Thursday, November 30, 2017

For the Love of Lollipops

I've been singing this song about childhood cancer for seven years now.  Seven years of, "go gold... fund research... cure the kids... more than four... give, give, give... please, please, please..."  And, let me tell you, it's exhausting.  I am fatigued.  But I am also obligated to honor Ty and to keep his memory alive by maintaining my promise to him (and to myself) that I will never stop fighting for him and the kids like him.  I am his mom, and this is what mom's do.  This is the only way I know how to continue taking care of him.

What simply amazes me is that there are people who have been on this journey with me every step of the way, and who never left my side after all this time.  Many of whom were complete strangers to me before Ty got sick, and who are now my dearest friends.  In fact, our entire Board of Directors at the Ty Louis Campbell Foundation didn't even know me before Ty got sick, and they volunteer tirelessly in his memory.  I am beyond humbled.

One of the most incredible examples of someone who has turned Ty's tragedy into a vehicle for helping others is Riley and her "Blue Lollipop Project."  She was only nine years old at the time she started on this journey of love and lollipops in Ty's memory, and her commitment has never wavered.  When I think about what my priorities were when I was her age, well... let's just say she is far better than I ever was.  Riley recently entered a contest via Facebook, and her essay will only be considered if we can get enough votes to get her into the top 30 at #MyGivingStory.  We have one week to vote, and we can all vote once per day.  Please take a look at what she wrote about her special mission and help me spread the word about the vote.  She really deserves to be recognized.  I love Riley so much.  I love you all.  Thank you for loving Ty and his blue smiles :)

- Riley

Ty loved blue lollipops...

Ty Louis Campbell, a boy I never got to meet, has changed my life.  Ty passed away from an aggressive pediatric brain cancer in 2012 when he was only five years old.  I was only nine years old when I was introduced to Ty’s story, but it immediately grabbed my attention.  Pediatric cancer is severely underfunded and due to this, under-researched.  I find it so unfair that innocent children are being robbed of their childhoods and that the options to save their lives are ones that are harsh, outdated and usually meant for adults.  

I knew that I wanted to do something to help fund pediatric cancer rlesearch while also honoring Ty in the process and that’s how The Blue Lollipop Project was born...

Did I mention Ty LOVED blue lollipops?  Why?  Because to a child they are magical.  It isn’t their delicious taste that holds the magic, but the way that it turns your smile blue.  Your tongue, lips and teeth all turn blue when eating a blue lollipop and that’s where the magic resides.  In honor of TY, I created The Blue Lollipop Project.  For every dollar donated to The Blue Lollipop Project, a blue lollipop is sent to a pediatric cancer warrior and all of the money funds pediatric cancer research through the TLC Foundation (the organization founded by Ty’s family in honor of Ty).  One hundred percent of the money that the TLC Foundation raises goes toward pediatric cancer research.  Through the support they have given me, I have partnered with hospitals throughout the United States, raised thousands of dollars for pediatric cancer research and donated thousands of blue lollipops through The BLue Lollipop Project.   

I continue to work closely with the TLC Foundation to bring blue smiles to kids throughout the country and to best support pediatric cancer research.  I hope to continue my project and support the TLC Foundation for many years to come in order to spread the magic of blue lollipops.  It is so amazing how something so simple can be so uniting and powerful. 

Riley.  You are my second favorite super hero of all time:
1 - SuperTy
2 - SuperRiley :)

How I wish you got to meet him.  He would have hugged you and loved you and laughed out loud at your blue lollipops.  I wish you could have shared a blue smile with our very special boy.  He will always, always be in your heart and watching out for you.  There is a palpable connection between you both, and I find such comfort in that.  I hope you do, too.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

1841 DAYS

In 1,841 days, Ty Louis Campbell lived a remarkable life.  His life was filled with such great love, and this love transcends time.  It is still just as strong and palpable today as it was before he died, and I can feel him in my heart when he is near.  I never sense that his spirit is above me, or beside me… rather, he is always just behind my right shoulder, like where he sat in the backseat of my car.  Just close enough that he is a whisper in the ear and a warm breath on my shoulder.  

