Friday, May 13, 2011


I attended a funeral for a nine-year old the other day. Even writing that sentence stalls me out for the next thought.

Abbie was a sweet and feisty kid. She devoured hot dogs, strawberries, cherries, cherry tomatoes, salmon, mac and cheese, steak, you name it. She was tall for her age, or at least she was before the cancer hit. She swam like a fish, and her dad and I reveled in tossing the kids in the pool through the summer. That's where we saw them most of the time, the pool, since the girls attended different elementary schools and life had a bad habit of keeping all of us busy through the rest of the year. If I have a single regret after Abbie's passing, it is that I let the busy-ness of life keep us too far apart from them between September and May.

So, yeah... I attended a funeral for a nine-year old the other day. Word of a mass in her abdomen came at the end of the summer two years ago. We had a last Sunday dinner at the pool the week before she was due for the next round of tests and surgery. It was a blustery September afternoon two weeks after Labor Day, and I was determined to close out the pool season despite the weather. Abbie and her parents came, as did a few other families. The kids played, getting wet and cold one last time for the season, and then plowed through hot dogs, pork chops, salads, fruit and who knows what else. Abbie had been introduced to her therapy dog, and we all knew things didn't look good. It didn't seem to matter, though. She was as feisty and strong as always.

A week later, the news was that she had stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma Embryonal. Stage IV. Those words stop me as much as the first sentence.

Abbie's strength rushed behind her as she fought a tough battle that fall, winter and spring. The surgeries went well, though. The cancer had done damage, but hadn't gone as far as it could have. The chemo brutalized her body. There were tough times, and we saw them occasionally. But a year ago, the kid attended Abbie's eighth birthday party. She was pale and had lost her hair, but the spunk was knocking that damn cancer out of her body. You could see it. And when pool season hit again, she had had the chance to ring the bell at the cancer clinic signaling the end of her treatments. She was clear, and by the end of the summer, the chemo port had been removed and she'd been able to swim again.

She demolished more strawberries. More cherries and tomatoes. Cupcakes at the kid's birthday party. And we all looked at her as the miracle kid. She really was. And her energy and spirit were a gift to everyone around her.

A few weeks later, though, the tide turned. On a routine check-up, they discovered part of her lung had collapsed. Within two weeks, the tumor they found was putting out 200 ml of fluid or more a day. It was almost exactly a year after the first surgery. And this time the cancer was back with a vengeance. The kid and I visited her in the pediatric ICU one evening to say hi. Abbie was groggy but insistent that we stay and talk to her, even though the nurses made us promise to make it a short visit.

Over the months since, I kept tabs on her progress through the site they used to communicate with family and friends. They went through every possible chemo treatment and multiple surgeries. The cancer ravaged her body, but she kept fighting back through a Make-a-Wish Disney cruise, through a trip to New York, through hospitalizations. We weren't there at the end, but she had asked her friends to come visit the day after the doctors decided there was no further medical intervention. they gave her a manicure as she wore an oxygen mask and couldn't speak. That night, she let go and passed away in her parents' arms, listening to her favorite songs by Justin Bieber.

The kid asked about her often as we got word of the worsening struggles. I made mental notes that we should see them more, take them things, do something. But time and the busy-ness of life and job transitions always got in the way. I kick myself a bit for letting that happen. Scratch that. I kick myself a lot for letting that happen. The kid and I talked about it, and she is glad she got to see Abbie before things really trailed off, when that spunk will stay in the memory rather than tubes and medication and pain. I worry that this reaction skirts the grief I want her to feel, but the night after the funeral and the celebration at Abbie's school, the kid climbed on my lap and fell asleep.

And it occurred to me that maybe the kid's reactions weren't so much detachment as fear. She's seen a lot in her years, from divorce to my shooting to her mom and me struggling to iron out our parenting relationship to Abbie's death. I suspect she has learned a lot, and that some of these lessons will take years to sort out. Lord knows I'm still sorting out my own lessons — including the one about not letting the mundanity life get in the way of important things.

So yeah... I attended a funeral for a nine-year old the other day. At the end of the funeral, the kids were given butterflies to release. Each had a monarch in an envelope, and Abbie's parents were given a swallowtail to release. The monarchs flitted through the church courtyard, but the swallowtail landed on Jeff's hand and stayed there for a long time. After a couple of pictures were taken, the yellow swallowtail launched itself up and flew out of the courtyard and over the roof. That afternoon, Abbie's school closed down for a celebration of her life. Everyone had their nails painted, there was a dance party in the gymnasium, the yard was full of moon bounces, the kids got snow cones and popcorn, and a little after 3:00, while the school choir sang "Hallelujah," the kids released hundreds of purple, pink, and white balloons into the sky and chanted her name. the boy who had broken down in tears when he tried to speak at the funeral earlier, who was Abbie's earliest friend as a baby, found his voice and the microphone and thanked the entire school for making her life wonderful.

Abbie is gone now, but she touched more lives than anyone can count. And that means she'll live on forever.