I met the Vance family around early September.
Even before meeting them, I knew our lives were meant to cross.
The part-time job babysitting four year old Hannah was mine for the taking; I just knew it.
Going to their house for the first time only solidified my thoughts; God put us together for a reason. From the Obama bumper sticker on their car, to the Foo Fighters t-shirt atop a folded pile of laundry, I knew that Leann, as well as her husband Allen, were the type of people I would get along with; Hannah proved to be the most adorable human ever, and their story hit me hard in the heart.
From the very beginning, Leann was very open with me about their family’s situation. Hannah was adopted, but she had been with Allen and Leann since birth. Allen was currently going through his second battle with leukemia, and in the coming months would be preparing for his second bone marrow transplant.
When I started, Allen was in the hospital. He came home for a bit, but was obviously weak, which is why they had me around to play with Hannah. In the beginning, everything seemed incredibly optimistic. I never once considered that things would not go as planned for Allen and Leann.
Looking back, it seems a bit oblivious that I would assume Allen’s fight against cancer would go so smoothly. I watched three of my grandparents struggle with the disease until the end, and nothing about cancer is easy.
In late November, Allen finally went back into the hospital for his bone marrow transplant.
It should be known that by this time, my heart was full with love for this family. Despite the fact that Hannah could at times be a typically petulant four year old, she never ceased to make my days better. Spending time with Hannah made me see the world in a more positive light; I became more aware of the beauty of so many insignificant things: wild flowers still blooming in the fall, bright red leaves falling to the ground, big, puffy clouds overhead. We spent every last minute of decent weather at the park, and I remember one day playing a game that required us to spin around until we fell dizzily to the ground. As I lied down in the grass, with Hannah jumping up and down on top of me and the crisp fall air stinging my cheeks, I looked up into the sky and knew what it was really like to put someone else before yourself.
Maybe that does nothing but portray my inherently selfish nature, but before Hannah, I’d never needed to be so responsible for another person that they became my entire focus, not just my top priority, but my only priority. I’d babysat many other children in the past, and taught Vacation Bible School at my church every summer, but I’d never gotten such a close glimpse at the exhausting level of responsibility that comes with being a parent.
As Christmas drew nearer, Hannah’s excitement was apparent, as was Leann’s exhaustion. Traveling back and forth from your husband in the hospital to your child at home and working 12 hour shifts as a nurse practitioner would take an obvious toll on anyone. However, Leann had even more on her plate. Just days before Christmas, while I was nestled on my parents’ couch watching Elf and indulging in way too many of Santa’s cookies, Leann’s mother died of ovarian cancer. Yeah, freaking cancer.
The juxtaposition of it all was painful and obvious. My heart broke for Allen, Leann, and Hannah; losing one’s parent right before a holiday spent with family, being left alone in the hospital on Christmas, unable to celebrate with your wife and daughter, unable to comfort your wife in her time of need, and all the confusing instability of such a chaotic Christmas at only four years old made my head spin with sadness. Meanwhile, I, along with the masses, celebrated the season with joy and happiness, no heartbreak lingering above.
Still, as far as I knew, Allen would be home and recovering soon. I maintained this oblivious optimism that things would be okay. I was so caught up in the exciting, good things happening in my own life; optimism was an easy choice.
My birthday was in January. The Vance family gave me an all too generous birthday gift, which Hannah too excitedly opened for me, and I took a five day trip to San Francisco to celebrate.
Looking back, I know this put an incredible burden on Leann; the type of burden that very accurately portrays what a strong woman she is.
Two days after arriving back from San Francisco, I received an email while at my other job detailing the current state of Allen, and the family as a whole.
I sat at my desk, hair hiding my eyes, silently sobbing as I read what felt like completely earth shattering news, which Leann could only relay via email so as to keep Hannah from hearing all the horrible details.
Around Christmas, Allen started to decline neurologically. What started as a simple stutter had increased to the point of almost complete incoherence due to a virus that had gotten into his spinal fluid and his brain. The doctors had been working hard, administering antiviral drugs in an attempt to kill the virus within Allen, but the viral levels had continued to rise. To make matters worse, the drugs Allen was on were causing his kidneys to fail. At this point he had, at most, a few weeks left.
I can’t think of a time in my life prior to this that I have felt such sadness, and I cannot imagine how much greater Leann’s and Hannah’s sadness is. I had adopted this family into my heart. As I’ve said above, I had placed Hannah as the priority in my life on so many levels, and thinking about this family’s pain caused me pain as well.
The following Wednesday, about a week later, I was set to pick Hannah up from school as usual. I knew things were bad, but when Leann texted asking if I would be willing to spend the night with Hannah, I knew the end was coming. I was happy to help out, and be there for Hannah and Leann, but I also had no idea how I was going to help. Leann had explained what was happening to Hannah a few days before, but like any four year old, the concept of death was difficult for her to understand.
We got cookies at one of her favorite bakeries after school, and I let her be way too loud as we ate them inside. Her laugh, her smile, and her innocence were heartwarming.
Later that evening, as we played with firetrucks in her kitchen floor, Hannah looked at me and said, “I think my daddy isn’t going to come home because he’s going to die.”
