My daughter turned five today. That in itself feels like a huge milestone.
We’re finally past the newborn stage, filled with the nights that felt like they would never end. The colicky crying that had me in tears as well, and the zombie-like state where the days bleed into each other. We’re past the huge “firsts” that happen in year one: sitting up, solid food, crawling, walking, and first words. The toddler stage flew by, from the first “No!” to learning how to care for two children under two, when our second daughter was born. The threes and fours were a challenge, as I learned to navigate what it was like to have a mini version of myself to argue with — especially one who was way too smart, and all too aware of how life worked.
And now, here we are … five years. Just like that.
But let me rewind, back before all of that, because how my oldest daughter came to be is unique. Unique in that she was both very, very planned and very, very unplanned.
Because life has a way of taking the best laid plans and twisting and turning them in a way that says “Ha! You have no control here!”
My husband and I had been married for just over a year when he began coughing, quite aggressively, while we were on a summer trip in the Okanagan in British Columbia, Canada in the summer of 2014. At first this didn’t raise any alarm bells because it had been a particularly bad year for forest fires and the smoke still hung over the cities, bothering even those with the best lungs.
However, as our trip finished, the cough unfortunately didn’t go away. Anyone else probably would have brushed it off, but cancer was something we were all too familiar with already in the six years of being together. See, my husband had previously beat stage 4 Large B-Cell Lymphoma almost two years previously, so that cough was something that makes both of us pretty uneasy, even now, five and a half years later.
Sure enough, Chris was re-diagnosed with lymphoma (a large tumor in his chest cavity). The process for beating it this time was a little more complex, the consequences way more frightening. His oncologist told us that in order for him to get rid of the cancer this time, he would require a high dose of chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell transplant. The good news was, the cancer had not spread to his blood, which meant he would be able to use his own cells to complete the transplant versus using a donor, which had a lot more short and long term consequences.
Unfortunately, we were also informed at that appointment that due to the nature of the drugs used to kill all the bad cells in his body, it would also render him unable to have children afterwards. This was devastating, because we wanted nothing more than to start a family, and had planned that to happen within the year.
We immediately took precautions to make sure that we were still able to have kids together once this was all in the past. However, it still felt like it was this empty promise and both of us felt ripped off that our arms were twisted into having children this way. Don’t get me wrong — we felt incredibly lucky that we could afford to take these precautions like we did — but there was also the concern that things may not go as we hoped.
So, after a lot of discussion and tears, we decided that we should just try to see if we could make a baby … the free way.
Here’s where the miracles began to happen. For the previous couple of months (even before Chris relapsed), I had gone off of my birth control pills and began tracking my cycles. I had read Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and was very dedicated to logging everything that had to do with my period. I had wanted my body to be free of the birth control so that we could begin trying to have a baby in the new year — at least, that was what we had planned.
Anyway, this turned out to be a huge blessing because I felt pretty confident in the timeline of when our best chances were to conceive. Unfortunately, “the window” looked like it had passed according to my log, but we were going to try anyway. That weekend happened to be Labor Day weekend, ironically, and over that three-day period our daughter was miraculously made!
I remember taking the pregnancy test a few weeks later and being so incredibly shocked and thankful that it was positive. I think that was the first time I had “thanked” God, who I was not very well acquainted with. As we shared the news with both sets of parents, the shock of the whole situation began to sink in and we realized that I was about to embark on growing a human being while my husband fought for his life.
My husband and I are both teachers, and were really just starting out in our careers when all of this happened. In fact, my husband (then boyfriend) was diagnosed the first time in our last two weeks of our final practicum back in the Spring of 2012. He was going through the first round of chemo when we graduated from university together. We were both working as on-call teachers in the first year of our marriage, but Chris had accepted his first real music position when he relapsed. In a really weird turn of events, I was next in line to take his job on the seniority scale. Having very little musical background, compared to my very musically-talented husband, this was another huge leap of faith that had to be taken. It was my very first teaching contract, I was not that familiar with teaching music, and my husband couldn’t really help because he was dealing with the intense side effects of chemotherapy.
But, by November 2014, we were in a groove and I felt like I was getting a handle on this whole pregnancy/caregiver/new teacher thing. Chris was gearing up for his stem-cell transplant, which required him to be in Vancouver (we lived on Vancouver Island) for most likely around a month. I was neck deep in attempting to put on a Christmas concert with the kids, and my anxiety and OCD were at an all time high.
I remember my morning drive to work included a very planned out string of words that I needed to say in my head at the exact spot every morning. My biggest fears were losing the baby, losing Chris, or the worst scenario of all, losing both at once. These OCD routines (which I later realized was what they were), consumed huge portions of my day. I felt like if I did things a certain way, that it would prevent the loss I thought was inevitable. I struggled with these fears long after our daughter was born and the only thing that eventually combated these intrusive thoughts was counseling and medication.
I took the last week off before Christmas break so that I could be with Chris in Vancouver. Unfortunately, the stress of the whole situation had brought down my immune system and I came down with a nasty cold. This meant that even though I was finally in the same city as him, I couldn’t visit because that floor of the hospital housed all the patients with extremely fragile immune systems.
Another blessing was having Chris’ parents living just 45 minutes away from the hospital. I was able to stay with them while I recovered and could use their house as a home base for my daily visits into the city once I was better. I remember most of my visits with Chris were spent cuddled in the tiny hospital bed, napping — him exhausted from treatment and me exhausted from growing a tiny human. It was such an odd paradox: one growing life, the other fighting for life. It is still so hard to fathom getting through, even years later.
Chris was released from the hospital on his Mom’s birthday, December 21st, 2014 — just in time for Christmas. We spent the next couple weeks at his parents’ house while he gathered up the strength to make the trip back home. We celebrated our last Christmas as a family of two, made special by having all our loved ones under one roof. My parents came over for Christmas Day and we were so grateful that we could all be together in one space.
The new year and the months that followed were wrought with anxiety as we awaited scan appointments and results to see whether or not Chris was cancer free. On March 9th, 2015, we got the call that Chris had beaten cancer yet again. He was officially cancer free and in remission!
This was just less than two months before I gave birth to our daughter. Chris struggled with keeping his white blood cell count up and his neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) kept tanking at zero, still at the end of April. This was something he battled for a good year after the transplant, and his immune system and lungs continue to be hit the hardest, especially in a job where he works with young kids (also known as germ factories).
Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, Madeline Grace came into the world on May 17th, 2015.
She was screaming from the moment she came earthside and didn’t stop for the first few months.
She truly is a gift and a miracle wrapped into one tiny girl. Madeline is incredibly smart and perceptive. She has a memory like an elephant, memorizing books (long ones!) by the time she was two. She has her Daddy’s strength and her Mommy’s stubbornness. Madeline is heading to kindergarten in the fall, whatever school may look like by then, and we know that life has big plans for our girl.
It’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like if we hadn’t gotten pregnant when we did. Though the timing of the pregnancy wasn’t the picture-perfect idea I had imagined in my head, it was perfect in its own way. I was never alone in those dark moments, and the little kicks and nudges Madeline would give me from inside let me know that she was who we were fighting for.
Life has a funny way of presenting those dreams and plans to you and I know now that there were greater powers at work through this whole thing. I am grateful, I am blessed, and I am so excited to see what comes next.
Happy birthday sweet girl. I can’t wait to see where life takes you.