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Why I Kesem: JoBro–“To Spread Hope”

Every now and then at Camp Kesem events, we get asked “Why do you Kesem?” We use this question in the CK community to ask more than just why someone shows up for an awesome week of camp every summer. “Why I Kesem” goes deeper than our not-so-secret addiction to silly camp songs and love of watching the Talent Show acts every summer. “Why I Kesem” is about the story that led us to this amazing organization, and what the counselors and campers have come to mean to us. This spring, we’re spotlighting our counselors and sharing their stories. This week, we feature JoBro, a sophomore Education and Romance Languages major from Chicago, IL, and a source of smiles for everyone who meets him.

I never thought being affected by cancer could be a good thing… I mean, how could being affected by such a devastating disease ever be construed in a positive light? Well, no doubt, that is hard to do, so let me explain myself. To do so, I am going to start at my roots.

One characteristic of family life that is common in Mexican families (but certainly not exclusive to) is the presence of grandparents. They are very involved in family life, and it is not uncommon to grow up sharing a home with them. When my grandmother came with her daughter to the United States in the 1970s, they settled in Chicago. In accordance with Mexican tradition, my grandmother stayed with her daughter even after she married my father. In the 90s, my brother and I were born, and while my parents worked late hours running a Mexican restaurant in a suburb outside Chicago, my grandmother was responsible for watching over us.

I always enjoyed the presence of my grandmother in my life. Because she lived with us, she was able to pick me up every day after elementary school, and we’d take the bus home together. She lived in the small second floor of our Chicago home, and I recall memories of waking up on a weekend morning to hear the sounds of her steps coming down the creaky metal spiral staircase. This prefaced a knock at my bedroom door and an invitation to eat pancakes for breakfast, and I always accepted. In high school, I outgrew the need for her to pick me up after school, but she still cooked meals for me and had them ready by the time I arrived home after cross country practice. I appreciated how she took care of me, and on the morning of her last birthday, I made her pancakes for breakfast. She said to me that I was one of only two people in her life who had ever cooked breakfast for her (the other being the husband she left behind in Mexico after he turned abusive). I was honored.

When I was in fourth grade, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After having one breast removed, the cancer faded but only to return again at the end of my sophomore year of high school. At that point, the doctors let us know that she had about a year to live, a prophecy that would prove to be true. We began making preparations.

My junior year would prove to be the hardest of my life, due in part to the difficult course load and extracurricular responsibilities, but primarily due to my grandmother’s deterioration. The cancer was killing her slowly. A few months after receiving the news of her imminent death in July, she began to display clear signs of weakness. I first started noticing these signs in November of 2010.

When I arrived home after cross country practice, she would be sitting upright at the kitchen table asleep. The number of meals she could prepare dwindled and soon our roles reversed, as I now had to take care of her. She had a growing list of medication to take, and while my parents were at work, my brother and I were in charge of administering the proper doses to her at the appropriate times. This continued for a time.

We spent Christmas in the hospital that year. There was no exchanging of gifts or gathering of the family. I did not care about that though, nor did I feel like I was missing out on anything. I just wish we could have done more for her.

After Christmas she could no longer make it up the creaky metal staircase to her upstairs bedroom. We made space for her in our dining room that was never used. She was right outside my bedroom, and that way she was always close to me. I stayed up late many nights to give her medicine or keep her company when she couldn’t sleep at night. The cancer was spreading and at this time she was suffering from three different types of it.

By spring time she started hallucinating. I could no longer recognize her and in a sense, she was already gone. The mother who had raised me since birth was no longer with me. At the end of May of 2011, she passed away peacefully in my company.

It goes without saying that this was an incredibly difficult time for my family. With that in mind, it is hard to find anything positive from this whole experience, yet, that is exactly where the silver lining can be found: in the experience. The experience helped me grow. It taught me how to take care of someone in need and how to deal with death, which had never affected me very closely. In the context of Camp Kesem, my own experience helps me relate to our campers. Everybody has had a different experience with cancer but we are all united in them. We have all faced the difficulties and the stress that come with cancer. We have all shared nights filled with tears, memories of loved ones who are no longer with us, and maybe even Christmases in the hospital. We have all been knocked down at some point by cancer, but we have all picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and moved on. Most importantly, we are united by the most critical element that we must focus on from our varied experiences with cancer: Hope. Our own experiences with tragedy help us to help others. By dealing with our own problems, we are more able to help others who are going through something similar. My experience with cancer helps me understand my campers, and I think that is what many of them seek whether they know it or not — to be understood. I try to bring our campers hope, and I think our campers feel that when they see that they are not alone in their suffering. At Camp Kesem, nobody is alone, and for that one special week in the summer, we are all united. We are all there for each other, we are all part of the Camp Kesem family, and in that there is hope.