It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. We were just getting acquainted with one another. Friends who nervously start out at coffee, hoping it goes well and after a surprising successful first run decide to meet up for brunch. Equally as rewarding — our connection still present and still in motion as we shared intimate exchanges and you learned of the loss of my hair but the growth of my strength.
We were starting to really get to know one another. And I started to feel accepted. I hope you did, too. We eventually graduated to actual phone calls! OK, OK, maybe that’s pushing it. Let’s be real. It’s 2018. But we definitely grew to comment status as you continued to leave your thoughts in the comments section of my column. You started sharing more. We were starting to volley back and forth and, as a new writer for My Edmonds News, I couldn’t have hoped for a better return on the investment of my vulnerability.
Thank you, readers. This is how I feel when thinking of each of you and this new column that has quickly become something very dear to me — that I get to LIVE for — in the face of my death. No longer strangers. You and I are friends. And your friend would like to sincerely apologize for the length in time it took to me in writing this next piece.
Something happened, that can with us cancer patients. One night, late, after trying to avoid it like a small child who desperately needs but doesn’t want a fresh bath — I couldn’t escape it any more. My husband Kevin rushed my frail sick body to the ER. I stayed overnight in the actual ER, which was then followed up with a hospital stay per doctor’s orders for a couple of nights.
Dec. 9 was approaching, and I was facing turning 39 in the hospital this year. No birthday cake on the menu. I managed to find humble pie with a side of CTs, EKGs and MRIs — and a possible spinal tap if I was a really good birthday girl. Influenza A and cancer, apparently a killer combination. I was scared and so very sick. But no matter how sick I felt, the wailing neighbors directly to the right and left of me must have felt worse. They seemed to not know the words to “Happy Birthday” and instead loudly moaned for 48 hours to a tune I hope to never hear again. I was empathetic but wanted it to stop. Is this the last stop off before hell? I believe I’m heaven bound. Surely they have white fluffy cake with buttercream in heaven. And the angels have got to know the tune “Happy Birthday?” I just wanted a slice of fluffy white cake with an unhealthy amount of buttercream for any human being and the sound of my sweet little 3-year-old and off-key husband singing to me. I wanted home.
Days passed and I couldn’t wait to break out of there like I imagine the Birdman at Alcatraz. Too weak to build my own underground tunnel, I opted with filling out the discharge papers instead and using every once of energy I had to enthusiastically hop into that wheelchair as hospital attendant Santor kindly escorted me to the entrance of the hospital. Thanks to my partner in crime Kevin, my getaway car was warmed up and ready to go. There was no time for pity. I was almost home.
As more days went by — in my own home — I was filled with a new-found determination and hope. I signed up not only for cancer but also for Influenza A, that we all caught (Kevin and Ahzi were also extremely ill). It almost broke me physically and spiritually. Being sick for so long is so hard. As the medication finally started working — and the prayers too — Ahzi, Kevin and I each started to heal from the beast we now know as Influenza (A)-hole. (One starts to lose their politeness when a 3-year-old, a husband and a cancer flu-fighting self are on top of one another sick for over a month). One’s wicked humor also starts to spike with each fever. So Influenza A-hole seemed to be the perfect nickname for the uninvited houseguest we were all sick of entertaining for the past month.
I could start to feel the change and knew we were on the mend when I started asking Kevin to begin making multiple trips to the shed. “Babe, can you see if our giant wreath is in the cardboard box titled “Christmas decor?” (Totally narrowing it down NOT at all for the poor guy. I have a very patient husband). Christmas decorations started to make their way on our walls, the stockings up on the mantle and our trees began to sparkle. We were rallying just as we had learned how to this entire past year when dealing with my newly diagnosed stage 4 cancer.
Ahzi, our vivid little 3-year-old, loves the colors pink, purple and anything sparkly gold. She also happens to be deathly allergic to pine as well as other food and environment elements, so we decided to purchase a fake flocked mini tree just for her this year. One she could decorate with all of these favorite colors. It ended up being the favorite tree in our home. Ask any guest who came over. And our little Ahzi and I got to take an afternoon and paint a bunch of the ornaments and then hang them on her tree. Together. We were turning the corner to a new day. And it felt healthy, sparkly and new.
