Force of Will

I am fascinated by biographies of famous leaders and public figures. I have little interest in the tawdry details of their sex lives. What I’ve always found interesting is how significant events in their early lives shape the nuances and strengths of their adult careers. Thus Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood asthma led to his robust interest in physical fitness. His doctor-prescribed retreats west fueled his later passion for the American frontier (he was sent to Arizona to dry out his lungs). Both shaped his presidency. One influenced his heroic efforts in the Spanish American War, the other gave birth to the national park system.

It is through this “life lens” that I often reflect on my own children. How will Jordan’s journey with cancer shape the woman she will become? How will it affect Luc? Sometimes I believe the answers to both questions permeate our daily family life.

Jordan’s trajectory is unrestrained. Cancer is forging a dominating presence within the shell of an effusive, charismatic, eccentric personality. She plays at lady-like fragility, but there is little trace of weakness. The seaworthiness of modern ships is a function of the quality of the welds that hold the steel together. Jordan’s mental welds are impregnable.

I had come home from a long day at work, spent and ready for a drink. I had not even set down my keys when Jordan sprung from the hallway into our living room calling my name. She hung from my waist by her arms and began a litany of recollections from the day’s activity. She wanted to snuggle and read a book together. I begged for down time and turned toward the kitchen. I noted the sound of little feet trailing behind me. She was cheerful as ever, and continued on with her storytelling.

As I sat in my favorite chair, Jordan was already hoisting herself upon my knee. I reminded her that I needed a moment. Her response: she handed me the book we were to read from. The next chapter on our agenda was marked. A solid, unapologetic smile wrapped her face. Her eyes burrowed into my less formidable will power and within moments we were absorbed in our reading together.

That’s Jordan’s way. Jeanette has keenly observed that it is this determination, this unyielding ambition to have her way, that has kept Jordan alive. She insists on getting what she wants – a behavioral trait that tests our patience and sometimes makes for parenting challenges. But it is this quality of her persona that enables her to endure painful procedures, unwanted hospital stays, and the tedious pace of cancer treatment.

Early in her most recent chemo cycle, she experienced slight nausea. Ordinarily, she handles the chemo doses quite well. It’s remarkable that she doesn’t get sicker. But a few weeks ago she did get sick, and the way she dealt with it characterizes her point of view. It was a weekday morning and we were sitting down to breakfast. Pancakes were on the menu – the house favorite, and Jordan’s sinful breakfast pleasure. She’d been in for chemo the day before, but at the start of our morning she was feeling just fine, and eager to cut into her stack of cakes.

A few minutes later she excused herself from the table and headed towards her bedroom. We thought nothing of it. She often “takes breaks” from her food. But a moment later I could hear her vomiting in the bathroom. Jeanette and I rushed over. Throwing up always upsets Jordan. It’s more than the foul taste and the unpleasant feeling. She takes it as a personal failure. She gets mad at her body for betraying her. We comforted her and gave her a dose of anti-nausea medication. Ten minutes later she re-emerged from the bathroom, head high. And she went back to her pancakes. Perhaps her body wasn’t cooperating, but she wanted pancakes, and she was damn well going to have them.

But the proof of her resolve is obvious on a grander scale. Consider this: at this time last year Jordan was admitted to the hospital every week as part of a concentrated physical therapy effort to regain the use of her legs and mitigate nerve damage from chemotherapy. She entered the hospital using a wheelchair. She left on her own two legs, with help from a walker. Today, she has “graduated” from outpatient physical therapy – no more weekly trips. The doctors feel she is making fantastic progress on her own. So much progress, in fact, that Jordan returned to ballet class two weeks ago. And when I arrived home one night last week, she ran to me. She ran – not the hobbled skip we’ve gotten used to, but a full run: body forward, legs in motion, feet in control.

She has weaned off of the most powerful anti-seizure medications, and doing well. She’s completed yet another chemo cycle and stayed healthy. Her blood counts have been strong. And, in a few weeks, she’ll return to school – a new school that offers her so much promise that she talks about it every day.

Which brings me back to the cause and effect relationship: how will all of this shape the woman she is to become? When her health is no longer the issue, will she continue to push on to a new challenge? Will she grow into one of those prescient, patient leaders who somehow accomplish greatness by staying focused within a landscape of miniature distractions? Will she be disappointed by the triviality of so much that we face in “ordinary life?” Will she be too hard, distant to those who flirt with her, or too self-absorbed to allow anyone close? There is no way to tell, of course. But the realm of possibility is a fascinating comfort. How much better to ponder the “what”, than dread the “if”.

Next … a look at her brother, who has also been shaped by Jordan’s Journey.