On a very gray day last January I drove across town with my sister's oldest daughters. Claire sat in the backseat looking out the window. Jane sat in the middle, her feet dangling off the seat, her hands clutching a white homemade card.
"What will his face look like?" Jane asked as we crossed University Avenue.
We were on our way to visit my friend Dalene's husband, Shane. A month before he had been diagnosed with bone cancer in his face, and he'd just gone through critical surgery to have a tumor removed from the roof of his mouth. If the tumor removal was successful this would be the final surgery, if not the cancer would require a partial facial structure removal.
"I don't know." I replied.
The hard part about parenting children you didn't raise is not knowing how to answer their questions. I was not fluent in their family vocabulary. I struggled with using the right terms to satiate their wonderings. My mistake in wording many times led to confusing follow-up questions. All day long I was hearing inquiries from little voices, and rarely did I have the natural ability to answer them. I would hesitate, stutter and sometimes reluctantly make stuff up, just to be able to get through to the next question. Having just had my first baby, he who only had one question (when do we eat?) I was completely stunned by my incapability to respond and reply.
I resorted to I don't know a lot.
"But what if he looks . . . you know?"
My rear view showed me Jane looking at her homemade card with her straight red hair sliding downwards towards her chin.
My heart was broken for Jane. Perhaps one of the most fearless children I know, we had discovered Jane's only horror: Change. And change was going on all around her. Thick, encompassing change that didn't make sense and could not be explained by her mumbling aunt. Her mother didn't look like her mother. Her mother lived in a hospital. Her mother was trying to reclaim her daughter, but Jane was lost.
"He probably won't answer the door, he just had surgery. He'll most likely be in bed, like your mom is when we visit her. You can give your card to the person who answers the door." I assured her.
Her legs bounced.
I talked to therapists, psychologists, social workers. I asked them opinions on what to do for Jane. How to give Jane tools to open her heart to accept this new life. While reluctant at first, Claire was able to adjust--as did Oliver--sister Jane was left to figure it all out alone. Our feisty red-head didn't respond to any of the good advice. Nothing was working.
One night while praying I asked the Lord to help me help my niece. In the morning I woke up with an answer in my ears.
"Give her opportunities to serve others."
I wrote it down. And followed up with,
"Please send us opportunities."
Then I checked my email. Dalene had written an SOS.
"Shane is on a soft food diet and absolutely nothing sounds or tastes good to him so he's not eating. If you have a minute could you send me some ideas, recipes, whatever of soft-but-not-bland/boring-foods I can offer him that don't require much chewing but that might be tempting enough to get him interested?"
Then the prayer: "Thanks for the opportunity."
Jane is a foodie. She can talk about food, make food, eat food all day long. Sometimes she'd wake up in the morning and find me in bed to talk about recipes and food presentation. "I'd like to make a lemon cupcake . . . with strawberry and cinnamon frosting . . . and put a purple flower on top of the cupcake . . ."
I found Jane eating breakfast downstairs.
"Jane, I need your help. A friend of mine just had surgery on his face and can't eat any solid food."
"What is solid food?" Jane (of course) asked.
"Hard food. Food you have to chew." I breathed.
"Why did he have surgery on his face?" She asked again.
"He has cancer." I breathed again. What is cancer? I knew it was coming.
But instead Jane sat there blinking at me.
"He needs something to eat that he can drink. Can you think of anything we could take him?"
Jane thought for a minute. Then, as with any good idea that comes to her mind, her eyes opened wide and her pointy finger shot up in the air. With a static-cling nightgown trailing behind her, Jane dashed upstairs and returned holding a card.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It is my Jamba card."
A gift card someone had given her for Christmas. A card she'd used to play store with Claire. I knew she was excited to use it for real, but we hadn't found the time.
"You want to give it to my friend?" I asked.
"Yes, so he can have a Jamba to eat." Jane explained.
Later she wrote a letter of encouragement to house the gift card. Every letter was printed with her Kindergarten best. Seventy-seven questions were asked in the process.
Is Shane a daddy?
Is Shane nice?
Yes, and funny.
What does Shane do for work?
He teaches third grade.
How long will he have to eat squishy foods?
I don't know.
When we arrived at Shane's house the girls were reluctant to get out of the car. Claire, especially. The gray sky was changing to black. Inside the house I could see through the windows. Yellow light drifted outside and I saw moving shadows, they were home.
"You can leave it on the doorstep, if you are too scared." Was the easy out helping, or did I need to push them to be brave? I second-guessed like it was my day job. Sometimes I felt completely confused as to what my role was, a mother? A facilitator? A friend? I was no longer the aunt who spoiled and sent home. Now I was their home, and spoiling wasn't an option. Even my own voice was foreign to me. When was it going to sound right again?
I don't know.
Jane crawled over Claire's lap and opened the door. Claire slid out behind her. The two girls stood looking at the house.
"Go ahead!" I yelled through a rolled-down window.
Jane took Claire's hand in hers and pulled her older sister to the door. Now, here was Jane being the brave one, having the courageous spirit, embracing something scary. Here was a small victory already.
Before the girls could ring the doorbell, Shane came out to greet them. I was shocked to see him looking like Saturday afternoon, but not like Post-Surgery. His face wasn't even slightly puffy. When he opened up his mouth to show the girls the wires in his upper jaw he did so without any ginger movements. Then he told them jokes and asked them silly questions and before you knew it, Claire and Jane had a new best friend.
"This is for you." Jane finally said to Shane, giving him the note. He hugged her, and the girls skipped back to the car in the dark night.
On the way home it started to rain. I watched the windshield wiper travel back-and-forth across my face. From the back seat Jane was telling Claire about what she wrote in Shane's note.
"Well Jane, I am going to ask if we can go back tomorrow and I will write the note this time." Claire reported.
A couple days ago the girls came over to visit me. They had ridden their bikes down the street from where they now live--happily--with their real parents. They were eating candy and swinging on the swings Chup had crafted for them in the playroom.
"Hey Courtney," said Claire chewing. "One time Jane gave her Jamba card to a guy who had his tonsils out."
"Yeah." said Jane chewing too. "That was cool."
"I know," I replied. "I was there."
*An update on Shane? Read Dalene's account here.
This week I am celebrating a year of survival for my sister, her husband and our family. I am writing some of the untold stories from the period of time in our lives when people pulled together to help us, and heal us. Thank you for being a part of it all.