Kindergarten often draws to mind swings on the playground, story time, princesses, pirates, learning to write, boys playing ball and little girls with ribbons in their hair. In Ms. Brownewell’s class, pink ribbons were ubiquitous -- big and small, decorative, timeless and sweet. But for me, pink ribbons were about to take on an entirely different and powerful meaning.
In August 2009, I was excited for my first day of kindergarten. As we walked into the colorful classroom, I held my mother’s hand as my new teacher welcomed me inside and showed me my shiny new desk with the supplies neatly arranged. Excited for me, my mom gave me a confident hug goodbye so I could navigate the new waters with the other kids. As I sat on the carpet and looked around, I had a gut feeling. This would be the best year yet, I decided. I did not know what was to come so soon.
The same routine continued for a couple weeks-- walk in, hugs, drop off, and onto fun and “Fancy Nancy” books. Then, toward the middle of September, something seemed off. My grandparents came to visit and said they didn’t plan on leaving, which I was thrilled for. Friends stopped by with meals and little gifts for my mom. But her birthday had passed. However, no matter how many normally joyful people were in the house, I sensed an anxious air. Smiles were replaced with long hugs and worried looks. A few times my mom’s eyes seemed a bit teary -- she was on the phone a lot, making appointments and using language I’d never heard her use: “Stage 3,” “chemo,” “PET-scan” and “metastasis.” She wore comfy clothes unless she was headed to “an appointment” and looked unusually tired. Just worn out. Which was not my mother’s style.
A few weeks into school, my mother picked me up from school with my seven-month-old baby sister in tow, which was the normal routine. But on this day in September, something gave me butterflies when I saw my mom’s red eyes and drawn face at pick up. Even her tightest embrace and bright smile couldn’t disguise a feeling deep in my stomach. It wasn’t that she was mad or angry, she looked somber. I remember watching her have serious conversations on the phone, even as my grandparents tried to distract me. I now know these images created a sense of foreboding.
As I walked into the kitchen after school one day, my parents joined me. They explained why the house felt different, why my grandparents were here, and why my mom had been on those serious phone calls on the front porch -- where she didn’t think I could hear. They told me that my mom had gone to the doctor a week before for a routine check-up, but the doctors found something they called “lumps.” At first my parents tried a story about my mom being a pink superhero like Elastigirl from “The Incredibles” -- bravely battling an insidious villain called “breast cancer.” As they looked at my 5-year-old face, they knew I wasn’t buying it -- so they stuck to the facts. My mom’s healthy cells were mutating and multiplying into bad cells. Those bad cells were attacking good cells. They called it cancer. Although I was young, I had heard the word before and knew it was not a word I enjoyed saying.
My mom was sick. I heard whispers of “invasive” and “mastectomy” and instinctively knew those were bad. It’s really hard to hide something this big from little kids. But I knew my mom was strong, and that she’d be okay. They gave me a book called “You Are The Best Medicine.” The front of the book was covered in loopy pink ribbons, a symbol I would come to know very well.
The days continued as normal, picking out an outfit with my uniform colors and my favorite Mary Jane shoes to go with it. Gradually, my grandparents started picking me up more than my mom. My parents made sure my sense of normalcy was kept intact as much as possible.
As “chemo” began, my parents made sure I knew there were ways I could help. I understood that chemo was medicine that would make her very sick and weak. But I wondered how something that would make her so sick could also actually make her better? One Saturday, my mom asked if I would like to go with her to the hair salon. She had decided to cut off her long blonde “princess hair,” as I liked to call it, into a pixie cut in anticipation of the chemo -- the strong medicine that was going to make her hair fall out. I declined going to the salon; it was just too much to handle. A few weeks later, even the pixie hairs were gone and she was completely bald.
I knew then that I could no longer pretend she was not sick, and I needed bigger ways to help. I juiced vegetables with my grandmother and learned about antioxidants. My mom’s massage therapist friend taught me how to give foot and head massages. I made my mom art and snacks, wrote poems and cards. I played with my baby sister and snuggled with my mom while we did my homework or passed the “Pinkalicious” storybooks back and forth. Not feeling powerless made all the difference and helped calm the fears I never wanted my mother to see.
Months passed through the winter and the days seemed to grow longer and longer. When she was set to have surgery in March, my grandparents distracted us with a trip to Myrtle Beach where I played in the sand and forgot about things for a bit. One would think this was all sadness and dark, but my family somehow made that winter a kind of cozy time for all of us. My mom and I snuggled in bed and cut out decorations at Christmas time. Her frame got smaller and smaller, but her hugs never lost their protective feel. She had days she felt worse than others, but she was honest about it and almost never missed a morning of helping me pack my lunch or an afternoon of catching up about my day. When we came home from Myrtle Beach, my mom could not hide the bandages that wrapped around her chest like a mummy. But she told me she got an A+ in chemo -- that the drugs had destroyed all of the cancer. One more big mountain of treatment and she’d be all done.
In the spring, as I was learning a tap routine to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” my mom left for treatment far away in Texas to do “radiation.” I thought about how she was like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz -- it seemed like one storm or new friends, one after another, came along her path to help her get better. I hoped this place called MD Anderson Cancer Center would be like her Oz -- her way back home and healthy for good.
While she was gone, I wondered: Is she better yet? Is she lonely? After I graduated from kindergarten, we all drove to Houston to stay with her. I was so eager to see her. I missed our chats, our story time, our sing-alongs. When we were driving, I looked out the window the whole time. The rain was pounding on the hood of the car, deafening, beating like a metal drum. Hours passed, and the pounding cut short. A double rainbow emerged from the fog. It was a sign from God, Buddha, or Mother Nature, as my mom would say. I just knew at that very moment that my mom would be okay.
Snapping back to today, my mom is nine years cancer free. Our whole family was strengthened by all of the journeys, trials, and hard times. To be honest, the aftermath of all of the treatments took a long time to heal. The chemicals, the surgeries, the burns of radiation took a serious toll on her body and her energy. But today she is as happy, lively, and strong as 10 years ago.
When I was around six years old, I started a little fundraiser that I run every year called “Caroline’s Cupcakes for Cancer.” It is held on Mother’s Day and/or sometime during the month of October for Breast Cancer Awareness month. I have raised hundreds of dollars that I give to Hollings Cancer Center of Charleston, where my mom received treatment. Many patients my family met could not afford things we took for granted -- childcare, transportation to treatments, a place to stay if you live far away from Charleston. Therefore, all of the money goes towards patients’ treatment directly, or childcare for their children, groceries, gas, and more.
When I look back at that year of sweetness and sadness, I have so much gratitude. For my grandmother who helped comfort us all and keep things running normally, for my dad who is also consistent and strong and makes me laugh. For my grandpa, who would create a treasure hunt in the yard as a distraction for me when things were particularly stressful for the adults. For my little sister Lulu, you always made me giggle. And for my mom, who never sent me away but snuggled me and told me I was her “best medicine.”
Caroline Bailey, now 14, resides on Daniel Island with her mom, dad and sister. She originally wrote this piece for a school memoir assignment. Caroline is currently a freshman at Oceanside Collegiate Academy.