I watched my baby boy suffer for almost half of those 1,841 days.  Seeing him under certain circumstances in the hospital were as difficult to watch as if my child was strapped to a chair being tortured.  I helplessly witnessed his excruciating pain, and when the treatment failed to save his life, I was left to live the years that followed plagued with guilt for allowing it all.   

Today is a hard, hard day.  My loving son, the boy who made me a mother, was in my life for exactly 1,841 days.  And today, I have lived without him for 1,841 days.  Tomorrow will be day 1,842, because for some reason, my heart continues to beat although he took a huge piece of it with him.  I will open my eyes tomorrow morning and it will be the day that he has been gone for longer than he was here.  I accept this truth because I can’t change it, but I will never understand it.  

I often read about grief and coping, and somewhere I read one mom reflecting on the act of begging “let it be me, instead.”  She claimed that her wishes came true because her child died and was no longer suffering, but she was left with a pain so great that she will never recover.  It rang true for me.  

When Ty was sick, I used to pray for physical torture.  Do anything and everything to me so my son could be saved… because no pain could be greater than watching him hurt.  I didn’t know yet, that the grief would be even worse.  

However sad and heavy this day is, I can’t allow our love story to be dark.  Where there is love there is light and these 1,841 days without him have had many glimpses of that.  Just as our time with him had it’s share of pain and trauma, our time without him has been sprinkled with good fortune.

My relationship with Lou has been tested so much over these past five years, that we learned just how inseparable we are.  He is my other half, and I am his.  Gavin has grown into a remarkable boy who keeps us laughing and I can’t hug him enough.  Bodhi Ty was born on October 18, 2016, and his smile makes everything feel better.  Our friends and family take such good care of us, which reminds us that we are still blessed.  The nonprofit we founded in Ty’s memory continues to thrive, and the office is regularly filled with ladybugs (as is our house - by the hundreds at times).  His spirit remains so connected with mine, and the love we share will never diminish.  

In 1,841 days, I was transformed.  I never loved so deeply.  I never saw so much pain.  I never knew a child with cancer.  I never saw anyone die.  I never imagined it would happen to my son, or to me, until it did.  I never had such faith in God and so little religion, and I make a conscious effort to be a gracious griever because of that.  I don’t pray for anything anymore.  None of my most desperate prayers have ever been answered and I have to resist the urge to question.  So, instead, I’ve relinquished to God’s will over the years, and started making a habit of being grateful.  No matter how difficult a day I might have, I remember what I am thankful for and say a prayer or thanks.  Upon closing my eyes each night, the first thing I express gratitude for is the 1,841 days that I was lucky enough to hold my boy in my arms.  

Thank you for being on this journey with us.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Changing of the Signs

The annual Muddy Puddles “Mess Fest” wasn’t created just because Ty wanted to jump in a muddy puddle. It’s also because Liam never had the chance to ride a zip line. It’s because when Brynlee had low immunity, she couldn’t go near anything “messy” and fun. It’s because when Riley was in the hospital he passed the time making goop, and because Jared would love to try the climbing wall but his treatment left him too weak. 

Every activity hosted at the Mess Fest is planned and executed with the children in mind. We dedicate each one in honor… or in memory… of a child that has been impacted by a cancer diagnosis. We do this because it is most important that everyone attending the event remembers how this event came to fruition, and the underlying reason why they are there.  We make a sign for each child that includes a photo, age, type of cancer, and whether or not the child is a survivor, a fighter, or a forever child (for example, Ty passed away when he was five, so he is listed as “Forever 5.”).

The TLC Board of Directors and the close-knit team of Mess Fest volunteers have all gotten to know the different children, even if just from having the hard-earned responsibility of handling the signs. We talk about them around the office when we hear updates on any one of our “kids,” and each and every sign is handled with our utmost loving care. The signs can get messy at the event, with mud splatters, food from the food fight, finger paint splashes, etc… and when we wipe them down we run a washcloth over the faces of these children as if they are our own kids needing a gentle but proper cleaning.

