The story of your birthday party has touched me: the friendships between you and Justin and between your mom and Tammy, the outpouring of support from friends and family and strangers, photos of you smiling and dancing in your beautiful teal gown. You don't seem comfortable with all the attention, but as your name suggests, you bear it graciously and gracefully and gratefully. In the short time I've known your family, I have admired your mother's humor and poise, and I've enjoyed your brother's quirky brilliance. And now I know and respect your resilience and wisdom.
I thought over and over while reading and processing your story, "I can't imagine what that family is going through." But I realized today that's not true. I lived this hell that you're in now. And truly, the fact that it took me a little while to realize that may a testimony to the fact that someday, you too will heal. You may never feel whole and you will carry deep scars, but you will heal.
Here's how I know: My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer just before my 18th birthday, during my first year of college. My brother was 16, my sister only 8. My mom was 47 when she died almost four years later, just a day short of her 48th birthday. Doctors gave her four months to live when first diagnosed; she fought and scrapped and struggled for almost four years. And so did the rest of us. We supported her in every way we could: we prayed, we ate weird foods and juice combinations, we held her hand through experimental treatments, we took lavish vacations to try to forget. I fought with my mother often during her illness, usually over petty things but sometimes over huge hurts; looking back I know I was angry with her for ruining my college years, and she was surely angry with me for being young, healthy, and away.
We never, ever talked about her dying. Not once. Even though death lurked around every corner, every decision, every sleep. I can't even look at photographs from that time because she looked sallow or swollen or hairless or scared, even when smiling. My mom stopped treatment around May of my senior year so she could be well enough to see me graduate from college. She looked beautiful that summer, gray wisps of hair growing back in, color returning to her cheeks. We children naively thought she had kicked it, she was getting better. Only she and my dad knew she was dying, finally. She wanted to go out with grace and love. And she did, in August, just four very fast months.
Watching someone you love suffer is one of the most horrible pains you will endure. I know your dad is strong and brave, and I know he fights valiantly for the sake of your family. But you, my sweet girl, you are even stronger. In one of the articles about your party, you're quoted as saying that someday the universe will right itself, like perhaps you'll win the lottery or have flowers brought to your deathbed when you're nearing 100 years old. I smiled when I read this. Because you know what? It will. The universe will right itself. You have a long, beautiful, fulfilling life ahead of you. And you know what else? You know how to persevere, how to lean on others when they offer to help, how to enjoy small moments as they are happening. These are lessons that many full-grown adults won't ever learn -- or will learn too late after things fall apart. The universe will right itself. Twenty years from now, you will remember this party with mixed emotions. You may not really want to look at the photos. But over and over throughout your life, you will draw on the strength you've gained. You will remember the examples that your parents have set for you, how your father fights with every ounce of himself and your mother stands tall and wraps her arms around you all. You will remember that love exists even in the most horrible moments, and you will remember that humans are mostly kind.
My mother was diagnosed nearing my parents' 25th wedding anniversary. This put a particular urgency and poignancy behind renewing their wedding vows. Remember, she'd been given only months to live, so we decided to do it up! We filled the church with friends and family. My brother and I sang their wedding song, my sister carried flowers. Their best man surprised them by flying in from Canada. We had a huge party in our backyard -- music, lights, catered dinner, lots of beer. People from throughout my parents' past and present gathered to celebrate them. To celebrate life! To celebrate love! To celebrate the here-and-now and to show the scary-future "hey, you ain't so tough." We had a happy, care-free day during a terrifying, pain-filled time. One of my favorite photos of my parents was snapped on this day: my mom in her white skirt, laughing over a frilly cake with my dad, tanned and beaming in his summer suit. Her green eyes shone bright that day, and that's how I want to remember her.
This party will be that memory for you, I hope. A celebration of life -- yours and your father's -- and a time when people could come together and show you how much you are loved. Remember the way he smiled at you during that dance. Remember the lightness and the joy in that room. It will buoy you.
You are resilient, Grace. You will grow and shine and keep on living, even in the face of horror and despair. The universe will right itself for you as it has for me. I know it will. In the meantime, please know how much you are loved.
I wrote this letter to Grace after reading this article about her Sweet 16 party, which a mutual friend had crowd-funded for her. I know both families casually, know that each endures pretty significant health stressors, and feel humbled by the way they all carry on with humor and unselfish acts of love. We never really know what those around us are carrying. Yet another reminder to be kind, always.