Wednesday rolled around. Referred to as hump day by many, but known in our house as Chemo Day. At 6 a.m., the familiar tone from my iPhone told us it was time to start our day and journey to chemo. Our sweet babysitter Maddy arrived while Ahzi was still snuggled warm in her big-girl bed, and so off Kev and I went. Starbucks lead the way! Much more wide eyed, yet not bushy tailed (thanks to chemo I had no hair left on my body), we were on our way to Tukwila. Chemo was good that day. It fluctuates and some days are more tolerable than others. We came home, relieved Maddy and off to bed I went. Kev came in and said he wanted to do some stuff around the house while I rested. I was pleasantly surprised at his initiative — especially after we had gotten up so early and had been at chemo all day.
Just as I got nestled into bed, he came in and asked if I would get up and come look at something with him. We quietly passed by Ahzi’s room as she too was resting. I opened the front door and couldn’t believe my tired eyes. Tears immediately burst from them. There they were. Lights! Lights all around. The soft bright glow reminded me that it was Christmas. There were also Santa’s elves there. Granted some of the tallest elves I’d ever seen, but elves nonetheless. New friends we had made at our local church thought it would be fun to surprise us with the most magical Christmas lights I had ever seen.
My friend Michele grabbed me as I collapsed into her arms. She introduced me to her friends, who had accompanied her on the covert operation light it up. While I was resting, Kevin and our new, yet very dear, friends were decorating our home so that we didn’t stick out like I do often times these days. So that we weren’t the neighbors without Christmas cheer. So that we could be a part of Christmas this year. So that we would feel their love. So that we could feel joy. Feel normal. Feel what I believe is God’s love shining on us. It burned bright, just like our new lights did. I could not believe such kindness that was at our doorstep.
When Ahzi woke up from her nap, we wanted to surprise her also. She opened the door and couldn’t believe her eyes. “Mommy look! The elves came to our house!They put beautiful lights everywhere! I love the lights. They are beautiful momma! The elves are our friends.”
Our little baby girl was witnessing the magic of Christmas. Beyond the chemo drips, the ER, the mountains of medical bills, the imminent danger of cancer taking her mommy away — this was Christmas. And Christmas felt good. I immediately wanted to give this exact gift of Christmas to someone else. Perhaps another family who was also in the battle of their lives. I racked my brain thinking, I started snooping around friends home, friends of friends and even secretly reached out to spouses of those also fighting cancer. If we could get a small team going and decorate two homes this year, maybe next year it could be 10?! I called my friend Michele, who surprised us with lights. She immediately agreed to help Kev, Ahzi and I put lights up for anyone we found.
This could be start to be an annual tradition all because of the kindness of my friend and the army of love she brought over that one Wednesday.
And then, I ended up in the hospital. Everything stopped. I remember laying there unable to sleep, thinking about the lights. I wasn’t going to be able to spread the joy of Christmas like I wanted to. I wasn’t able to be kind to other families in that same way my friend was kind to me.
When I got out and returned back to my doctor’s office, it was business as usual. Chemotherapy every Wednesday. The normal cast and crew of characters at my treatment. I was so thankful to be back in the care of my usual nurses and out of the hospital. A gentleman named Fred is an older patient and newer friend of mine. We’ve just been getting to know one another very very slowly the last couple of months. I happened to be there the week of his birthday. And because he shared the same birth date with my husband, I became more fond of Fred instantly than I was before. Fred doesn’t say much during his treatment. There are 12 of us all in a room hooked up to our different chemo drips and poles and we all handle it very differently. Fred and I got to talking. He started sharing about his mom. Which took us on a culinary journey, finally landing at her very special currant saffron bread that she made every Christmas. Not only was the trained chef in me intrigued, but the friend of Fred felt honored that he was sharing this piece of his woven history with me. I was getting to know about quiet Fred’s mom.
The next week at chemo, Fred handed me an envelope. “This is for you.” I immediately knew what it was. The tears in my eyes did too. But surely he wasn’t giving me his very special family recipe?! The recipe that transcended time. His mother’s love letter to her children. He was. He did. As his nurse Sue started getting Fred prepped for his treatment and as my nurse Kathy searched for the right position to poke the needle in my chest for mine, we chatted through the two of them. We bobbed our heads left to right so we could keep eye contact and keep our excitement going for this piece of paper that held the key to where Fred came from. I told Fred that I couldn’t wait to make this special bread and bring it in. But on one condition — that he rate it from 1-10 and that I hoped I would make his mom proud. I told Kevin the minute he came in and checked on me. “And I know just the sous chef who is going to want to help me make it, sweetheart!” I said.
We got home, relieved our nanny Maddy, and Kevin got me right in bed. Ahzi hopped into bed with me. “Momma, are you getting better?” she asked. “I will snuggle you so you start to feel better. I’m a really good snuggler, momma” she said as she nestled her little curly mop into the nook of my neck.