Each year, we also have to inventory the signs and make updates. On one hand, we marvel at how much the kids have grown. For example, Dylan was 8 when we made his original sign. He has since had 3 more surgeries to remove new tumor growth and address infectious complications, yet he recently won the roller hockey championship in his league on Long Island and we will update his sign to read “12 years old” for next year’s event (he celebrated his 11th birthday at Mess Fest this year). He amazes us.

 On the other hand, some of the signs need to be updated to “forever’ signs, and those are the signs that break us. This year I had to make new signs for Brooke, Leslie, Ava, Trucker and more. I have to go into the file on my desk, delete the existing words and write “forever.” When the new signs arrive, I have to find the nerve to dispose of the previous signs without breaking down (which, is easier said than done). This year I struggled and cried when I came across Tessa’s sign just days before the event and realized her forever sign wouldn’t arrive in time. Questions like “Do I leave her sign down this year, cover the status, or leave it as is?” swam in my mind with tears forming in my eyes. I decided I simply couldn’t leave her out, but when I tried to cover up the word “fighter” I felt nauseated. So, I decided her beautiful sign would be proudly displayed as-is, and I would have an updated version for next year.

Three years ago, there were two little girls in treatment for brain tumors and I followed their stories on social media religiously. Ellie and Kai. They were close in age to when my own son was diagnosed, and I relived every happy (and horrific) experience as they walked down a path I am all-too-familiar with. I admired how their moms were so active in their care, and progressive about treatment options. I hoped with all the hope in my heart that they would both thrive against cancer, and I couldn’t wait to dedicate an activity at Mess Fest in their honor.

I got photos from their moms, and we agreed that it would be sweet to dedicate the same area to both girls because they knew one another from the hospital. I decided it would be absolutely adorable to envision them both in the mud kitchen, side-by-side making mud pies. And that is where their signs have been displayed ever since.

This year, both Ellie and Kai were changed to “forever” signs.

I beg of you, as parents, to remember the signs. Remember that there are so many children in treatment who can’t have the childhood they deserve. Let your kids get wild and messy sometimes, and take a step back to enjoy the moment yourself. Donate, because we can’t stop fighting for these kids until there is a cure. Share this blog and ask others to donate, too. How my heart explodes to see Gretchen and Addie playing in the mud kitchen in memory of Kai and Ellie.

Back-to-school is here and life is crazy… but I hope you will remind yourself that moments like this are what’s most important. September is childhood chancer awareness month. We hope you will read, share, care and be aware. Donate today! #curechildhoodcancer #childhoodcancerawarenessmonth #muddypuddles #cancerisnotachildhood

Thursday, August 31, 2017

September is Exhausting

I wrote my first blog about childhood cancer awareness month in 2011. My son was diagnosed with brain cancer in August of 2010, but it wasn’t until after I saw them taking down some of the “awareness” signs from the playroom at Memorial Sloan Kettering that I learned about September. I didn’t know that gold ribbons were for childhood cancer. I didn’t know that September was “our” awareness month, and I was thrilled and humbled when President Obama signed a proclamation making it official in 2012.

I always thought gold was such a perfect color to represent youth, but the dual meaning of “nothing gold can stay” from the Robert Frost poem haunted me immediately. The beauty and newness of “gold” is usurped by unstoppable aging, and there is an underling message of natural progression and eventual death that was my worst nightmare. I understood that “nothing gold can stay” but wondered about just how numbered our days/his days might be.

