What I wish I had known before our barely toddler got brain cancer…
I’ve always been the kind of person that likes to stay busy, have a hand in everything. I like to do as much at our kid’s school as possible, be involved with our parish, help in our community. I had no idea how much we would need all those people. I had no idea that they would rally around us before we even knew we needed it. I’m thinking back to those first days, weeks, months of Adele’s diagnosis and treatment. If someone had asked what we needed instead of just stepping up and doing it, I don’t think I would have known what to say. If I did have an idea, I would have been too proud to voice it. I do now know what we needed and were blessed with, and I hope it helps other friends and families who want to know how to help.
Let’s start with just how debilitating it can be to have a sick kid; a “really sick, possibly won’t make” it kid. It was literally all I could do to roll out of bed. I probably functioned on about 50% of my brain during the worst times, the chemo, waiting on those crucial MRI’s. Nothing extra was happening, lots of McDonald’s was consumed, and we limped along. The worry was physically and mentally exhausting. I had no idea how much worry could knock a person down. Thankfully, I had given up all of my volunteer duties and part time work as soon as Adele got sick. I gave myself permission to focus solely on her and our family being together. Our world narrowed in a big way to the most critical, most important things and everything else had to go, at least for a while.
The best thing anyone did, and continue to do, is pray for Adele. I’ll never forget someone’s message “when you are too tired to pray, I’m praying.” That was, and still is, incredibly comforting. I did have times where there was nothing left, and I was so thankful for the folks out there praying for Adele. To this day, prayer holds us up. We’ve received several relics and medals that we keep near Adele (she has relics of St. Benedict, Gianna and Gerard under her crib sheet). She also has a miraculous medal under there. You can’t really put a chain around a toddler’s neck so sleeping with them (safely) was the next best thing.
Food was probably second best on the list of things folks did. Our kids would have eaten chicken nuggets every night if it wasn’t for our amazing parish, friends, and even strangers. Even better, everyone brought tons of food, so even though we only got a few meals each week, there was plenty of food. Don’t give someone your dishes, please use a foil pan that they can throw away. The last thing they need is to worry about returning your Pyrex. Some of my favorite meals were the snacky ones where we could just grab bits here and there. Also awesome was the meal that could be eaten or frozen. Sometimes we were either out of town or needed to eat other food first. The ability to freeze a meal and pull it out later was wonderful.
Another huge blessing was a family that single handedly took over our lawn care. Honestly, we probably never would have remembered to mow. Even if we did remember, we were tired or gone or just wanted to be together as a family. This goes for the other every day tasks of life too. Go fold laundry or pool cash together with friends and send someone to clean house. We were blessed with a couple different friends who gifted us housecleaning, and it was amazing. The sheets never would have gotten changed otherwise. When you spend an hour or two on someone’s every day work, you are gifting them an hour or two. That time is so precious.
Don’t ask to mow, just show up and do it. I always felt guilty saying yes to help, and I was so busy during hospital stays that I couldn’t keep up with texts, calls and emails. When I did have a minute, there was no cell service or I just didn’t have the energy. Just drop off a meal, or just take a Coke to the hospital. And then go home. I know that sounds mean, but it takes a lot of extra energy to entertain a visitor. Like I said, this is my experience, everyone is different. There were a few, very low maintenance visitors that were very helpful and without them Peter and I would have lost our minds.
Please don’t stop emailing or texting; just don’t expect a response. We had a very busy, social life before cancer struck, and I felt very isolated at times. Even if I didn’t reply, I loved reading the emails and messages. It meant a lot that folks were thinking about and praying for us. A lot of times the message was exactly what we needed right then too, like the friend praying when we were too tired. I know you don’t know what to say, just “Hi, I’m praying” is good.
Our parish, friends and family raised cash for us and created a non-profit fund for Adele at a local bank. This was a huge Godsend that we didn’t even realize would need and continue to need. Medical costs of course are huge, and then all the extras like travel costs, extra eating out when you don’t have the energy to plan a meal, things you didn’t realize you would need (like the time our one week hospital stay turned into 3 weeks.) We have been so blessed with financial support, and it made a huge, huge difference in our stress level. Not having to worry about missing bills or not having gas money was and is a major blessing. It’s also so good for our hearts and souls to see all the folks pouring out their love to Adele in such a tangible way.
We had a core of consistent hospital visitors that kept us fed and sane, and they rank right up there in the top three best things folks did for us. The guys brought food that didn’t come from the cafeteria; they were helpful, and they didn’t care if we hadn’t showered for four days. They would even hold Adele (who was sometimes screaming because she felt like crap and just wanted Mommy or Daddy.) They didn’t require anything from us, and they filled our tanks so we could make it another day. Being in the hospital is rough, being there and watching your child suffer is almost unbearable.
My husband reminded me how much our friends and family stepped up to help with our three big kids while Adele was in the hospital. There is no way we would have stayed sane, and Peter could have kept working without all the help. Peter’s work has been amazing as well, God is definitely guiding us.
We, well, mostly Adele, got “stuff” as well, along the way. Some of it was very needed, like the Basket of Hope we got after brain surgery in St. Louis. She was feeling better, getting bored, and that came at the perfect time. Others mentioned items like quarters for laundry and vending machines, stamps and stationary, actual mail (this was especially nice for our big kids, several thoughtful folks sent them letters and items.) Someone else to send thank you notes on behalf of the recipient – I could not keep up with thank you notes. We were literally in the hospital for almost 6 months with little breaks in between.
There were also sibling packs from the hospital and other folks that helped our big kids not feel so left out. This really depends on the age of the siblings though, it might not be so helpful for smaller kids. We did get a little overwhelmed with toys and blankies at one point, so temper your toy shopping. I will say that twice we got two big grab bags, those were the best. It was lots of random stuff, mostly one time use and/or disposable, for mommy, daddy and Adele. It was a great distraction and time filler and it was great stuff like gum, little snacks, bottled water and bubbles. All excellent items that we wouldn’t have to pack up when we eventually went home.
Speaking of going home, kids on chemo are must more susceptible to germs so things like Clorox wipes and Purell are always nice. That housecleaning comes in nice here too. You don’t realize the level of clean you have to obtain until your kids immune system is completely wiped out and a germ normal folks encounter every day could send them right back to the hospital.
In summary, prayer is number one. Pray, pray, pray. Just knowing people cared about us and didn’t forget us was so important. And then just the regular every day stuff we all do with barely a thought like eating and home maintenance. Time is a huge blessing, anything you can do to give a family more time together is huge. And it probably doesn’t even cost you any money. Stuff is just extra, little stuff that won’t create more work (i.e. finding a place to put or pack it).
Thank you Jesus for all the folks you sent our way, for all the folks you continue to send our way. You’ve blessed us abundantly. Please bless others in need the same way. Please grant Adele complete healing from cancer and many, many, many years with us on Earth. Jesus, we trust in you.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to keep up with little Adele and her journey, you can follow Melissa’s blog here: http://workinprogress-melissa.blogspot.com/?m=1