Emma taught me surrender. For that I am grateful. Though her journey was the battle of her young life, watching her rise with the brave heart of a lion and a faith that moves mountains inspired me to embark on my own journey of discovery.
In 2016, at the age of 17, our daughter, Emma was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After months of tests and surgeries, we finally had the answer to the pain and sickness she had been experiencing for almost a year. We had the answer, yes, but the road ahead would be long, and for Emma, the battle of her young life.
“Hearing the words, your child has cancer, are the most devastating words a parent can hear. There’s no way to prepare for that.” ~ John Fenwick
“I was disappointed.” Emma said upon receiving the news, “The doctors had ruled out cancer several times before. I was scared, but also relieved that it was the more treatable of the two lymphomas. I was ready to start treatment.”
I, on the other hand, as well as my husband, John, and our oldest daughter, Nichole, were doing our best to hide our fear. In our family, cancer was the enemy. We had lost my father, as well as John’s to the disease. Our beautiful niece, Cassy, lost her battle with stage 5 metastatic breast cancer in 2013. She was only 33. John’s sister, Monica, had succumbed to brain cancer in 2015, at the age of only 56. Now, we were facing another fight, only this one would be the hardest one to bear because it was our child.
“Hearing the words, your child has cancer,” John said, “are the most devastating words a parent can hear. There’s no way to prepare for that. That is as real as it gets. And I knew that I had no other choice, but to let go and trust that God would walk Emma through this.”
For me, the reaction was different. I just kept looking at Emma, with the words, “she has cancer,” playing over and over in my mind. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Didn’t want to believe it. But no matter how hard I tried, the fact was, this was now our reality and we’d have to move through it with her. We’d have to be strong for her and for each other. We had no other choice.
The morning after we got the news, Emma was taken into surgery to receive her port. By the evening, she was undergoing her first round of chemo. For six long months we lived at Shand’s Children’s Hospital in Gainesville, FL. There, we witnessed Emma rise up, and with the heart of a lion, face her treatments and the debilitating side effects they caused, fatigue, weight loss, numerous infections, blood transfusions, the hair loss, and scarring. She weathered each challenge and stood firm in her faith that God was by her side.
“I knew I couldn’t change the outcome, Emma explained, “I knew chemo was something that wasn’t going to be easy, but was necessary. Plus, I knew the quicker we got started, the faster things were thrown at me, I’d have less time to really stop and think about it.”
Her big sister, Nichole, nine years older than Emma and her long-time boyfriend, Trey, more like a brother to Emma since he has been in our lives since Emma was a small child, traveled to Gainesville for every treatment. Emma was grateful for their presence since the three are exceptionally close, calling themselves the “three musketeers” since she was a little girl. Nichole and Trey were a constant source of comfort and a distraction from the reality she was now facing.
“We wanted to help her escape,” Nichole explained, “Or at least to positively distract her from what was happening all around her.” They sat with her during her treatments, playing video games, doing art projects, and jamming on their guitars. On the days Emma felt strong enough, they took her for outings around Gainesville, to the botanical gardens, for drives along the tree lined roads, and to the comic book stores since Em is a collector.
“It’s like we were encapsulated in our own world, like a tether to the light, not stopping for one moment to let the darkness catch up.” ~Nichole Fenwick
For Emma, the most important thing she felt she could do was to remain strong and to be positive no matter what happened. “I had to be strong for my family,” she explained, “not just for myself. I knew if I was down, they would be too, and that if I was positive, it would help them stay positive.”
Emma would weather six rounds of very aggressive chemo, the first three days administered in hospital, with one clinic administered round seven days later. She would undergo numerous return visits to the hospital where she’d experience extended stays for blood transfusions or to treat one of many treatment induced infections. She withstood it all, not surprising to John and I, maintaining a positive attitude and high spirits even when she was at her lowest physically. I’ve come to understand that the ever-present source of her bravery and strength was her unfailing faith and trust in God. Her complete belief that He was with her, that this journey had a purpose, and though she didn’t know the outcome, she knew that no matter what, God had her firmly in His grasp.
