If I clutched any tighter, the ink would seep from the paper onto my palms.
I was getting ready to take the stage at the Asian Breast Cancer Project gala, having been asked to talk about my experiences with cancer, pre-cancer, and the advocacy work I’ve been doing in the Asian American community. Two years post-surgery, I have done a number of talks — freestylin’ now and off script — but I always carry typed pages of my remarks. By now, I’ve grown used to talking about cancer: retinoblastoma, genetic predispositions, BRCA mastectomies, oopherectomies (or lack thereof), and recovery.
But, today, I was quivering, my body shaking uncontrollably, sweating, face reddening. I could hear the papers rustling in my own hand.
As I took the stage, amidst the sea of Asian American survivors and patients, white coats of medical students, and suits of hospital administrators, I realized where I was.
I wasn’t just at the Asian Breast Cancer Project gala.
I was at the diagnosis site of my daughter. The very hospital in which our lives changed forever. The very hospital appointment that, if we had cancelled our visit like we almost did, saved her life — just barely — from cancer.
Rather than pretend my nerves were due to public speaking, I simply asked the audience to give me a moment. I asked them to be with me, to share in the realization that this hospital, these people, doctors with whom you all work with, saved my daughter’s life. And, that day, was the first day I had ever been back there.
It was a diagnosis that changed our lives forever. And, it was a journey that would give me the strength to face my own — giving up of parts of my physical body just to be alive.
Every August 17th since that day, we have celebrated “Joli Day.” We’ve called it different things: Hero Day, Life Day, Thanksgiving, Special Day, Survivor Day. No matter what, it’s the day when everything changed for the better. For the first few “August 17ths”, we took a family vacation. A few years after, Joli decided she wanted to go off to Camp, and “August 17th” was a day I took for myself to go and be kind to me.
Joli never needed to go back to the hospital where she was diagnosed. After that first visit, she was whisked away to a speciality hospital where she had her surgery to remove her eye, went through chemotherapy, and continued to go for exams and prosthetic fittings.
This time, it was her first visit back.
As luck would have it, we were headed into Boston to celebrate the opening of a friend’s restaurant. There was a lion dance, a traditional blessing of the restaurant, fire crackers, red envelopes, and lots of hospitality. There was a deep sense of honor, humility, both old and new. Before the blessing, there was just a building with fancy new tables and chairs. After the blessing, it came to life — laughter, families, smiles, handshakes, and a sense of luck and love in the air.
The short walk back to the car was spent yelling at the two girls to stop running ahead, consumed with trying to get my 3-year old to stop taking off his flip flops in the middle of Chinatown traffic, and keeping our to-go containers of Chinese food from spilling all over the street. It also didn’t help that we had 2 minutes left on our parking meter and a good 10 minute walk at the rate we were going.
But, as we turned the corner near the car, having just hollered to the girls to “Stop! Wait right there!” and for the toddler boy to “Hurry up! Hurry up! Leave your shoes on!!”, I froze.
Staring at me, like a looming figure, was the hospital sign in bright blue. As my gaze relaxed, I looked around and realized I had stopped in the exact spot where I waited, holding my daughter tight to my chest, and sobbing on the sidewalk, on August 17, 2005.
“Uh, Moooooom, the car. Unlock it, puh-leaze,” she said. My day dream took me to when she was 2. But, staring back at me, was a grown up girl, nearly as tall as me, with long curly black hair, anxious to get on her iPod and headphones for the car ride home to drown out the annoying bickering of her two little siblings.
Away washed the fear and sadness. Gone was the anxiety.
As she taught me back in 2005, she brought me back to the moment.
And, at that moment, I felt joy.
I felt life.
I felt honored to have been chosen for this journey, a journey that began at that very spot on the sidewalk. Six years and 51 weeks ago. The same August heat.
I held my son’s hand, who was still trying to rip off his flip flops and throw them down the sidewalk, and moved closer to the two girls. I told them about the day when a little 2-year old girl, in this very spot we were standing, was carried in as a child and carried out as a cancer patient.
But, I was no longer carrying a 2-year old daughter.
And, I never imagined that it would be her bravery and strength that would carry us.
Peace, love and a going further,