June 21, 2014
Why I Kesem: Socks–”For So Many Reasons”
There’s a clever ad campaign where the American Cancer Society declares itself “the Official Sponsor of Birthdays.” I like these ads. I think birthdays are good things, so naturally more of them means more good things. I love that each person has one day in the year that’s all about them; it’s their day. Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find a holiday featuring cake and presents that I wouldn’t be a fan of. That being said, my Kesem journey began on a birthday, and it was awful.
On May 1, 2007, my sister turned 18. It was the deadline for her college decision and she had already signed the paperwork; she was leaving our home in Perrysburg, Ohio to attend our mom’s alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. She was a little nervous; North Carolina is a long way from Ohio and she didn’t have any friends going there with her. Even so, we have a lot of family in the area and they have a great Chemistry program.
We had our traditional family birthday celebration that night featuring my sister’s favorite dinner and a yellow cake with mom’s famous chocolate icing. As we sat down with our cake, and I noticed that my mom was starting to cry. When we asked what was wrong, my dad did his best to stay composed as he told us. “Your mom has breast cancer.” I think he kept talking about details and prognosis and so on, but I’m not completely sure what all he said. The first time you hear that word, ‘Cancer’, everything else kind of goes blurry. That night we cried together. What a birthday present.
Over the next few months, we learned how it felt to be a ‘cancer family’. Primarily, you’re afraid of losing a loved one, but the rest of your own life gets thrown up in the air as well. My dad had to miss a lot of work so he could be with my mom for every doctor’s appointment. My sister had a small window to decide between going away for college and trying to find somewhere closer to home. With our parents preoccupied with mom’s cancer, my brother and I had to keep our composure throughout the last few weeks of school to keep our grades from falling off. Thankfully, we were blessed to have a great support system of friends and neighbors that offered to help us with meals and rides to the hospital. I will forever be grateful for all of their help. As a 16 year old just starting to understand the world, however, it didn’t make it any less scary in the moments when the cancer reminded us of its presence.
One moment in particular sticks out. I played football in high school and each game before kickoff, the first thing I did was find my family in the stands. It helped me stay calm in a very intense environment. The first game of my junior year happened to be the day after my mom’s first chemotherapy treatment. She had told me that if she didn’t feel too sick, she would come. I spent longer than usual looking for my family that game, but when I finally did find them I saw my dad sitting alone. I’d known it was a long shot, but it still shook me that she wasn’t there. All of a sudden, cancer was more real to me than it had ever been. I played the worst game of my life and was benched by the second quarter. I couldn’t talk to anyone on the bus ride home, and I broke down in the locker room when we got back.
Fast forward to two years later. By now my mom had pulled through chemo and radiation and was doing well. I’d found a second home at Notre Dame and I loved it. I had never been surrounded by so many genuinely good people. One member of my new family was my next dorm neighbor, Jim (CK Name: Sebastian). He was the first one to introduce me to Camp Kesem, because he and his sisters had been a part of it. I had been looking for some kind of service to do, and I figured that I could relate to the kids on some level, so I signed up.
Like most CKND counselors, I fell in love almost immediately. Running around a forest singing songs and playing games with the other counselors and our campers was a blast, and by the end of that first empowerment ceremony I was certain that CK was the most important thing I’d ever done. Over four years I was constantly amazed by the courage and character of our campers, as well as the compassion and leadership of our counselors. Our kids are forced to take on adult responsibilities far too early in life, and I’m in awe of how well CKND counselors create a fun, safe environment for them to feel at home. Spending time with great people can only make you greater, and over four years I gradually came out of my shell. Inspired by our campers, last summer I was finally able to open up about just how much my mom’s cancer scared me. Without their example, I couldn’t be writing this now. It’s cliché, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those summers at Camp Kesem.
Flash forward again, to a few weeks ago. After ND I got a job outside Detroit so it’s a quick drive for me to spend weekends at home with my family. A few weeks ago was my dad’s birthday and my family has never been better. My little brother is a rising sophomore at Notre Dame and a future CKND counselor. My sister graduated from UNC and is currently spending the summer in France doing research for her Ph. D in chemistry. My dad is the same steady, composed presence that he has always been; the model father and husband. And my mom has now had 7 straight years of clean mammograms. She is as loving (and sarcastic) as ever, and she’s always ready with good advice whether I want it or not (That weekend we argued over whether or not I should buy a new car). We’ve come a long way from May 1, 2007, but I couldn’t be more thankful for ending up where we did.
I’d like to apologize for my introspective ramblings. This has taken me about 2 weeks to finish writing and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about what I want to say, but I still haven’t gotten around to letting you know exactly why I Kesem (I’m going to cheat a little because I can’t confine it to a single reason). Here we go.
I Kesem because cancer doesn’t wait for a convenient time to come into your life and throw everything up in the air. I Kesem because I didn’t see my mom in the stands at that football game and I know how scary a parent’s cancer can be when it’s staring you in the face. I Kesem because when one parent has cancer, both have to focus on it, and the kids are often left on their own. I Kesem because I’m thankful for how much our campers have helped me grow. I Kesem because I can’t imagine making it through being a ‘cancer family’ without a strong support system, and that’s exactly what CKND provides. Most of all, though, I Kesem because I’m blessed to still be able to have arguments*, and joke around, and eat birthday cake with my mom*, and the only way I can pay that blessing back is by paying it forward.
*I think I’m going to take my mom’s advice and hold off on the new car for a little bit. She’s right, paying off college loans is more important.