Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bigger than Us

If you let it, cancer will change you.

For the better.

This is a long and winding story. You may know some parts of this story. Heck, you might have even been a part of this story. Still...please, come along for the ride.

Several months ago, my dear friend Jill Reagan Healey called me to check on Ellie and our family. We talked about Ellie's current treatment at the time and updated each other on our families. The conversation probably lasted around 20 minutes, and it was a precious time. You see, I hardly ever get to talk on the phone. It is such a rarity around our house, that I almost believe my girls have no clue what I'm doing. "'s talking. She must want to talk to me. I'll go ahead and engage her and ask her a bunch of questions that cannot wait to be answered." I'm pretty sure that this is probably what goes on inside their head. So, I remember this conversation well, because it actually happened. Now that I think of it, Eva and Nora were probably at school and Ellie was napping. Yes, this makes much more sense.

We had a lovely time chatting, but the conversation was coming to an end. Right before we were ready to say our good-byes, in the most casual way possible, she said, "Oh, Monica Martino should be calling you soon. She saw my post about Ellie on Facebook and contacted me. She wants to help families in Tampa that are going through a pediatric cancer diagnosis." 

Dumbfounded, all I could get out was, "What?! Does she know it's me?"

Let me back up a minute and explain two very important things.

Number One
Monica and her husband Ryan, have two daughters, Nina and Emmi Grace. In mid-April of 2016, the same time Ellie was diagnosed with ALL, Emmi Grace was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive brain tumor, ATRT. She was 3 1/2 months old. 

I knew Monica back in college, but had not kept up with her over the years. We had plenty of mutual friends on Facebook, so I was able to keep up with Emmi Grace's updates. I would sob over her posts. I thought I had an idea of what she was feeling and going through, because everything hit so close to home at that time. But honestly, I know that I truly had no clue. 

From the outside, pediatric cancer looks and sounds the same. But I assure you, once you are inside that world, everything is different. The spectrum of pediatric cancer is so vast. It's not even linear. Even with the same diagnosis, the processes and outcome can vary wildly. Ellie had the "good" cancer.

Emmi Grace did not. Two months later, at just 5 1/2 months old, she became the victim of this terrible cancer. She took her last breath on June 10, 2016. 

I've learned that offering sympathy can be a tricky thing. Often, people offer words to make themselves feel better, not necessarily caring about your situation. I can spot these a mile away. I received a handful of these when Ellie was first diagnosed. I did not want to be that for Monica. So I wept for the loss of Emmi Grace, but I stayed silent.

Why exactly?

Well, that brings me to...

Number Two
I was pretty certain that if Monica had a short list of people that she never wanted to see or talk to again, I was pretty close to the top of that list.

Let me back up some more. Remember how I said I knew Monica from college? Well, our encounter was brief and did not end well.

In 2002, I was the President of my sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, at the University of South Florida. The previous fall, Monica joined our sorority. Instantly, I was smitten, and so was everyone else. Monica was beautiful, outgoing, vivacious, well spoken...a true catch in sorority world! Plus, she wore turquoise eye liner. So cool. She was friendly and so much fun to be around.

Well, as it turns out, Monica had a little too much fun. As a member of our sorority, there were some (ok, many) rules that had to be followed. If the rules were broken severely enough, then you could get kicked out. Monica was at this point. As President, it was my job, along with a few other people, to follow through with the consequences. Monica was going to be kicked out of the sorority. It was not a popular decision.

Even now, 14 years later, I remember almost everything about that evening so vividly. In the moment, I thought I was doing the right thing. Everything seemed so black and white. Even after getting yelled at and cussed out by several people, I stood my ground. But to be honest, I felt terrible. That was the single worst experience I had as President. After a while I realized it was because I felt like I had let Monica down. I should have tried to help her. I should have tried to understand. 

So, that was it. I never saw Monica again. Our last encounter was a terrible one, so I genuinely felt that she would never want to talk to me again, much less see me. Which brings me back to my question to Jill.

"Does she know it's me?"

"Yes. She will be getting in touch with you soon."

What?! I had never been more confused in my life. So I told Jill, "Ok. But I'm honestly not expecting her to call me. So if she doesn't, I won't hold it against either of you."

Within a week, Monica called me.

We talked for 45 minutes. (That was definitely during a nap.)

Surreal is the only way that I can describe that conversation. We caught up and talked with such ease. Mostly about cancer, but also catching up with one another. She offered to help our family in any way that she could. She asked questions about Ellie, really trying to understand her diagnosis, which was so different from Emmi Grace's. Finally, it was clear that the conversation was coming to an end, and then it happened. The elephant in my room was addressed. 

(I'll do the best I can to remember.)
Monica: "Jill said you though it would be weird if I called you. I don't understand why you would think that?"

Me: "Ummm...because of what happened in college. How I kicked you out of the sorority."

Monica: "You were right."

Me: "What?"

Monica: "You were right to kick me out of ADPi. There were rules, very clear rules. And I definitely broke them."

Me: <silence>

Did you notice how I said the elephant was in my room? Because it certainly was not in Monica's. In my mind, she had every reason to despise me. But she didn't. She remembered that time very differently than I did. Beyond that, she never held a grudge against me, and was more than eager to help my family so many years later.

Monica: "You were right. It was a wake-up call for me. It took some time, but that helped to change me. I don't know how many people I've told that story to over the years."


Mind blown.

But, that's GOD. That's our Heavenly Father working all things for good. Taking something so gut-wrenching and awful, like cancer and death, and bringing good. Bringing peace. 

Throughout everything that has happened since Ellie was diagnosed with Leukemia, this has probably been one of the most profound. It has changed me in the best way possible, and definitely made me learn a life lesson or two. 

As I write this, it is December 10th, 2016. Exactly 6 months from the day that Emmi Grace Angel died. Her first birthday will be December 22, 2016. This is a blessed little girl. She has an amazing family that are doing everything they can to keep her legacy alive, help other pediatric cancer families, and fight to find better treatment for ATRT. 

If you are in any way able to help them, please visit their website: Emmi Grace's Angels.

Since that initial phone conversation, we have spoken at the Children's Cancer Center Fall Stampede, texted several times, and even went out to dinner together.

And, just in case you need to see it to believe it, here we are together. If you knew either of us in 2002, you would know exactly how unlikely this appears. But all of this is bigger than us, and I am so grateful to Monica and her family.


  1. We serve an incredible God - through Him all blessings flow. You ladies are such strong, dynamic women. Your children are lucky to call you 'Mama' and have you fighting for them. Love and light.

  2. Thank you so much for your sweet words Jill. I am so glad that you were the catalyst for this story. Love you!