Upon seeing the sonograms nearly five years apart, I was thankful and relieved. Healthy, prospering, and girls! The thought of boys frightened me – I was one. Just over 18 years later, the role of father is, and hopefully will always be, the greatest calling I could possibly have.
Our two daughters, Annie and Lily are four days shy of being exactly five years apart. When Annie was born, it started our family. When Lily came along, it completed our family. In many ways, they are two peas in a pod, but in others, very different. We love the similarities as well as the contrasts. They are engaging, funny, insightful. And sometimes they may be inappropriate, especially toward each other, but after all, what is a sibling for? Despite some minor sister squabbling every so often, they have each other’s backs and always will.
“It’s definitely a tumor–somewhat rare–but it is highly treatable and ultimately curable”, said the ER Doctor in the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Thus began the journey that would test us each individually and as a family unit. In October of 2014, Lily, then 10 years old, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, in her left tibia.
My wife, Susan and I could be described as many things, but above all else, we are pragmatists. We would have a fight on our hands and not only would we be caring for Lily, we needed to find a way to take care of each other. Annie, then a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, came to us and asked, “What can I do?” We told her to do her thing–keep your grades up, continue to play competitive golf, enjoy the yearbook staff. Things would be different for a while, but ultimately we had faith that life would return to “normal.”
In 2015, during the course of Lily’s treatments, the child life specialist at the hospital stopped by her room and said she had great news. Lily had been approved for a wish from Make-A-Wish. In some ways, that news was as jolting as the diagnosis itself. “Wait a minute”, I thought to myself, “Make-A-Wish is for terminal kids. Lily isn’t terminal. What’s going on?”
Upon some quick research I discovered that Make-A-Wish was not just for terminally-ill children, but for kids between 2 ½ and 18 who are dealing with a life-threatening medical condition. I hadn’t known that, but then another question popped into my mind, “Well, we are fortunate enough to be able to take our kids to Disney World without Make-A-Wish, so why would we want to do this?”
Despite several cancelled meetings because Lily wasn’t feeling well, our sweet Make-A-Wish liaison, Michelle stopped by the house for introductions and a visit. She explained what Make-A-Wish was about, asked what Lily liked to do, what her dreams were and told us to ultimately think about what she might like to do–no pressure, no hurry. During those following weeks and days where Lily felt better than others, we talked about some things she might like to do, or people she might like to meet.
Whether she was in the hospital or at home recovering, one of her (and truthfully all of ours) very favorite TV shows was “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team”. During one of the episodes without Make-A-Wish in mind, she just casually mentioned how cool it would be to see the Cheerleaders in person. We had already planned to spend Thanksgiving in Dallas to visit my sister and her family, so our wheels, along with the Make-A-Wish machine, started turning.
I could go into pages of detail about our experience, but suffice to say it was one none of us will ever forget. The genuine care, interest, and time Make-A-Wish and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders invested into our family – Lily, obviously, but also for big sis, Annie was extraordinary. The experience of being a VIP, the access, the gifts, the behind the scenes look of what is on TV was fabulous and great fun. It provided a timely boost we all really needed to help get Lily back healthy and on her feet.
In retrospect and through the lens of a father, I now realize something more about Lily’s Make-A-Wish experience–the power of role models. Especially the many women role models my daughters have met, talked with, and learned from throughout this journey. There is Dr. Jennifer Halpern, Lily’s brilliant and loving oncology surgeon, the many wonderful nurses, care partners, child life specialists, maintenance workers, and volunteers at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and Oncology Clinic. There is Beth Torres, President & CEO of Make-A-Wish Middle Tennessee, and her staff of smart, vibrant women that make supporting children in need their life’s work. And then of course, there is Kelli Finglass (who was very kind in particular when Lily point blank told her that she wanted her job!), director of the world famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and the 36 Cheerleaders themselves, who annually demonstrate to the world what talent, brainpower, beauty, and teamwork can accomplish.
As a kid, my father used to tell me when I had a problem, “Go find someone who knows more about it than you do, and ask them to help you”. That may have been the root of our approach to Lily’s recovery. I’m happy to report that life is returning to “normal” – albeit a new normal as Lily has spent the last six months in physical therapy learning how to walk with her prosthetic leg – she met her goal she set before amputation surgery in December 2016 of “walking into Annie’s graduation” on May 27th. And last week, Lily got the “all clear” on her two year scans–well on her way to the five year goal of a cure. In August, Annie will attend Rhodes College and play golf for the three time Division III National Champions. So, as Annie and Lily’s dad in this month of Father’s Day, thank you to all those folks, especially you role models, who will be with my daughters each day as they move toward the great things they will continue to do.
For more on Lily's journey, click here