.  Also, the hubs has some great siblings who also married some great people.  We have the cutest nephews and niece ever and I’m so glad my kids are close with their cousins.  The hubs’ sisters are some of my very best friends.

-I’m grateful for extended family and the love that has been given to me by uncles, aunts, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, great-aunts, and uncles, etc.  My extended family might not all be close by, but they’re always there supporting me and my family.  I’m grateful for my grandparents.  I didn’t get to know my paternal grandfather very well since he lived back east and died when I was 8.  My paternal grandmother was a force to be reckoned with and I’m glad I come from such a strong woman.  My maternal grandparents moved back to Utah from Boston when I was 2 and I was always so glad that I grew up having them be a part of my every day life.  My maternal grandfather was one of the best, kindest, most gentle men I’ve ever known.  He was out-going, loved life, never met a stranger, treated everyone like his friend, and I can’t help but think I married a man just like him.  My grandmother, while quite different from my grandpa, loved me and I’m grateful I got to know her better as an adult when the hubs and I took care of her.

-I’m grateful for good friends.  My NYCbestie and bestie K have been steadfast and loyal friends who have gotten me through a lot of hard times.  They are both my every day, in the trenches, through good times and bad, gigglefest, best friends.  My friend, Shupee, and her husband flew all the way across the country so they could spend 20 minutes at my mother’s viewing.  It was one of the most kindest, selfless things anyone has ever done for me.  She supported me through my mother’s illness by sending me cards and presents, and I wonder if she knew at the time how much that saved my life.  I have truly been blessed to call some of the most incredible people in this world my friends.

-I’m grateful for a warm home, a roof over my head, electricity, running water, enough clothes to change my outfit every day, and plenty of food, and a variety of it, to eat.  I read an article last Christmas that said if you have any of those things, you are more fortunate than 90% of all the people who have ever lived on the earth.  I try to remember this whenever I get bogged down in my first world problems.

-I’m thankful that my NYCbestie was not seriously affected by Hurricane Sandy and she is safe.  Especially considering she doesn’t live that far from places that were disastrously affected like Hoboken, NJ and Staten Island.

-I’m grateful for the good employment of the hubs and myself.  We’ve both worked in some crappy jobs and it’s nice we both now are employed in jobs and careers we love.  I’m grateful for the people I work with and the clients we work for.  I can honestly say my life has been blessed the last 6 years because of the type of work I’m involved in.

-I’m grateful for Mountain Dew and cheetos.

-I’m grateful for the great neighborhood we live in and kind, friendly, and helpful neighbors.  We moved here 3 years ago this Thanksgiving and it remains one of the best decisions we ever made for our family.  The kids go to a great school, have made great friends, and we are surrounded by great families.

-I’m grateful for my memories.  I’m grateful for having a mother who loved me unconditionally.  I’m grateful that if she can’t be here right now, that God gave me a mother-in-law whom I love like she was my own mother.  Sometimes I forget she didn’t birth me herself.  I’m grateful that if my kids can only have one grandma right now, that God gave them the best one.

-I’m grateful for words and writing and having an outlet to express myself.  I’m grateful for books and for a mother who instilled in me a love of books.

-I’m grateful for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the peace it brings me.  I’m grateful for the atonement and for the opportunity to repent of my mistakes.  I’m grateful for the love and grace of my Savior because I know that I’m so far from perfect I could never measure up.

I hope that I can continue to reflect on all my blessings, not just during the holiday season, but all year long.

A political rant: Demonizing “the other” side

We have two weeks and one day until the election and I can pretty well say most of us are sick of it.  Sick of it.  I can’t listen to another debate, see another political ad from any candidate in any election, or read another Facebook post/rant/status about it.  I wish this was November 7th already and the outcomes of all the elections were known so I could go back to my regularly scheduled life.  I don’t want to rant about politics and this isn’t about politics per se, but about people thinking their political beliefs are so important that anyone who doesn’t agree must be stupid/evil/the reincarnation of Hitler.

Recently a friend of some of my mutual friends made headlines in her town, Nacodoches, Texas, when the Democratic Party of Nacodoches County asked if they could put up some Obama signs on her fences because her house is at the corner of a major intersection.  Being Obama supporters they agreed and quickly the signs were stolen by an immature person(s) with unknown motivations, other than to be total buttmunches.  Heather and her family invited people to come over this last Friday night for a sign party where people could hang homemade signs.  The truly shocking thing was when the local paper ran this story, there were comments in the comments section that actually threatened violence against her family.  Violence!  Because she and her husband aren’t voting for their guy.  I’m sorry, but this is the most unAmerican piece of bull crap I have ever heard.  It doesn’t matter who her family is supporting, she doesn’t deserve to be “target practice” like some comments said.  There are two bright spots in this story.  One is that Heather’s community came together on Friday, mostly made up of people she had never met, to make signs and hang them together.  The next day, according to Heather’s facebook status, the official signs were stolen and the homemade signs were ripped to pieces creating a large mess in her yard.  The second bright spot  is what Heather wrote on Facebook about a family who came to help clean up:

“So grateful.  Ardent Romney supporters (husband, wife, teenage son) just stopped to ask what they could do to help us. They offered to clean up today’s mess or be part of a round-the-clock neighborhood watch to keep this from happening again.  Brent (Heather’s husband) said they were welcome to put up a Romney sign. He said he wasn’t interested in hanging a Romney sign; he was only interested in helping us protect our right to support the candidate we want.  Score (another) one for protecting the political process!”

