“We could love and not be suckers. We could dream and not be losers. It was such a beautiful time. Everything was possible because we didn’t know anything yet.”
– Hilary Winston
I want to tell you a story.
This may just be for my own benefit, I don’t know. Most of the time I try to write in generalities so a variety of people can relate and possibly see themselves in my writings. And maybe even sometimes take something away from what I’ve said and apply it to their own lives. I hope I make a difference somehow by showing that we’re all alike in the ways that really matter. We all love, we all lose, we all fail, we all succeed…
But this time – this blog – might be a little different. This time, I may just be writing this one for myself. It’s a bit more specific. Because there’s a little something that makes me unique.
When I was a senior in high school, I lived in a foreign country and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
I probably just lost a few readers right there. Who can identify with that? Probably not many of you. We all have unique stories, though, and I think they need to be told too. That’s what makes this world beautiful – a mixture of the varied stories from the vast array of people who inhabit it. Our collective little mess.
So this is my unique story.
This morning I was tagged in a video on Facebook. My old high school in Giessen, Germany has served its purpose and is now being torn down. Someone went there and took a short video of what was left of the building. And what was left of it was the gym.
(Photo credit: Celia Morrissey, Class of 1997)
The gym. Wow.
A flood of memories hit me as the videographer walked through that gym. And I want to tell you why.
My school was a tiny one. I graduated in 1996 with a class of about 21 students. Yep, you read that right. 21. Look at us. Wow.
So, as you can imagine, we were a pretty close-knit group of people. A family. And boy, were we a family of misfits! We had probably just about every example of nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity and race you could imagine. We were military kids. We knew one life – the life of goodbyes and hellos. The life of constant change, constant adaptation, constant acceptance. There was no time for prejudices or cliques or hierarchies that exist in a lot of high schools. For the most part, our parents made very similar salaries, we lived in almost identical housing, and were all trying to make it in a foreign country where our first language was everyone else’s second. We were the same in the ways that mattered to us at the time, and that blinded us to the ways that we were different.
At the beginning of my senior year, I found a lump on my neck. My uncle Jeff (who has since passed away) was very close to his sister, my mom, throughout his bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, so my mom recognized this symptom right away. In a flurry of doctor’s appointments and surgeries, it was concluded that I had cancer. This particular cancer is a blood cancer that affects the immune system. With my immunity weakened, I wasn’t allowed to attend school. So, for a little over four months out of my senior year, I was a no-show. I went through chemo and radiation. I lost my hair. I took my SATs in a secluded room away from everyone else. I missed playing varsity volleyball. I missed homecoming. I missed football games. I missed it all.
But I hardly even knew it.
Because I had so many people keeping me updated. It was like I was there. I had notes sent home to me from my friends (actual pieces of paper – not emails – remember those!?) filling me in on all the happenings at school. I got phone calls every night. I had brief individual visits from friends at home and at the hospital during the times my immunity was up and visitors were allowed. In a way, it was like I didn’t miss a thing.
And let me tell you about the day I was able to return to school.
I was terrified. A lot of people had not seen me yet. They hadn’t seen my wig. Or my puffy, swollen face from the chemo. They hadn’t heard my voice, or lack thereof, from the radiation on my chest and throat. Even though I knew they all loved me, I was still a 17-year-old girl filled with the fear that my appearance would somehow now determine how I was to be treated. Not only was I wrong, of course, but I walked into the front doors of the school to see a huge “Welcome Back, Melissa” banner strung across the front hallway, signed by pretty much everyone in the school. I’ll never forget that moment. Or many of the moments to follow. The support I got from that little family was overwhelming. I remember Ladel Scott hoisting me up and carrying me once when my legs were too weak to carry me up the steps to the second floor. I remember Luster Walker taking one look at my bruised and swollen hands from too many IVs, and saying that they were still the most beautiful hands he’d ever seen (just like he used to say before I was sick). I remember our English teacher, Gay Marek, taking one look at all the weight I had lost and promptly exclaiming, “No fair…you cheated.” 🙂 I remember my sweet boyfriend Nathaniel Angelus (who also had to grow up a little faster than most as he basically went through cancer treatments with me) carrying my books and walking me to classes and checking on me every second to make sure I was strong enough to get through the day…and once checking out and going to the hospital with me when I wasn’t.
I could go on and on. But I won’t. Because I want to get back to the point.
The memory that stands out in my mind, and will always stand out in my mind until the day I leave this Earth, is the last day of my senior year. We had an assembly in the gym (oh, how many assemblies there were in that little gym…) for the end-of-the-year awards. The last award to be given was the annual “senior of the year” award. After battling cancer and still graduating with a 4.0 grade average that year, I was presented this award. As my name was called and I walked to the stage, the entire school rose to its feet and gave me a standing ovation. I can’t even type these words without the tears coming all over again. As that little 17-year-old bald girl looked across all of those smiling supportive faces of her peers, she somehow knew, even then, that this – this – was the stuff life was made of. At that moment, we knew nothing else. We didn’t know anything about bills or jobs or kids or divorce. All we knew was that we loved each other. And we were survivors. Each and every one of us.
I’m an adult now. I’ve lived many places and have seen many people come and go from my life. But I still hold a special, tender place in my heart for all of those people who shared my world in Giessen, Germany in 1996. Ours was a bond that will not be broken. We are Griffins. Our school may disappear, but our legacy continues. Like our mascot, we are part lion and part eagle. Our courage and strength will soar on.
“Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it – memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.”
– Tad Williams