Julie Lee carefully bends over the square of floral patterned paper as her unpainted fingernails press down on the folds of the paper. Forgetting that a dark brown knit cap covers her head, she absent-mindedly reaches up to touch the leftover wisps of dark hair on her forehead before lowering her hand. Her gold wedding band, flashing in the sun, sits aside a purple silicone bracelet bearing the message “HOPE.” She reaches out to her son, junior John Lee, as he walks by and pats him on the shoulder, smiling.
As she continues to fold, stopping occasionally to ask her friends for direction, a delicate paper crane takes shape under her hands. These cranes symbolize hope and healing, the connection between Heaven and Earth, and the faith community that has helped her through the past couple months.
Since Julie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago, the Lee family has clung to hope. On a sunny November day, John pulled into his driveway and saw two unexpected cars in the driveway: Village Presbyterian Church pastor Tom Are’s silver Buick and his grandma’s white Lexus. Thoughts raced through his head. Did something happen to my grandfather? What’s happening? Why is Pastor Are’s car here? His family, gathered around their small round kitchen table, shared the news as openly as they could: his mother had a pancreatic tumor. From that moment on, the Lees have tried to stay positive as Julie battled the tumor that had already traveled to her lungs and liver.
“John is pretty positive; he’s my cheerleader,” Julie said, tears welling up. “He’s always looks at this situation as a battle, as something that we’re going to get through.”
John has stepped forward as a leader in his household in the past few months. He has accepted more responsibility around the house, doing laundry and taking care of his little brother Evan, an eighth-grader. Of course, there are still chores to be done and small disagreements— Mom, can I miss school for the Big 12 Games? Um, no, I don’t think so— but there’s a change in the tone of the relationship. Hugs aren’t taken for granted, small arguments no longer turn into yelling matches, and gone are interrogations about Friday night plans.
“We don’t fight anymore, but it’s more than that; I respect her more,” John said. “There’s a chance that I won’t have her around.”
The knowledge that his mom is battling stage-four pancreatic cancer follows him throughout his day and is evident in his thoughts and actions, in the way he talks to his friends and in the way he responds to questions at youth group. When asked on a recent ski trip with Village about living in the moment and his favorite time of his life, he responded with, “I wish we could go back to the way things were. You know… the good ole’ days.”
Not only does John deal with the normal day-to-day events of teenage life—swim practice, going to church, memorizing the unit circle and watching KU basketball—he balances his school and social life with the life at home punctuated by both good and bad news, tumor markers, chemotherapy and visits from people at church. The more he focuses on the other parts of life, the better it seems. The hardest things have been small jolts of reality.
“I don’t know why, but just having her lose her hair made it all real,” John said. “One day I came home from swimming, and it was halfway gone.”
It’s the support network of church, family and most importantly, friends and classmates who have experienced similar situations that help John get through those harsh moments. With the development of his mother’s cancer, John has changed in the way he is affected by his friends’ reactions to the cancer. At first, John only told the two friends he was closest to.
“I didn’t want to be the kid you feel sorry for,” John said. “The kid whose mom has cancer.”
But when something like this occurs, the word moves fast and people move to help in any way they can. The first Sunday after the Lees got the news, they went to church. No one meant for it to be too much. But in that morning alone, John recalls, 30 or 40 people approached him with words of comfort. It’s been progressively easier for John to talk about it and accept the support of his friends.
“My friends have been good to me,” John said. “My friend, [junior] Chris [Heady], would call me every day. It got to the point where I had told him he could stop.”
John’s situation with his mom’s cancer has prompted other students with similar experiences to step forward.
The situation that students are thrust into when loved ones have cancer both distances them from their peers and draws them closer to their friends. Junior Tyler Germann, looking back on his mother’s breast cancer, reflects on how hard it was during that time simply not to know how things would work out.
“It changed me, and made me a part of a different group of people,” Germann said. “It makes me feel for John, but it’s hard because pancreatic cancer is so different from breast cancer.”
As with the Lees, Village Presbyterian Church was a place of love and safety for Germann when his mom had breast cancer. The church was the place where he could come and feel safe to talk about his mother. Village considers its role to be one of being present when people need help, whether it is through prayer, bringing meals to families, providing helpers or simply being there when just getting through the day feels like too much to handle.
“Lord God, calm now. Heal now. Love now. Just as Julie is wrapped in this quilt stitched with love, and as she is surrounded with our presence now, enfold Julie in your care, O God, hold her tight to you.”
These words rang out in the simple, white sanctuary of Village Presbyterian Church on the prayer service held for Julie on Dec. 10. Around 150 people met at the church and spent the evening singing hymns, reading Scripture and praying for Julie. At the end, they wrapped her in a multicolored quilt that had been made for her and prayed for her strength and for the future. Her faith has grown through this time, as she has asked questions about the nature of her faith and read the Bible.
“I don’t think she interprets this as God’s will for her,” Village Presbyterian Church pastor Meg Peery McLaughlin said. “She doesn’t think that God gave it or will take her away, but she has felt God’s presence through the outpouring of love for her.”
Even with immense support she’s received, there are some things that just can’t be fixed with a hug or a word of encouragement. Julie isn’t able to do things that are viewed as chores to most parents, things like going to Enrollment Night for Evan, or running errands all day. She can’t eat until she takes pancreatic enzymes that aid her digestion. She makes plans in anticipation of canceling them. And each day, Julie tries not to focus on the disheartening statistics about pancreatic cancer or the reasons why.
“I have said, ‘Why me?’ because I have absolutely none of the factors for pancreatic cancer,” Julie said. “But in the same breath, I’ve said, ‘Why anybody?”
What she’s going through now has made Julie more aware of other families who have struggled through the same thing. Watching her friends effortlessly reach out to her has made an impact upon her and reminded her how to be a good friend.
Laughter is often the best way for Julie to fight the sadness and the pain. Some comes in the form of comedic relief, such as when her husband puts on her wig to make her giggle. Some comes in a return to the old days, when she went to her sister’s house and danced all night to old high school favorite like “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Sometimes it’s a card, or prayer or a greeting from her sons. There will always be valleys, and bad days, but there will also always be her family and her friends and her faith.
“I fight feeling blue more than anything, because that’s when the fears come in,” Julie said. “I’m more scared when I think about the future for my family and my loved ones. No matter what, I have faith in God that we will get through this.”