So, September 2012 was the first “official” childhood cancer awareness month. It was also the month we took my son home on hospice care. In September 2012 I saw my son live out the rest of his days on my couch in the family room, adorned with more comfy blankies and surrounded by more toys than a child could dream of. But his real dream would never be realized. His dream of jumping in muddy puddles, his dream of being cured, his dream of feeling “bedda.” Instead, with every passing day he felt worse. With every passing day, hour, minute, I lived knowing that it was one less day, hour, minute I would have with him. He was dying. He was four years old, and I was holding onto hope that maybe he would get through September to turn five on October 4th.

I made the very unreasonable decision that I was going to throw him a carnival party. I bought so much crap from Oriental trading company and had a vision of blocking off my entire street to have kids flood it like a block party - complete with men on stilts and elaborate inflatables. There was a movie called “My Life” where actor Michael Keating was dying of cancer, and his wife (Nicole Kidman) throws him a similar birthday party in his backyard. It’s such an emotional scene from the movie, and I couldn’t help but reflect on it as I planned for Ty’s carnival. The whole time, I guess I knew it was never gonna happen. I just didn’t want to believe it. Instead we buried him with a stack of carnival tickets in his hands, given to us by our friend Rachel.

I planned to write something very different. Something more about the awareness and the ACTION that we need to take against childhood cancer. But I started typing and my mind went elsewhere. The truth is… there are thousands of blogs, social media posts and essays written by parents like me who want to raise awareness for childhood cancer – and they all sound exactly like the posts that I’ve written in 2011, and 2013, and 2014, and 2015 and 2016 and so on. It’s exhausting! If you want to read my favorite one about childhood cancer, please visit my post from last year. It was most informative.

And if you want to DO SOMETHING, read about our TLC September initiative where all fundraising efforts in September will ensure that 100% of donated dollars support the TLC for Families program and are paid out to families in Houston who are displaced by Hurricane Harvey and who also have a child in treatment.

So, I guess my “awareness” post today is just to make everyone “aware” that it still hurts. That it will never ever be okay. That grief doesn’t go away and time doesn’t heal. Insert great quote here about waves and scars and blah blah blah. I’ve read and agree with them all.

I will never recover from losing my son. The intensity of my grief is forever commensurate with my boundless love for him. I hope that the intensity of my anger, on the other hand, will subside when the research teams, regulators, biotechs and pharmaceuticals stop dragging their feet and make new treatments available to more children FASTER. My son died because there wasn’t an effective treatment available to cure him, and I know with complete confidence that there could have been. All of this incredible science…. these amazing discoveries.. the truly brilliant minds that take my breath away… but where is the progress? If all of it was taking place twice as fast, with twice as many people focused on it instead of parents selling lemonade and riding bikes across the country to raise money for research, maybe it would have happened fast enough to save my son. (Important note: if you believe the cure exists and the government is hiding it from us, or if you think cannabis alone, Jesus, seaweed in a bottle or herbs could have saved him - you don’t understand the kind of cancer we were dealing with, the genomics, the rate of progression, etc. and I beg you to keep your thoughts to yourself).

I can’t wait until all of these “Fuck Cancer” cries are heard with the implementation of real, curative treatment protocols that truly fuck cancer up in every direction. I can’t wait until September rolls around and I don’t have to contemplate writing a blog about “knowing the facts” and “taking action against childhood cancer.” Like I said, I am exhausted. I talk about cancer all day every day, I fall in love with more and more kids on a daily basis, and I continue to hear bad news every week. I want to be bored in September. I want to focus on foliage and falling leaves and geek out on the apple picking and corn mazes around the corner. I want to shop for impractical fall jackets that are worn once per season, not gold ribbons and gold shoelaces and t-shirts adorned with my son's face on it to get the message across.

I am sitting in the doctor’s office as I write this blog, and the song “You’ll be in my heart,” is playing. That was Mely's song for Ty and I can’t stop the tears from flowing like a river. Everyone is so politely pretending not to notice, but it’s so obvious. Mely got married over the weekend. She sent me this photo of her bouquet - with the locket we gave her just before she left us in 2013. Forever our family. She kissed Ty’s face a thousand times after he died and we cremated him with her tears soaked into his skin. She is the most giving, loving person I know, and I hope she has an incredible life filled with love and happiness. My Mely deserves nothing but the best. Ty will be watching over her for an eternity.