In one week Heather has witnessed the worst her community has to offer and the best.  Three cheers for the pro-Romney family for doing the American thing, the right thing, and putting politics aside to help out Heather’s family and state that they had the right to hang signs on their own property supporting their candidate of choice.  (You can find Heather’s story here).

Seriously people, have we become so divided, so effed in the head that we actually think that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is therefore against us and deserves to be harassed, have their private property destroyed, and threatened with violence online?  Seriously, who are we?  How is this acceptable?  And spare me the stories of people who have had Romney signs stolen.  I know this happens on both sides and I’m only using Heather’s story as an anecdote to prove a point, and because she is someone I sort of know.  She could be a Romney supporter and this story would still piss me off.

In these times of 24 hour “news” channels, instant access to information on the internet, and the ability to filter out any opinion that does not match our own, we have become a people who have chosen sides against each other instead of with each other.  We are all still Americans no matter who is in the White House, no matter how many seats belong to which side in Congress, no matter who your mayor is, and no matter what yard sign currently occupies your neighbor’s lawn – WE ARE ALL CITIZENS OF THE SAME COUNTRY!  That is the fundamental truth.  We don’t have to agree!  We don’t have to believe that only our side has the right answers!  But we have to get along.  But we have to respect each other as actual human beings with thoughts, and feelings, and lives, and experiences that might not match our own but inform the opinions of others.  I’m sick, sick, sick of all this bipartisanship!  It doesn’t matter who I cast my vote for when I enter into that voting booth (and thank goodness we live in a country with secret ballots).  What matters is that I’m your neighbor no matter what I don’t deserve to DIE because I didn’t choose the same candidate you did.

Not to mention, there are more than two freaking sides in this country.  We have gotten lost in this ridiculous two party system and it’s a major flaw of our political system.  There are actually more than just Democrats and Republicans and a huge diversity of thought among our citizenship.  I’d like to see a debate with ALL the candidates running for President.  Until then, it gives the impression there are only two teams and if you’re not on our team your wrong, wrong, wrong!   And the constant bickering over who is right, who is wrong, who said what, what word was used,  is driving me nuts.

Knowing that who I vote for for President doesn’t matter because I live in Utah and it’s obvious the electorate is going to go for Romney, I’m actually thinking of voting for a third party candidate this year.  Not because I’m against Romney (I am) and not because I’m for Obama (I am), but I’m more against this bull crap of teams, choosing sides, you’re an idiot if you didn’t choose mine.  If you want to see a list of ALL the candidates running for President you can check out this list.   I’m actually considering supporting the Stein/Honkala ticket because their values/positions/beliefs are more in line with mine.  And isn’t this what we all should do?  Support the candidates who actually reflect our opinions/values/beliefs instead of holding our nose and voting for the candidate who doesn’t piss us off the most?  And having more than one political party with actual political clout would cut down on all this two-sided nonsense that only seeks to divide us as citizens of this country.  It actually makes us look bad to people outside of the country who see political pundits and candidates quibble, yell, and pick at the semantics of words and argue over who is the more evil.  Seriously, this the example we want to set for the rest of the world?

I have plenty of political opinions of my own, but I never thought that my opinions somehow impacted someone else’s life.  I don’t care who you vote for…why the hell do you care so much about who I do?  What’s it to you?  When I go into the voting booth it’s just me, myself, and my conscious and the only person I have to answer to is myself.   The same goes for you.  So lay off me if you don’t like political beliefs.  I don’t give a crap, why should you?

I promise you, all those of you who hate the other guy, it doesn’t matter who wins the Presidential election on November 6th…the world will still go on.  If your guy doesn’t win, it doesn’t mean the end of civilization as we know it and if you think that, you’re seriously jaded.  The most important elections are the local ones anyway because those are the ones that have the most direct impact on your actual life.

Stop demonizing the other guy.  Especially if the other guy is your neighbor.  Stop saying a vote for the other guy is like digging up Hitler and making him President.   Stop saying that the world will suddenly come to an end and everything bad that can and will happen if you don’t vote for the guy on my team.  Stop freaking stealing yard signs just because you don’t want that person to win.  Please, please, please be like the Romney supporting family in Heather’s community who put politics aside to help their neighbor.  These people get it.  It doesn’t matter who your neighbor is voting for, it’s about how you treat that neighbor.

I know Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about segregation and civil rights when he said this, but I find it particularly poignant now that we as a public are at each other’s throats over the “other guy.”

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”