Honoring St. Jude Moms

In praise of moms, the unsung heroes of St. Jude. They’ve been preparing their kids for the unexpected all along.

In praise of moms, the unsung heroes of St. Jude. They’ve been preparing their kids for the unexpected all along.

  

Mary Browder didn’t ask if she was going to die. She asked if she was going to lose her hair.

What does a mother even say to her daughter in that moment? The answer was yes, of course. It’s what chemotherapy does.

But this is what moms do — they find a way to comfort their daughters and sons, to steel and inspire them. Soothe them. Skinned knee or cancer, it’s no matter to a mom whose child is hurting.

Go ahead and throw in a global pandemic. Mothers have been preparing their kids for whatever might come, since time immemorial.

And so, as they stood one day in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Mary Browder, then 10, was being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma, her mom saw a chance to be, well, motherly.

Mary Browder

“We saw this beautiful girl walk by, bald-headed,” Renee said. “And she had her head up high. She was probably 16 or 17, and I pointed her out to Mary Browder. I said, ‘Look at that beautiful girl.’ I said, ‘That’s going to be you in another few weeks, and you’re going to walk like that.’”

In fact, when the time came, they didn’t just make baldness something to rise above. They made it “fun” — Renee’s word.

“We used water colors to paint her head and we found fun hats,” she said. “She put a hat on backwards at an elementary school festival after a teacher painted Charlie Brown’s face on the back of her bald head. That was my personal favorite.”

Spend much time hearing the stories of St. Jude patients and families, and you might come away thinking moms are the secret superheroes of the place. All due respect to the doctors, and the science they apply to saving young lives, but proton beam therapy has nothing on a mom in full protective mode.

“I remember my mother spending so much time with the doctors,” said Kris, who was treated at St. Jude as a 7-year-old with a rare blood disorder. “She sat in with these doctors and nurses and learned. How it was treated and what it was and what was to come. She knew all about it.”

Debora, Kris’s mom, laughs at the memory of more than 20 years ago. “The doctors hated me the first few months,” she said, “because I had this notebook and I had all these questions. I would make them wait before I got the answer written down before I’d go on to the next one.

“But after a while, they got used to it. They would walk in, joking, ‘OK, what’s your question today, Deb?’”

If knowledge is power, so is knowing your daughter as well as you know yourself.

That was Allison, whose daughter Jessica was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at 9 years old.

“Jessica and I have a very strange, kind of a symbiotic relationship,” Allison said. “If I’m a mess, she’s a mess. If Mama’s freaked out, I should be freaked out. So I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I had to be strong. I had to be strong because I had to get her through it.

Jessica and her mother, Allison

“Now, there were times I’d go out in the backyard and scream. But she didn’t hear it.”

More than two decades later, Jessica thinks of all the fear and worry her mom kept hidden, for the sake of her sick, scared little girl.

“I should ask my mom a lot of questions about how she felt, and what she experienced,” Jessica said. “Because she’s always been so strong. And I think she would have internalized a lot of the emotion, and how scared she was. Some of it you can just read on people’s faces, but she really kept a lot of it to herself.”

What to say, or not. What buttons to push, threads to pull. Mothers just know. It’s their superpower — one of them.

Take Christopher, a 10-year-old boy in Puerto Rico when he was diagnosed with ALL — just as his mother was preparing to be married to her fiancé, William. So the wedding was put on hold, the family moved to Memphis for treatment at St. Jude, and Jessica — who had gone from anticipating one of the best days of her life, to any parent’s worst nightmare — did what moms do:

“I gave all my heart, my strength, as a mother to be happy around him,” she said. “Even though maybe my happiness was fake, I knew that if he saw me sad, he was going to be sad, too.”

And when that wasn’t quite enough, what was a mother to do?

“She started dancing and singing to me, so I could get my joy back,” said Christopher, now 17.

She danced? And sang? Really? Where was this?