Thank you for still caring and reading and sharing Ty’s story. Even when my writing is so filled with sadness, I am grateful for your listening ears and kind hearts.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Emotional Hangover

For the fifth year in a row, thousands of people gathered to pay tribute to all kids who have been impacted by a childhood cancer diagnosis and to celebrate childhood in their honor at the Mess Fest.  The event was outstanding.  We had more people than ever (which is hard to imagine knowing that 2,000+ people have come year-over-year), we added lots of fun new activities, Peppa Pig was everywhere, the media coverage was what dreams are made of, and there were so many VIP families that touched my heart and made it that much more special.  The day before the Mess Fest, I felt Ty’s presence and it was SO STRONG that I was immediately at ease.  I can’t explain it, but somehow he communicated to me that it was going to be amazing, and I was 100% confident in that notion, enabling me to thoroughly enjoy that magical day.

An event of this magnitude takes months upon months of planning, and an army of dedicated Board members and volunteers who work so incredibly hard to pull it off.  My gratitude for them brings tears to my eyes.  

The most amazing part of the day was seeing the VIP kids who we honor at various activities, and knowing how far they’ve come!  This is what it’s all about!!!  Right here.  The Mess Fest is for Dylan, and Brynlee, and Chloe and 100+ more honored children represented by these signs.

But for all of the incredible triumphs, and the families of children who are thriving against cancer, there are families like us, whose children are on the "forever" signs.   It was McKenna’s birthday and I thought of her often throughout the day.  For as light and fun and happy I was, I felt equally heavy each time I took a moment to remember the children I know and love on the forever signs.  McKenna's beauty stops me in my tracks, and David is just the coolest kid I never got to meet.  I could go on and on.  Whenever we go through the signs at the TLC Foundation, I am always so touched how everyone treats their photos as if it was one of our own, and we often stroke our hands across their faces as we read their names aloud.  

After such a tremendous high from a successful event that required so much planning, I’ve suffered a severe “emotional hangover” all week.  And I can’t stop myself from getting totally hung up on all of the anniversaries coming up.  Like today, for example. 

Exactly seven years ago I called the pediatrician in the middle of the night to request a call-back.  The on-call physician and I spoke calmly about how poor Ty was whining all night, and couldn’t tell us what was wrong.  Yes, it’s happened before.  We were scheduled for a sleep study in a couple of weeks to test for night terrors or physical discomforts, but I couldn’t wait any longer.  This seemed like more than tired whining.  It seemed like he was in pain.

We agreed it would be best to take him to the hospital.  Someone came over to watch Gavin at sunrise (my mom, most likely) and we drove to Cohen’s children’s hospital.  He was wearing black shorts, reef sandals, and a yellow “NYC Triathlon” t-shirt because Lou had recently completed the race.  I came across that t-shirt recently and chuckled because Bodhi could easily fit into it… Ty was 2 years and 10 months old with a head full of golden curls at the time (Bodhi is not yet 10 months). 

Ty was happy when we arrived at the hospital.  With the exception of tired eyes, he was so sweet and thought the waiting room was very exciting.  The blood pressure machine was a hoot!  The scale… loads of fun!   The adjustable bed?  Forget about it.  The finger prick… not so much.  The nurses adored him.  No one showed even an ounce of concern that he was a child who was sick, because there was none.  He was jumping, laughing, they were as baffled as we were and seemed confused about why we were there.

I appreciate that the pediatrician, however, agreed that his sleeping behavior was odd enough to call for a scan.  She was kind, she was sure it was nothing, but ordered the MRI just to be sure and to help us get to the bottom of it.  I was grateful for her validation.

And from that day forward, August 11, 2010, my baby boy suffered.  And that’s just the cold hard truth.  The suffering began with the very first blood draws/IV lines and it never ended for the rest of his life.  Just like that.  Literally, overnight.  Life as we all knew it was forever changed.

