It is the first day of first grade. I’m decked out in my favorite dress (blue, of course) with matching barrettes in my hair. I haven’t yet grown to dread the bus ride or the seemingly endless succession of school days that lie ahead. I climb onto the mostly empty bus, take a seat about halfway back and wave goodbye to Mommy.
Down our road and around the corner is a new housing development with lots of young kids. As the bus nears the stop, the kids scurry to pick up backpacks and lunch boxes and cluster in a group by the curb. They pile onto the bus and I take note of the familiar faces. There’s Dana and Chrissy and Emilee, all girls from my class last year. There are a lot of older kids I don’t know, and a couple of the boys sneer at me as they pass my seat, but I do my best to look past them and connect with my friends. I see a bald head pass by… who is that? Her eyelids are droopy and she looks barely awake. Even though I had not heard of cancer before then, it is clear to me that this girl is very sick.
As we travel on to school I begin to wonder where my friend Jessica is. I hadn’t seen her get on the bus. Then something dawns on me. I turn to look at the mysterious sick girl sitting a couple of seats back and realize that it’s her. She looks almost nothing like the energetic, goofy girl I remembered from kindergarten.
I soon learned that Jessica had leukemia and that the chemotherapy had temporarily taken her hair and her energy. In the years to come, I would find out that the treatments for her leukemia had done a lot of damage to her body. She ended up enduring more gruesome medical treatments than I ever did. Yet through the years she always seemed to have a smile and a positive attitude.
I wish I could say that knowing Jessica put my own troubles in perspective. Perhaps it did a little bit, but I still spent a lot of time feeling overly self-conscious about my looks. Jessica’s hair eventually grew back and by then she was energetic and bubbly once again. Those of us who were closer to her saw the scars from her heart surgery, and understood that her kidneys and bladder had also been damaged from the treatment.
Looking back as an adult, it is horrifying to comprehend all that Jessica went through. As if having leukemia and chemotherapy wasn’t awful enough, the process of ridding her little body of cancer essentially ruined the rest of it. While I was having plastic surgery done on my face, she was having open-heart surgery. While I was taking antibiotics to battle my ever-present ear infections, she was taking medication to keep her body from giving out way too early.
When we went on an overnight class trip, she asked me to help her put on a diaper before bed. Due to the kidney/bladder damage from chemo, she was already incontinent at the age of 11. Meanwhile, I just needed to take out my dental appliance and clean it, put some Vaseline on my eyes to keep them from being stuck shut in the morning, and put my ear drops in. Despite my ever-present self-consciousness, and her seeming lack thereof, I did not want to trade places with Jessica.
Perhaps it is an unfair comparison. Really the only thing we had in common medically was knowing that being in the hospital meant you were in for some kind of pain and suffering. Luckily for me, mine usually only lasted a few weeks post-op and then I was back to normal.
Many years later, I was browsing an online newspaper from my childhood hometown. Amazingly I came across an article about Jessica. Through this article I learned that she’d had a successful heart transplant. It took my breath away to know she’d gone through this. I now know that she is married and that she and her husband adopted several children. Considering what she went through, it’s amazing that she is still alive. Talk about strength and perseverance!
So why do I share this story? Perhaps Jessica’s situation impacted me more than I knew. Despite all that she went through, she never gave up. Perhaps it helps me remember that no matter how bad you think you have it, you can always find someone who’s got a rougher road.
It’s not even always about physical stuff either. There are so many people who’ve got invisible hurt going on. You just never know what others might be dealing with, or may have gone through in the past.
Maybe you were born missing a body part or two. Or maybe some body parts didn’t form right. Maybe your parents got divorced when you were little. Maybe you never even knew your biological parents. Perhaps on the outside, your family seems “normal” and happy, but there is anger, bitterness and grief. Maybe you never learned how to deal with your emotions. Maybe you’ve got a chemical imbalance and you can’t control your thoughts or your behavior like other people can. The list goes on.
What it all comes down to is, everybody’s got something. I’ve often wondered if anyone really does have it worse than anyone else, or if it all evens out somehow in the end. What do you think?