Kev then came in and handed another envelope to me. “Another envelope?!” I said. “I know, right?,” he laughed. “Honey, today is the day of envelopes! How strange is that? Two in one day,” I playfully responded.
“Yes, but this one is a little different,” he said.
I opened it. Inside there was a generous amount of money. “What?! Where is this from?” I asked. “We could really use it but where on earth did it come from?”
“Read the card, honey,” he said.
This card and envelope was from our neighbors. Our dear neighbor Karen, whom we’ve spoken with the most when it comes to neighbors, gave it to Kevin when we got home. In our neighborhood, Karen has lived here the longest, knew the previous family who lived here and really is what you hope to find in a neighbor. Friendly, warm, keeps an eye out but is never nosy. And she has the most delicious blueberries growing in her garden during summer that she shares with our little Ahzi. I’m not sure how they knew but she and the other neighbors heard that I spent my birthday in the hospital, and so this was their way of spreading joy at this really challenging time for our little family. This was kindness. I started to weep.
I held the envelope close to my heart and simply looked to the heavens above. “Thank you. Thank you,” I continually whispered. We knew Karen but not the rest of the neighbors. This was blind kindness. Without the expectation of return. The beauty in humanity was larger than the sum of the envelope. The cash was generous, the meaning extraordinary. This was more of that Christmas miracle the people around us were determined for us to have — despite the hits that just kept coming this season.
We pressed on, as did the cast of loving Christmas elves in our honor, and it truly was turning out to be the best Christmas we had ever had. The lights, Fred’s family recipe, and the envelope of cash weren’t the only acts of love we experienced this season. Can you believe there were more? Like our sweet nanny taking our 3-year-old Ahzi and my list and purchasing every gift I was too ill to purchase for my husband — including underwear and socks. Now that’s a true friend! At first glance I was devastated that Kevin wouldn’t have one gift under our tree, only to be up until 2 a.m. wrapping the last new pair of work slacks for my hard-working husband. Because of one very special nanny/friend.
The envelope full of cash from our neighbors turned into a trip to Toys R Us. And this mom and dad got to witness the glee in our 3-year-old’s eyes as she hopped on bike after bike, finally picking out her very first bike! Oh, how I could relive that moment over and over.
“Mommy, daddy this one eve has a cling cling (Ahzi’s word for bell). “The world will see Ahzi coming mommy. All I have to do is use my cling cling to let you know — Ahzi is coming!”
She’s been cruising every inch of our 1,300-square-foot home since, just waiting for it to warm up so she can take it for a true spin in our neighborhood.
Ahzi — little feet pushing as hard as they possibly can, the wind swirling through the ends of her pixy cut and the crisp Pacific Northwest wind kissing her round beaming cheeks. That is what kindness looks like. Kindness in motion.The kindness Karen and the neighbors so generously gave us will continue to move throughout this neighborhood every time this little girl gets on her bike and starts to ride.
Their generosity and kindness gave us all the memory of Ahzi’s first bike! A milestone in any child’s life. A miracle in mine.
This Christmas season is now over. 2017 has come to an official end — by far the most painful year of my life. The year the innocence of life shattered. The year this young family never saw coming. I sit here and instead of ringing in the new year, I wonder. Not exactly sure how 2018 will go. Will I be alive to see it through? There are so many unknowns. But there is one thing that is undeniably clear. My life is in very serious jeopardy and will end sooner than I ever hoped. So what do I do with that? There is nothing I can do about that.
But there is one thing I can do, no matter how healthy I feel. Or how ill I become. I can be kind. I will take every example of kindness that was shown to our little family, and I will give it back to this world. It requires so little to be kind. Yet it travels so far. Like a little girl on her first bike.
“Ahzi, go! Go little one!” I proclaimed. “Ride as far as your little feet can take you. This world is big, bright and waiting for you to spread the joy that was given to you.”
“Ok momma. I will,” Ahzi replied. “I will be kind just like the elves were kind to us mommy.”
Happy Happy New Year from our little family to yours…
Edmonds resident Jennifer Sabounchi has served as a special events manager for The Ritz-Carlton in New York, a private chef to families in and around Seattle, and founder of an allergy-friendly food company. Recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Jenn’s new column — “Life, Thank You for Having Me” — provides an intimate portrait of her fight for her life. She also invites readers to get to know her and her family by visiting her Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/jennifer.sabounchi