I try to be positive and I often claim that I am a better person because of what we’ve been through, and I do believe that to be true.  I lived in a bubble before cancer – the same one I see a lot of moms living in.  It’s a fine, often happy, neurotic little bubble, but a bubble nonetheless where silly little things have a big impact and criticisms run high – of oneself and of others. 

Starting August 11, 2010, mine popped.  My eyes were opened and I can’t unsee the things… I can’t unfeel the feels.  I experienced a love so deep, and a fire in my heart so fierce, I became a lioness – followed by a loss so grave that I can never feel unbridled happiness ever again (until the day my spirit binds with his again). 

Today I like to think that I am more loving, empathetic, compassionate, and grateful for my blessings.  I live with clarity and perspective.  I try to remember and be grateful for the time I had with him at all.  How lucky was I?  He was mine!!!  That still amazes me. 

It all sounds so positive and admirable, I know, but most of the time I call bullshit on myself.  Because I know that I would still be all of those things, a better person, blah, blah, blah, if he survived.  But I would also be happier because I would have him by my side.   I want the stupid bubble back.  Seven years and I don’t even know who I am when I look in the mirror. 

'It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.' - John Steinbeck

Friday, June 23, 2017

Where's My Baby?

On my way to work today, I stopped at the supermarket to drop off recyclables.  When I stepped out of the car, I had that inexplicable “mom” feeling to double check the backseat for Bodhi.  That, “where’s my baby” feeling that shakes you up for just a split second until you recall he’s safe at home.

After Ty died, it happened to me all the time, but I never had that comforting relief of remembering he’s safe at home.  Instead it would be followed by the immediate sensation of my heart dropping into my stomach, a brick weighing down on my chest, and a knot in my throat because the opposite was true.  In that instant I was sucked back to reality and reminded that he’s gone forever.

Slowly the instinct faded away.  I rarely look for him in my backseat anymore, and although it is a very natural progression, it still comes coupled with guilt.  I don’t want to feel any distance between us.  We are approaching an anniversary where he’s been gone longer than he’s been with us, and that is just too impossible to imagine.  I remain in shock over losing him, and I will feel this way for the rest of my life.  I simply can’t believe or accept all that has happened to him and to our family. 

Ty and I used to spend every day in the car together.  Driving to NYC for clinic, driving to treatments in Westchester, to “school” and Physical Therapy at Blythedale.  I would reach back while driving and hold his foot all the time, glancing back whenever possible to catch a peek at him seated diagonally behind me. 

When I continued on my way to the office this morning, driving what used to be our usual route on 22 South, I started playing “I Spy” out loud.  “I spy, with my little eye, something…. Green!”  I gave clues to the empty backseat, “it’s not up high in the trees… it’s down low on the ground…” and I tried to recall the sound of his weak little voice saying “gwass!”  After the next challenge, “I spy with my little eye, something… white!” I immediately felt pathetic and desperate.  These intense feelings come on so strong and out of nowhere, sometimes.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t out of nowhere.  It was Gavin’s last day of second grade today.  I thumbed through his elementary school yearbook and identified all the kids I remember from Ty’s preschool and I’m in awe of how much they’ve grown – many of whom are moving up to Middle School next year!   Social media has been filled with graduation photos, and first/last day comparisons.  Friends are making signs and going to the school to pick up their kids in celebration.  But I just can’t find the energy to pretend today.  I wanted to take Gavin to Splash Down or something special, but I think I’ll simply leave work a little early, snuggle him, and just survive today, instead.  

It looks like rain is in the forecast for the next couple of days here in New York.  When you see a muddy puddle… please… you know what to do.  Just do it.  Jump in.  You’re never too old.  Let’s celebrate our kids, and rejoice in our children who are growing up, graduating, living life and loving it!  XOXOXOX.  I’m so proud of them all.

Bodhi and Gavin watching TV together - my heart is exploding!