I'd like to tell you about my daughter. I wish I could to say she was just an ordinary little girl, but that is like Peter Pan referring to Tinker Bell as quite a common fairy. She loved every animal on four legs and had half a dozen Disney videos memorized. She once interrupted a guitar recital by loudly saying, "Hey Grandpa, I tooted!" She had the whitest hair and the bluest eyes and a smile that would cause the most callous and stoic hearts to melt. She was extraordinary. But the truth is there is no such thing as an ordinary two-and-a-half year old, if you have ever met one you know they are all extraordinary. My daughter, however, accomplished great things and I realize looking back on our family's experience with cancer her life is inspiring. Her name is Hope.

Exactly two years ago, yesterday, I sat in a pediatrician's office with her on my lap. He thought she might have a virus, but wanted to do a blood test to rule any thing out. I had that gut feeling something was very, very wrong. When he came back into the room, I knew it was bad. He said, "I will get down on my knees and pray that I am wrong, but I think Hope has leukemia." Some of you know the tornado that follows those words. The need to run while your feet are nailed to the floor. The storm of emotions and the loss of control. But, about an hour later my husband and I were carrying Hope into the Children's Hospital of Austin and we mustered our courage and promised we would fight this for her. Our heads hurt and our hearts ached. As the diagnosis got clearer and clearer, we refused to give up hope for our Hope.

The people that waited for us on the other side of the hospital doors were nothing less than angels. One by one they introduced themselves to us as if they knew they were meeting lifelong friends. The coming days were a crash course in pediatric oncology. In addition to the doctors and nurses, our friends and family surrounded us with care. They cleaned our house, made our meals and researched her disease on the Internet. They were simply there, walking beside us, for whatever we needed.

I remember getting off the elevator that first night and walking toward the oncology floor and seeing the many signs and posters for various cancer related charities. I realized they weren't hung to ask for donations, they were there to offer help and hope. Her oncologist was at our side it seems like constantly at the beginning, explaining things and answering questions. Three days into diagnosis, he said he would be gone that night, but to page him if we needed him for anything. He was going to be up all night walking in the Relay for Life. He proved to be the kind of doctor that didn't just talk the talk, but he walked the walk. We found out later there were several friends here two years ago lighting luminaries and sending up prayers for Hope.

Cancer can take away what seems like everything, but it can't destroy the spirit of a child. Even when times seemed rough, Hope found joy in the hospital playroom or a new coloring book. She learned big words like chemotherapy and radiation, but she also learned to love silly hats. She saw her first fireworks at San Gabriel park that Fourth of July and rode the ponies by the Catfish Rodeo booth. Her Grandmother started reading a book to her that opened with the line "Thank you, God." Hope, with her childlike theology said "I'm not God, I'm Hope." She loved the Wizard of Oz, the tale of an ordinary girl in an extraordinary world. She celebrated her third birthday dressed as Dorothy with a yellow brick road cake and wicked witch pinata. She loved Sunday School. She still grew, she still played, she still did what other little girls did, she just often wore a hat and was sometimes attached to an IV pole.

We never doubted Hope would survive cancer. We worried about long term effects, relapse, educational modifications; all those terms that go along with survivorship. We came to see the cancer experience as something Hope would look back on as a small and relatively insignificant part of a long and full life. We were wrong. Our family had been to a Thanksgiving celebration with other families of children with cancer. We all had a wonderful time: festive food, clowns and new friends. It seemed like things were going great and Thanksgiving had never been so poignant. Hope went to bed that night. Sometime during the night her soul tiptoed away from her body into the arms of God. Just seven months after she was diagnosed the gravity that held Hope to this earth failed. She had died. We woke up without Hope.

It would seem that her story should end there, but it doesn't. It can't. Her life continues to inspire people to do what they can in the battle against cancer. Her short life made an impact on the world. She was an ordinary girl who knew fear and learned to face it. She found joy in the mundane. She received and gave love to all the people around her. Her life reminds us that to live in despair is to turn our backs on hope, thus turning our backs on her.

I love this event because it is such a wonderful metaphor for life. We start walking on this journey of life, we walk the same path as others, but never just the same footsteps. We pass lights that remind us of bright spots in our lives. And when one of those lights goes out, we know it is somehow still with us because we still smell the smoke and feel the breeze that blew it out. I also like to think that Hope might take a break from her heavenly play and glance down at her name written on a hill with tiny little stars and find joy there.

- Sharolyn Browning
April 26, 2002

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