Choosing to Live

Choosing to Live

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Choosing to Live

I’m one of the
I shall be living
In one of them
I shall be laughing
And so it shall be
As if the stars
were laughing
When you look
At the sky at night

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In March 1981 our nine-year-old daughter, Julie, was diagnosed with cancer. Our world was shattered. Fear and hope became permanent residents in our home. We found that laughter and tears could be partners, that family and friends could lighten the burdens, that we persevered and did what must be done because there was no other choice. Our children needed us.

Julie had always been a child who thought things over and then asked many questions. She was filled with smiles, determination, charm and bossiness. Her sister was her confidante and ally, and she adored her little brother. Julie talked constantly and could never keep a secret.

We, in turn, did not keep her cancer a secret. She knew everything. During the course of her treatments she assured us that the tumor was gone, and we shouldn’t worry. With other patients, she tied her name and address to helium-filled balloons at Children’s Hospital. Through an open window she’d watch her wish-filled balloons escape to the sky. Once, a card with a message was mailed back to her. She liked to imagine traveling with that balloon, sailing with the winds across Lake Michigan, and then being found high in the branches of a tree.

Julie basked in the attention that the whole town gave her. Friends, and then strangers who became friends, rallied around our oldest child. They offered helping hands and held numerous fund-raisers. We were overwhelmed by their kindness.

During the summer Julie went to One Step at a Time Camp for children with cancer. She came home telling stories, singing songs and cracking jokes. Camp was the greatest place.

At the end of October she and her dad jetted off to Florida on Dream Flite, an airplane filled with children who had cancer or leukemia. It was magical. Then, suddenly and without warning, her vision started slipping away. The doctors could do nothing, and by December this unexpected side effect of radiation therapy had permanently damaged her optic nerves. Julie was blind. She wept and raged against the darkness, telling us that it was ever so much harder than having cancer because she had to think about it all the time.

Our once voracious reader now listened to tapes and slowly learned braille. Ten years old, she resented the hovering adults and missed her independence. Eager to strike out on her own again, she took her white cane and tapped her way down the street to her best friend’s house. She continued her activities with her Girl Scout troop, rode her tandem bicycle, sang in the school chorus and returned to camp in the summer.

Our outspoken daughter attended several meetings of a group of adults with cancer. She answered their questions, made them laugh and forced them to look inside themselves. We received letters from some of them, in awe of a child who refused to give up, who treasured the saying, “When it rains, look for the rainbow.”

Julie spent Christmas and her eleventh birthday in the hospital, again experiencing treatment-related problems. Seizures began, then a coma. Tests showed atrophy of her brain. On a cold January night I voiced the unspeakable. I told our beloved child, mature beyond her years, that we understood her body was no longer healthy enough to keep her here. I spoke of the wonders of heaven, and told her that it was okay for her to let go and leave. She was assured that we would miss her and love her forever. Weeping, I added that whenever there was a rainbow she should sit on top of it, and then slide down and wave to us.

The following morning her two-year fight ended. Our Julie was gone. We were devastated. An autopsy showed that there was no tumor. She was correct in her belief that she had beaten her cancer. The cause of her death was delayed effects from radiation.

Many things have happened since Julie died that let us know she continues to be with us. We see rainbows or pieces of rainbows everywhere. We see them on cloudy days, rainy days, sunny days, inside and outside. We always wave.

Lori, Julie’s sister, released a balloon to the skies, silently whispering that she needed a sign that Julie was all right. A month later I handed her the card that had arrived in the mail. She broke into a huge smile accompanied by tears and explained that the card being returned was her much-needed sign. I like to imagine sailing with that balloon for a visit to heaven.

We have realized that Julie influences others in ways that let us know she is still loving us. Nine months after she died I was shopping and discovered a Christmas ornament that had been made for 1983. It was an angel, sitting on a rainbow, waving. I’m sure someone thought it was their own idea. We knew better.

That same year I contacted an artist and asked if he could paint a picture of Julie. I was unaware of his usual fees, but he gently explained that he charged thousands of dollars to paint portraits. He did, however, ask us to leave several pictures of Julie and her scrapbook so that he could do a pencil sketch. He added that he was very busy and probably wouldn’t be able to get to it for quite some time. Three months later the artist called and apologized for being unable to do the sketch. He continued, “Let me explain. I tried to do the pencil sketch. It just wouldn’t remain a sketch. Julie demanded to be painted. This has never happened to me before. It was as though someone else was painting through me. I feel like I know her; I was filled with happiness every time I worked on the portrait. I’ve stopped trying to understand what happened.”

When my husband and I walked into his studio we became motionless, staring at the likeness of our daughter. Tears slid down our cheeks. We managed to tell the worried artist that nothing was wrong. The painting was beautiful. Our memories of Julie were filled with the past two years, with sickness. This portrait was of a healthy, happy child. He had picked up his brush and found her soul. His gift to us was even more than the portrait itself. He gave us peace.

Grief is a long, difficult journey. It consumed us, and it felt as though the anguish and pain would never end. Heartbreak brought such emptiness, and her loss seemed unbearable. It was so wrong that a child should die. We kept wondering why and had to understand that some questions have no answers. There came a time during our suffering when we realized that we had to make a choice. It was our decision whether we should be bitter people or better people. In our daughter’s memory, we chose to be better. We didn’t want Julie to be forgotten. She enriched our lives and was still a part of us. Because she had been here, we were different than we would have been. We would have to become her legacy.

In 1985 our family returned to that summer camp for children with cancer. Julie was right—it was wonderful. We continue to volunteer there every July. I see children swimming, creating craft masterpieces, trekking up hills, singing around campfires, and my heart is warmed. I can hear my daughter’s laughter in other children. It fills me with joy to see many of those campers grow up and become counselors. Others grow up in a place beyond my sight.

Julie continues to touch the lives of others through all of us who shared her brief time here on Earth. She travels with us into tomorrow.

People may die, but love never ends.

Chris Thiry

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