“It was in the hospital, when I was getting my bone marrow transplant,” Christopher said. “I was in a really bad shape. She, as a mother, saw me like that, really bad, and she made something for me to appreciate life.”

Christopher with his mother, Jessica

And the beyond-happy ending to this little story? The wedding happened, just later than expected, with Christopher in remission and the venue changed — to the chapel in the Danny Thomas/ALSAC Pavilion, on the St. Jude campus. Christopher walked his mom down the aisle.

Or consider Nick, a quiet kid with a reflective nature. When he was diagnosed with ALL as a young teenager, his mom had a suggestion: Write down your thoughts. Keep a journal. Tell your story.

“For me, it was like, write every day,” Tangela said. “I don’t care if today was hellish, you know. Or today was awesome. Or, ‘I felt like crap.’

Nick

“Even if you don’t talk about it, write about it. … It’ll turn into a story.”

Nick’s stories turned musical, his St. Jude experience set to rap beats — songs about “sanitizers, face visors and separate cups,” about friends made and lost, and the beanie he wore when chemotherapy took his hair.

The experience helped transform him, from shy kid to dynamic performer. All because Nick’s mom made that a suggestion, pulled a single thread? That was the start of it.

Or take Amanda, Mack’s mom. She’s a vivid reminder that mother isn’t just a noun. It’s a verb. But to mother isn’t to baby.

Mack with his mother, Amanda

“Parenting a child with an amputation who’s had cancer, there’s no rule book for that,” she said. “Yeah, we probably should keep him in a bubble and away from people. But who knows how long anyone is going to be on this earth? I say let him live. Let him do kid things.”

So Mack, whose right leg was amputated at age 6 after he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a type of bone cancer, was encouraged to be active. He took his first steps less than 24 hours post-amputation — surprising even himself, saying in a moment captured on video, “Wait — I’m doing it?”

“You are,” mom says.

Within two months he was on a basketball court, shooting hoops with members of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. St. Jude and the Grizzlies made that happen, but it was mom’s idea.

Back home after treatment, Mack, the kid with the prosthetic “robot leg,” as his siblings called it, was taking part in sports leagues and neighborhood games. And being taught to tend to, and fend for, himself.

“You can’t baby him forever, because the world is not going to be nice to him as an adult,” Amanda said. “He’s going to have to do things for himself. So after his amputation, he was 6 years old. We taught him how to take a shower by himself, how to clean (the amputation site) himself. We taught him how to do everything for his prosthetic leg that an adult would do with an amputation. If he learns it now it’s going to get better as he gets older.”

The definition of motherly is elastic. It’s whatever is needed at the time.

Inspiration at a crucial moment. Advocacy always. A sense of calm when a backyard scream might seem more in order. A soft touch. A firm hand.

And, in the time of the COVID-19 virus, a little creativity, laced with kindness.

Amanda had Mack and his siblings gather around the kitchen table to draw pictures and write letters to send to nursing homes and hospitals — not just busy work, but purposeful.

In Mary Browder’s family, Renee says they’ve come to see these strange times as “a blessing.” They’re taking walks together, doing puzzles and crafts, watching classic movies, cooking, writing letters. And Mary Browder even got her prom, sort of, via Zoom with her friends.

If you’ve faced cancer, a little case of stir crazy must not even register. Ask Renee, and she’ll tell you it’s been a time to savor, this unexpected stretch of forced togetherness — especially when your daughter will be leaving for college before long.

Ask Renee, and she'll tell you, “I think everyone is getting to experience what it’s like to be a cancer patient right now with the virus. Your life as you know it is put on hold while you have to miss events, friends, school, sports. You learn to adjust and figure out a way not to be isolated and lonely while at the same time staying safe and healthy.”

Moms are champs at adapting. They’re queens of creativity. They protect and guide us, champion and defend us, and so much more than mere words can capture.

But maybe, in some small way, these will do: Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

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