I am in awe of a girl who would have turned 16 this coming spring.
The week of her 14th birthday, Rebecca (aka Becca) was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancer of the cells that builds bones. She underwent chemo, and after ten months was on the path to recovery – or so we thought. Then, a few short months later, her mother called with news which even now I find difficult to believe. The mind and heart are at complete odds when we have to say goodbye to a young one – the mind knowing a tragedy is at hand, the heart holding on to our relationship with a girl who is growing beautifully and looking full of life.
Becca was among my daughter’s first true friends. I came to know her through the magic of their friendship and thanks to her generous family, who opened wide the doors to their vulnerability and shared their journey. They have demonstrated a remarkable ability to love one another and those around them with equal exuberance, and do this with strength and grace, against all odds.
Becca was joyful and energized by the world and requested that she spend her last months living a normal teenage life. She started high school as soon as she could after completing chemo, and became an active member of her school community. In return, teachers, parents and peers welcomed her with open arms. We were graced by her smiles and her appetite to live and experience every opportunity life has to offer, from a Benioff Children’s Hospital prom last spring (she wore an elegant tiara and got to have her portrait taken with the SF 49ers) to laughing about Instagram posts the last day we saw her.
One of her friends shared a poignant story from Becca’s final months in school. Becca and this friend, who had also experienced childhood cancer, wanted to give a talk to their fellow students to help dispel myths and open the door to conversation about cancer, theirs and others. On the day they had planned to do this, the school came to them and said the timing wasn’t right to share “sad” stories and that they should consider this the following year. But the girls persisted, Becca explaining, “I may not be here next year to share my story.”
Until then, Becca had resisted speaking of, or seemingly even thinking about, her cancer. But at that moment, she rose above her desire to live a “normal teenage life” in order to share an intensely important message with her fellow students before she died. That message, her friend told me, was that it can be okay, even a good thing, to ask people about their cancer, to talk with them about it, ask questions if you have them. The message is a valuable one for all of us – don’t assume cancer patients do not want to talk about their illness. Ask how they feel about talking, of course. Then, if it is okay, be willing to talk, ask questions, learn from them.
Along with the grief and loss that we experienced with Becca’s passing, we are left with a very clear sense of how precious life is. Of how intensely beautiful the world is in ways we had not fully perceived before. We also have a new appreciation of the medical teams that helped Becca in every way possible. I can only hope to offer what gifts I have with the same selflessness.
To all who fight for the lives of others — through great medicine, service to your friends, your country, teaching someone else’s children, loving your own, or in whatever way you do, may we support you with our encouragement and gratitude.
To Becca, who offered the gift of being gracious and ready to smile even in the struggle of those final months and days — our world will never be the same without you. Thank you for the gift of your friendship, and for taking a stand for what you believed in. We will help carry your torch.