For Turner Simkins and his wife, Tara, their son Brennan has always been one fifth of their love, yet all of it, too, inextricably linked with their other two boys, the band of brothers, and with them. He’s the quiet son and the one who changed their lives. When he was a young boy, Brennan survived four bone marrow transplants in three years, three of which took place at St. Jude. Brennan's medical journey inspired Turner's spiritual awakening, a book called "Possibilities," and a song with the same name. Here he reflects on the family’s move to St. Jude for medical treatment, the current times, and the gift of gratitude.
On my knees, literally every morning, wrestling with demons and doubts, I would find myself back with Brennan, who through the simple gesture to hold him offered the most instantaneous lesson in mindfulness imaginable.
When our son Brennan’s leukemia returned for the second time, having relapsed after his first bone marrow transplant, my wife Tara and I moved our entire family of five to the St. Jude community, where we remained for three years. We were determined to keep our family together, regardless of any outcome, and provide the greatest amount of love possible for each of our three boys.
We all had become accustomed to the lifestyle changes associated with leukemia and bone marrow transplant over the previous year, but moving everyone into Target House, surrounded by so many others, the change was immediate and drastic.
For those living through this global pandemic, the changes we assumed shouldn’t seem far-fetched:
Maintaining a hyper-hygienic residence.
Distancing ourselves from others.
Not eating anything that wasn’t prepared by ourselves or served in the St. Jude Kay Kafe.
Then as now, there were only two paths forward: to accept the change as a new normal; or, angry, defiant, skeptical and inconvenienced, to refuse to understand our personal decisions could have serious consequences for others.
But Brennan’s reality was clear. With effectively no immune system, a common cold could have been his death sentence. To make this all second nature to us, we had to assume for every minute of the day we were all carriers of something that threatened these children.
The washing of hands and face masks were not for our sake, but for others’. (Sound familiar?) The primary difference between then and now is that the threat is to everyone.
Tara told me on the very first day we could never feel like victims. Regret for what could have been and fear of the future equate to nothing. We had to accept this as a life challenge, and live each day with love and a mindfulness of what is truly important.
While the rest of us chose to make lifestyle adjustments, Brennan had no choice. He was the kid in the trenches who never complained. And through all the pain and fear, he was always positive, always patient and always looking forward. Like many other multiple relapse kids, he walked back into the fray time and again as a veteran, war weary for sure, but happy to see his old comrades.
We were forced to live in and appreciate each moment because, for three years, that was all we had. On my knees every morning, wrestling with my demons, Brennan would wash them all away with a simple gesture to hold him, offering an instantaneous lesson on mindfulness and gratitude.
Today’s world of mandated social distancing and hyper-hygiene has been an almost reflexive adjustment for us. Don’t get me wrong: The boys are teenagers now and did not exactly gleefully embrace the sudden changes associated with COVID-19, but they have been serious about it. They all react strongly to news of crowded beaches on Spring Break or anyone acting cavalier about this new reality. With crystal clear memories of our son clinging to life on a ventilator, the consequences are quite real.
I offer a prayer of thanks every day for our son’s life and the powerful lessons learned living in the St. Jude community. The seriousness of it certainly allowed me to notice things more intensely. I assume much of the defiance we see in the news today reflects, for many, the absence of a serious personal and tangible threat. In our case, it required a different lens through which to see the world, a lens we acquired at St. Jude.