As a family, we celebrated each moment of joy. Every second of every day, thanking God each time Emma opened her eyes, each time she smiled or laughed. Grateful for all the doctors and nurses at Shands who diligently cared for her with compassion and the utmost professionalism. Grateful to our nephew and his wife who opened their home to us in Gainesville, so we would be surrounded by family. Grateful for the countless family members and friends who visited, prayed with us, and sent care packages to Emma that were filled with all of her favorite things, but most of all with the abundant love we felt every step of the journey.
In June of 2016, after her last round of chemo, Emma was declared cancer free. She has returned to Gainesville every six months since for blood work, scans, and in the beginning for breathing treatments to strengthen her lungs. Each time she receives a cancer free result, we celebrate knowing that we’re one step closer to her being declared cured.
Since her battle, Emma has graduated from high school, started college, and is working at a job she loves. She also has a wonderful boyfriend, a young man we’ve known as a family for many years. Yet, even with all that, the experience we went through, Emma more than the rest of us, impacted each of us in our own individual ways. You can’t really go through something like that and not be changed and more importantly, not be grateful to have come through it together and whole.
“I’ve learned to be grateful for the hard times,” she said, “because without them the good times wouldn’t be as good. I’ve learned more about myself, about who I am. But most of all I’ve learned that worrying is pointless because you aren’t in control. I’ve learned to trust God in all things no matter the outcome.” ~ Emma Fenwick
For Emma, the journey has created a profound sense that life must be cherished every single second of every day you’re blessed with. “I’ve learned to be grateful for the hard times,” she said, “because without them the good times wouldn’t be as good. I’ve learned more about myself, about who I am. And I’ve learned that the way you think can not only change yourself, but also those around you. If you’re positive it affects others in a positive way. But most of all I’ve learned that worrying is pointless because you aren’t in control. I’ve learned to trust God in all things no matter the outcome.”
As for myself, witnessing my daughter’s journey changed my life in ways I never imagined. I prayed harder than I ever had before. I grasped each moment and held on knowing that I would never be the same. My life was boiled down to the most basic things, my child, her needs, her fight, her triumphs. I sat on the sidelines and witnessed the sheer grace and strength of the beautiful child God had entrusted me with since the moment of her birth. I realized early on that I had to give her over to Him, knowing that whatever happened, that His will, His plan and purpose for her was in play. That’s not to say I didn’t have moments of doubt, moments where I broke down, moments where I struggled. But every time I witnessed Emma rise up and face each challenge with grace and strength that surpasses anything I had ever imagined, I was reminded to be grateful and to cherish each miracle.
“In that moment when the doctors told us Emma was cancer free, that was the moment my heart overflowed with gratitude. It was also the moment I think I finally breathed again.”
It was in those moments that I realized that though I would’ve gladly taken this burden from her, that God had chosen her to go through this for a reason. That He provided her with abundant strength and a grace and wisdom beyond her years. That no matter the outcome, every moment in her presence was a gift. In that moment when the doctors told us Emma was cancer free, that was the moment my heart overflowed with gratitude. It was also the moment I think I finally breathed again.
A few months after returning home, I wrote this poem in honor of Emma. It was through witnessing her journey and her faith that I realized the power found in surrender. Since that day, I have placed my life completely in God’s hands. And as He did in seeing my daughter through her battle, He has seen me through so many of my own. More important than that, He has never let me down.
They said you have cancer
But you didn’t cry
Inside I was dying
“No,” I denied.
You took it all in
Calming your fears
I sat there in silence
Fighting back tears.
You bravely surrendered
Your faith led your heart
For me? I was shaken
Slowly falling apart.
I wanted to take it
This path you would walk
Spare you this pain
That wasn’t your fault.
You squared your slight shoulders
Your life in God’s hands
Committing your spirit
Until journey’s end.
You taught me surrender
How could I do less?
As you bravely withstood
This deep, daunting test.
I fell to my knees
And prayed for your care
That God walk beside you
This burden He’d spare.
Yet each day I watched you
Go forth in His light
Realizing He’d equipped you
With the strength for this fight.
In weak times and strength
You faced every day
Allowing His presence
To lighten your way.
It was then I surrendered you
My most precious child
To the highest of powers
My hurt heart could find.
Never once did you waver
I drew on your strength
As you climbed this great mountain
And walked its full length.
They said you have cancer
Yet you never cried
You knew God was with you
That He stayed by your side.
~ Jennifer Nelson Fenwick (© 2018)