I grew up with a harsh awareness of my own mortality. Though due in part to my drivers’ ed teacher, who spent most classes telling gruesome tales of the horrors that befall high schoolers who don’t pay attention while driving (you got your money’s worth, Mom and Dad!), I think the reality of cancer was what really struck me. It took my grandfather in his 70’s, and I miss him every day, but nothing seemed less fair than what happened to my friend Liz.
I lost a friend to leukemia at age fifteen. She was one of the smartest and most unique people I’d ever known, and the fact that we’d planned to someday work in a lab together and “discover a cure for cancer” made it all the more bitter when she was struck down by that very foe. In my immature young mind, I couldn’t process what this meant. All I knew was that a person lost their life before even getting the chance to live, and to make up for it, I needed to live the biggest life I could.
So because I was the age of fifteen, and was way too uncool to get into any real sort of trouble, I set goals for myself. I wanted to be the valedictorian of my school. I wanted to go to a fancy college. I was possessed with such an insane need to succeed that, ironically, I forgot how to live. I could be driven (and stubborn) to a fault. Every moment had to be pushing me closer to a goal, and that is how the small moments of my life lost their ethereal beauty.
As I grew older I learned that playing the trumpet with heart, pouring my all into making a beautiful sound, was far better than winning competitions. Having many friends and family cheer when I played the national anthem at graduation, rather than giving that speech which I failed to earn, was lovely. I realized the brevity of life makes it impossible not to spend my time doing the things I love, and loving the things I do, and being with those I love. So I made people my priority. I followed my passions as they meandered, chasing the shadows that slipped through my fingers, trying to make sense of it all.
I landed in medical school without really knowing what was happening or why. I just opened my heart and it led me here. I stumbled my way into pediatrics, and it is with a sense of great wonder that I find myself working on the Hematology-Oncology floor of Riley hospital this month. Every day there is a gift. These children are so sweet, and it breaks my heart to see them suffering as no child should have to, but I feel blessed to be a part of their lives. I am proud to wear the rubber bracelets a lot of the parents order, with their names stamped into them, along with words like “fight” and “hope.”
One of my patient’s friends is participating in the Relay for Life. It’s an annual overnight event that many towns across the country host, a huge rally that raises money for the American Cancer Society. I remember spending a couple of long nights there during high school, staring at the luminaries lining the high school track: candles in white paper bags with the names of those who were battling cancer or had fought and won or lost. I would put my friend’s name on one each year and wander the track slowly, tears in my eyes, looking for her luminary and remembering her, renewing my vow to live the biggest life I could in honor of the life she never got the chance to live.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that life somehow leads us exactly to where we are supposed to be, no matter how much we try to meddle and fight against fate. I’m not sure I even believe in fate. But it’s too much to think that coincidence led me into the room of a teenaged girl battling leukemia who looks not entirely unlike my friend Liz.
Molly McPheron is a medical student who blogs at Indiana University School of Medicine’s Tour the Life.