Saturday, May 21, 2011

On the sunny side ...

May 21st, 2011 ... the billboards are telling me that this is the day the world will end. But with my windows wide open, the sun shining, a delicious latte half finished and music on the stereo, it feels like every other day - with my life just beginning yet again. I truly believe that, for all the drama we create around so many things past and future, every day is the only day. Neither the first nor the last, neither good nor bad, just this day we are given to do with what we will.

February 29th, 2008 ... now that was a day that must have felt like it was the end of the world for the Hayes family. For that was when Heidi - their bright, happy, seemingly healthy Grade Four girl - was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. In other words, their beloved 'baby' had cancer.

Heidi in front, with Biz, Nakita, Mallarie and aunt and uncle.

My introduction to Heidi and her family was through Orillia sports. My daughter, Katy, played basketball against Heidi's older sister Nakita a few years ago and we always saw Kita's mom, Biz, and sisters, Heidi and Mallarie at the games. They are all very bright lights - beautiful people with spirits so big they overflow. That sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it - their incredible positive energy spreads to everyone around them as soon as they walk into a room.

I don't remember when I first became aware of Heidi's health issue. You would certainly never suspect it to watch her and her family - no one that enthusiastic about life, and so full of love and enthusiasm for others could be dealing with something so huge, could they? 

When she could, Heidi still played sports, and her mom coached her and her sisters as well. When the other players went home to do homework or watch TV, the Hayes family went to the hospital or home to administer chemotherapy drugs. There were constant drives to and from Toronto, and long stays in the cancer ward. There were surgeries, terrifying scares, excruciating pain. It must have been hard for Biz to hear another parent or player complain about their day... "And then some jerk cut me off in traffic!" or "Can you believe the price of gas these days?".

Heidi and her family began journaling her experience in April 2008. It is an incredible, three year long display of incredible optimism and heart-rendering honesty.

"Nakita Hayes wrote:

just wanted to let everyone know that heidi is at sick kids in isolation.

she has the shingles and has been running fever.
her blood counts are ever ever low.
she getting ever bored stuck in her room.!
not sure when she will be out.
we will keep you posted."

"Biz Hayes wrote:

Counts still very, very low. Fevers still spiking. Doctors are puzzled as they expected her counts to have started to 

recover by now as she has been off all chemo for a week and is already on 3 antibiotics. They called in the infectious 
disease team to try to figure out if there is something else going on. More tests. Heidi is scared and just wants to 
get out of here."

For months, Heidi was in Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. She went through round after round of chemotherapy that was literally killing her to keep her alive She was given morphine for the relentless pain. She lost all of her hair - her gorgeous, trademark blonde curls..

Even in the face of that, there were updates like this one ...

"On the sunny side. ...the four of us actually shared a meal together tonight. Even though it was on a hospital bed and even though Mal and Kita had to eat through their masks , and even though we didn't have our advent candle was fantastic to share time and to laugh with (and at) each other.  Hopefully tomorrow night we will all be around the Christmas tree:)"

... and ...

"On the sunny side.... Sick Kids is a pretty fun place to be stuck in at Halloween. Everyone went out of their way to make it a memorable day for the kids there. "

While in the hospital for such long stretches, Heidi made many new friends. Other children facing the same challenges. And she lost some of them along the way. That is one of the hardest things for me to wrap my mind around - a child already facing so much having to say goodbye to a best-friend who has just died from the same disease that she is still hoping to beat.

"On Feb 6, we went to Jocelyn's funeral.  

Why Charlie Brown? Why?"

... sit with this for a minute before continuing. Really think about a nine year old going through that ...

Heidi's extraordinary outer beauty is matched by an inner magnificence, though, that is captured perfectly in this excerpt from the introduction she wrote for her journal ...

"Having cancer stinks!  However, things could be way worse.  Last Christmas, I asked Santa for life, health and love.  When I'm sad about having cancer, I remember what Santa wrote back to me. He said to remember that I already have life, health and love. He's right! I do.  My life may be a little messed right now, but it is still a great life.  Other than having leukemia right now, I am really healthy. And I have so much love I can't even describe it."

(I will wait a minute while you go get more Kleenex ... I know that I am crying all over again writing this.)

On the sunny side - to steal that signature line from Heidi's mom - in the Spring of 2010, Heidi's cancer was declared to be in full remission!!! She still has regular doctor visits but is officially cancer-free. She is playing basketball and, lucky for us, baseball on the same team as Nakita and my Katy (I love hearing her cheer, "C'mon Katy, you can do it girl!!")

August 6th, 2010 saw Heidi deliver a moving speech at the Royal Ontario Museum for a "Summer Dreams" gala fundraiser for Camp Oochigeas. Her proud family looked on as she inspired the hundreds in attendance and drew a well-deserved standing ovation.

Here is the most recent update from Heidi's mom ...

"Three years ago, (Feb 29,2008) Heidi was diagnosed with leukemia. It is difficult to find the words to describe what she has been through physically and mentally. Heidi is truly my hero. It is equally hard to explain what Mallarie and Nakita have been through these past 3 years. I am so proud of all of them. My girls..... I love you!

Heidi is in grade 7. She is doing an awesome job at catching up on all the school work she has missed over the past years. She played on the basketball, cross country and volleyball teams and is looking forward to rugby, wrestling, softball and track. Heidi is also playing Lakers (a rep basketball team). She has an awesome bunch of friends. Heidi is feeling well most days. She still has follow up appointments at Sick kids once a month. We are grateful for her continued good health.

February is a difficult month.. It brings memories of a scary, scary time for us and memories of family and friends lost. This February has proven to be very difficult for 2 friends. Our hearts go out to Connor and Adam and their families. Fight boys!! Fight hard!!!! LEUKEMIA SUCKS!! 

On the sunnyside.......Heidi's ever present smile continues to brighten the day of those around her."

So, what does all of that have to do with me???

Well, when Heidi's mom saw that I was fundraising for POGO (Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario) she told me that POGO had been a huge help to their family during Heidi's illness, and that she was thrilled to see my getting behind such a worthwhile cause.

I said a few months ago that supporting kids who are bravely facing up to cancer would be a huge motivator for me in training for and completing The Death Race. Writing this post has reinforced that infinitely. Heidi and her family were able to keep smiling through three years of brutal cancer treatment that no child deserves to face. I can certainly endure three days of awful racing conditions that I have willingly signed up for.

Granted, I will now face one new danger in Pittsfield, VT ... being strangled on the course by other Death Racers who get sick of my constantly saying "ON THE SUNNYSIDE..."


"Children with cancer are like candles in the wind who accept the possibility that they are in danger of being extinguished by a gust of wind from nowhere and yet, as they flicker and dance to remain alive, their brilliance challenges the darkness and dazzles those of us who watch their light."


A BONUS! I just discovered that "Why Charlie Brown Why" was inspired by an actual Peanuts cartoon centred on a girl with leukemia ... amazing to watch knowing this connection!

Did I mention that you can donate to POGO, and help kids like Heidi cope with cancer, by clicking the POGO logo???

Also, for my American friends ... here is a video about another Spartan Race initiative helping kids with cancer.

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