I’m pretty sure my heart stopped; I had no idea what response was appropriate because I knew none would make it better. Then without really missing a beat, Hannah perked up, put a smile on her face, and said, “But that’s okay.”
At four years old, her strength is undeniable and beautiful.
Like any four year old, Hannah wasn’t overly excited about the idea of a night without her mommy, but she is brave, and forts in bedrooms tend to make everything better for little kids. She went to sleep without much fuss, but you could see in her demeanor that a storm of emotion was brewing.
The next morning, her brave facade finally fell as I dropped her off in her preschool class. Her regular teacher was running late, they were doing construction making the classroom loud and scary, and it was all too much to take.
I knew I had to get to my other job, but I held onto Hannah anyway. Little tears slipped down her cheeks as she clutched my dress and my hair, draped around my shoulders, refusing to let me go. We colored as we waited until her regular teacher arrived, and then after one final big hug, and telling her it would be a good day a thousand times, I left.
The moment I walked outside of her school, I broke down. Tears streamed down my face uncontrollably. I was choking on my own breath and heartache. The world felt cruel. I wiped away my tears, stopped for coffee, and headed into my other work completely composed.
Shortly before heading to pick Hannah up that Thursday, I got a message from Leann saying that Allen had passed. I picked her up and we played like normal, but I knew her daddy was gone. When Leann got home, I helped her carry in stuff from the hospital, as well as groceries she had picked up on her way, gave them both hugs and left them to grieve.
I went over to their house Saturday to give Leann a few hours to run errands. Hannah had a new dress on and was bubbly and outgoing as usual. Allen’s obituary was printed in the paper, and we looked at it with Hannah excited to see her dad’s picture. Throughout the day, she pointed at it and said things like “I love him.”
At one point, she looked up at me and said very matter of fact, “My daddy died.”
She paused, I said sadly, “I know.”
She continued, “PJ died too.” (PJ is what she called her grandma).
“Yeah, so now Daddy is in Heaven with PJ,” I responded.
“What would happen if we died?” she asked.
My heart broke all over again. Spending time with a little kid after something this terrible has happened is like navigating a landmine. Anything you say or do could set them off. It is scary and exhausting, but I am certain it is nothing compared to what actually having it happen to you is like.
All of this tragedy surrounding Leann and Hannah has made me think almost constantly of them, of cancer, and of death. It’s made it hard for me to not question God; it seems unfair that all this bad stuff happen to one family. It seems like they are shrouded in darkness and I can’t understand how Leann keeps going.
I’ve learned a lot from this experience.
I’ve learned to rely on God even more so than ever before. I knew when Leann told me that Allen was dying, I was in no way equipped to help a four year old cope with the loss of her father, but God has given me the strength, wisdom, and patience necessary to get me through it.
I’ve learned that life is, above and beyond, nothing like what you expect. I would have never guessed that at 22 cancer would have affected me this much. But more than that, I would have never expected to have formed this weird relationship with this family. The lines are so blurred. Technically it’s a job, but I don’t feel like it’s a job. Life isn’t black and white like that. It is messy and weird, and you can’t control it.
Most of all, last night after helping watch Hannah at Allen’s memorial service, and then taking her home while Leann met with everyone afterward, I was reminded that there is light around us, no matter how dark things seem.
I said earlier, that I didn’t know how Leann could keep going. I mostly still don’t, and I definitely think she is the strongest, most admirable woman I know, but simultaneously I know the answer to how she’s still going.
After the service, on our way home, I took Hannah to McDonald’s for dinner. In my typical, spontaneous fashion, we ended up getting our food through the drive thru and taking it to Dairy Queen, so Hannah could also get a choco cherry blizzard. Do not judge me for letting a little kid have McDonald’s and ice cream in the same meal. We just came from a funeral and Allen used to share his choco cherry blizzards with Hannah, which is why she likes them. As we sat in the back corner of Dairy Queen, Hannah eating chicken nuggets and ice cream, her laughter filled the place and drew everyone’s attention toward us. We played with her Happy Meal toy and joked and everything was alright. She couldn’t see it because her back was to the rest of the place, but as others waited on their ice cream, they were almost all drawn to watch us; and without fail, as they watched, smiles stretched across their faces.
Hannah is a light in a world of darkness for Leann right now. Every day she is a light to fight off the darkness of all those around her. At times the darkness may seem like it is the only thing, but it is not. Our world is mostly light I think, we just have to will ourselves to find it, focus on it, and nurture it. If we choose to be loving, patient, giving, and kind then we can overcome the darkness that life brings us. We can light the world and the lives of others.
I know this is not a particularly entertaining or positive post, but I’ve been suffering extreme writers’ block because this has been so heavily weighing on me.
If you would like to be more involved with spreading light into the lives of others, and are looking for a way to fight cancer while doing so, make a donation to one of Allen and Leann’s favorite charities, bethematch.org.
Let me hear what you think of this post in the comments below. Anything from advice to condolences to encouragement is welcome.
NOTE: Names have been changed to respect the privacy of this family as they grieve.