It has been a year since I first sat in a diner with Sheila Quirke. The purpose of that initial lunch was an interview. Sheila was in the midst of writing Donna’s Cancer Story for her blog, Mary Tyler Mom, and I was so taken with the story that I contacted Sheila and asked her if I could interview her about Donna and write a piece about Donna for my own blog, Portrait of an Adoption.
The meeting opened as it closed, with a bone-deep embrace between two moms, each knowing she has found a kindred spirit in the other. The connection was instant, and the conversation flowed, sometimes tearful, sometimes laughing, as we shared our stories about parenthood.
I subsequently wrote a post urging people to read Donna’s Story, particularly those who were hesitant to read such a painful series, and the following excerpt is from that post:
Some people started reading about Donna and then decided it was too heartbreaking to continue when the treatments got ugly. Others never got past the introductory post, choosing to spare themselves thirty-one days of emotional whiplash.
Choosing not to read about Donna is to miss out on a love story.
Yes, her suffering is awful to witness, but by turning away, you also miss the awe that Donna’s strength inspires. You may think that there is nothing you can do to help Donna or her parents, nothing you can do to make it better.
Wrong. There is something you can do. You can read the story. Witness Donna's life.
“If Donna can live it, people can read it,” Mary Tyler Mom told me, as we sat together during an emotional two-hour lunch. She recalled the pain she felt when a few readers commented that her life is a “horror story” or a “train wreck.”
She passed several photo albums of Donna to me, and we looked at the pictures together. “I know my life is not a horror story,” Mary Tyler Mom told me quietly. “It is a love story. I love Donna, and the way I parent her now is by telling her story. My husband and I are strong. I feel so fortunate for what we have, especially when I see what childhood cancer does to some families.”
Mary Tyler Mom is bearing a burden, a heavy burden of sadness and loss and grief. No, we cannot ease the harshness of her daughter’s treatments. No, we cannot wave a magic wand and eliminate the cancer from Donna’s fatigued body nor the heartbreaking path of her shortened life. But we can listen.
Many people say that they cannot imagine what Mary Tyler Mom has endured.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. Mary Tyler Mom is inviting you in and giving you a rare glimpse into the world of childhood cancer. Take the trusting hand that she has reached out to you, and walk with her. Step into her shoes, if only for this month, and keep her company during the lonely, isolating journey of cancer.
Those of us who have escaped the beast that is childhood cancer read about Donna and say, there but for the grace of God go I. There is no answer as to why Donna became sick instead of our children. Good luck and bad luck are scattered without reason or discrimination, and Donna’s family is bearing a disproportionate burden of bad luck. We can ease their burden by sharing it this month.”
I stand by those same words this September. Embrace Donna’s story. Unsurprisingly, Donna’s Cancer Story captivated thousands of people, and her gorgeous spirit has moved us all. This year, the Huffington Post will be running Donna’s Cancer Story as a serial, the first serial they have ever run. There will be 31 posts, one to represent each month of cancer treatment that Donna underwent for a rare brain tumor known as papillary meningioma.
Read it, and you will learn from one incredible little girl how to live until you die. It is not an easy read, but it will inspire you to DO something.
My family found that it eased our own sadness to do things in Donna’s memory, and I urge you to do the same. Instead of feeling helpless in the face of pediatric cancer, take actions. Participate in a St. Baldrick’s event and raise money for pediatric cancer research. Donate to Donna’s Good Things, a charity that works to bring joyful opportunities to children in challenging circumstances. Carve pumpkins in memory of Donna this Halloween, and let her family know that the world will remember her. Her mama has made sure of that.
Sending love, strength and consideration to Donna's family and to the families of all children who have been affected by childhood cancer. We honor you and feel for you always, but especially this month.