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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Ordinary Heroes

I get fun mail. And hate mail. And sad mail. But this is the best mail -- and the entire reason I wrote Heroes For My Son. Never forget the heroes you see every day.

Dear Mr. Meltzer,

Two months ago, this past week, my thirty-six year old sister, Renee, was diagnosed with GlioBlastoma Stage 4 brain cancer. It has taken its toll, not only on my sister, as I'm sure you could imagine, but on my entire family; my parents, my sisters two children 6 and 7, and her husband, Scott, my wife, Megan and me. Throughout the course of these two horrific months, my sister has undergone and finished her radiation treatments and continues to receive chemo. She has been in and out of Stony Brook University Hospital as well as Sloan in NYC. She initially went to a local hospital, because she had headaches. Who would have thought this? In the course of Renee’s first four weeks with this illness, the two tumors that were found doubled in size. The tumors are lying on a part of the brain that effects her emotions, personality and short term memory. Because of this, they were and still are unoperable. When asked about her prognosis, the doctors said she would have two to four weeks without treatments. My mom, dad and I, have aged, so it seems, ten years in these two months.

Only three months ago, my sister was planning to go back to teaching for her 14th year, driving her boys to their baseball and swimming events and doing everything a parent could do with their children. All of this was taken away that Sunday when she went into the hospital. Prior to her diagnosis – two weeks before, the eight of us, and my one year old son, Matthew, were fortunate enough to take a family trip to Aruba. Will this be the last family trip? Who knows? We are hoping, no, praying for a miracle. Renee recently met with her doctor from Sloan and he was amazed at how well she looked and sounded since he last saw her a few weeks back. After so many negative outcomes, could this be the break we are looking for? (As if there is such a thing.)

On September 11th, just two weeks after my sister Renee’s diagnosis, my sister-in-law, Kaitlin, went into Stony Brook University Hospital after feeling numbness in her tongue, legs and feet. Within one day, she lost the use of her lower half of her body, and within two days, she was paralyzed from the neck down. After the third day, she was put on a respirator and sent to ICU. She was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a rare disease where the immune system attacks the nervous system. Basically, your blood turns bad. With this disease, 90% of patients diagnosed will recover. However, once the first symptoms appear, it gets worse for three weeks before it gets better. I am happy to say that Kaitlin is on the slow road to recovery, and is able to walk, with crutches and a walker. She still needs intense occupational and physical therapy, as she cannot open a soda bottle by herself. The one thing that never strayed, was Kaitlin’s mind. She did question her will to live, and go on.

Through these two separate experiences within my own family, I have learned a ton – especially about everyday heroes, and more importantly,who I am. I can talk about my brother-in-law, Scott- Renee’s husband, and how he has found an inner strength to take care of my sister and his two children. I have learned to be a better dad and husband because of him. I look at my parents, my mom and dad, and how they offer their help, guidance and support to their daughter and her family. I feel as if I have become a better son because of them. I look at their neighbors who have cooked food on a regular basis for the past two months. They even held a fall festival on my sister’s driveway so she could celebrate Halloween with her children and their friends. Perhaps one day, I’ll be that neighbor that can lend that hand. I commend my colleagues and the community that I work for, and where my sister lives, that created fundraisers on my sister’s behalf, sent and continue to send gift cards. I look at my wife, who has been the strength for me, despite what she is going through. I look at her family and see what they have done for Kaitlin. Then I look at Matthew, my son, perhaps the true hero at age 17 months. He is the one who can get me to smile at any moments notice. Sure, he probably senses what going on, but he makes us laugh regardless.

Then there is Renee. My sister. A teacher. A friend. The person who helped me find my way in this world. It’s pretty basic quite honestly. At some point in time we have to face reality and have to make simple decisions that will effect us tomorrow. Fifteen years ago, my sister invited me into her classroom to help her set it up. I was hanging up a bulletin board behind her desk. At that moment, I turned around and had an epiphany. I saw a classroom of students looking at me, instead of empty desks waiting anxiously for those children. I knew then that teaching was for me. I had found my tomorrow, because of my sister. Besides her classroom ways, she taught me to love my child more than anything, and to appreciate my parents. She taught me to set time aside to watch your children play and live. My sister, my hero. Now I look at her, and I see that she is in the fight for her life. I have told her many times how she inspired and continues to inspire me. I can only hope she gets through this, not only for me, but for her own children and family, for my son too, and my mom and dad.

I don't know why, but I feel compelled to write you. You wrote about heroes; those that defied the odds and did things that noone could think possible, especially when others turned their backs. I truly appreciated what you wrote and how simple you made these heroes sound. I cannot wait to share these stories with my son when he is old enough. I have been sharing these stories with the 5th grade students whom I teach, since I bought this books less than two weeks ago. My fifth graders are now turning my questions about what you wrote into writing assignments – if that’s okay with you. Through all of these experiences that you write, it seems like you hit upon- story after story- of what you learned. For that I am grateful and perhaps that’s why I write.

Thank you for allowing me to write my story to you. Everyone of us has a hero within us. At times we lose that sense, especially with all the negativity in the world. Perhaps that’s why you wrote this book too. It’s these trying moments that define who we are as people. Please continue to show and talk to your children about these heroes, yet continue to show them that there are heroes within all of us, and you don’t have to look to far to see that. Besides, I’m sure they already look at you that way!


Mark Yashowitz