A melancholy permeated and hung heavy in every inch of our room. It had been just over a month since our 10-year-old daughter Chase Savanna was diagnosed with brain cancer, but sitting there in the small room at the Ronald McDonald House, our life before diagnosis seemed millions of miles away. Chase had spent 21 days in our local hospital recovering from surgery, regaining her speech, and re-learning how to walk and use her hands effectively. As soon as we left the first hospital, we immediately flew half-way across the nation for her to receive treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. This was where we believed she would receive the very best care, so we decided to leave everything we knew behind and do whatever it took to help her get well.
That morning my husband had just left to return home to California to get back to work and take care of our other two children, who had been left in the care of friends and grandparents. Chase and I were incredibly lonesome for them all. She didn’t want to go downstairs and confront all the food smells that often made her nauseous, so we sat on our beds and slowly ate together. Between her tentative bites of food, she mentioned once again how much she was already missing her dad. I smiled woefully then stood to pick up a hat that someone had so kindly sent to Chase.
I set the hat down on the window ledge with her other hats we had collected from so many. They looked so fun and playful all lined up together, but looking at them always made me dread what was just on our horizon. We knew that all the hats and scarves filling the room would soon be put to good use. As I ran my finger over the hat I had just placed by the others, I noticed this particular baseball cap had a tag with a Supergirl symbol on it. I smiled as I read the big bold letters that said, “The Galaxy is my Playground.” I couldn’t help but look out the window at the colorful play equipment right below us. Noticing what a beautiful night that it was, an idea came to me that made me break into a smile. I whirled around and said to Chase, “Grab your shoes–we’re going down to the playground.” Her eyes lit up as she smiled back at me and stood up, excited to do something spontaneous. We headed downstairs and out into the night air. As Chase began to climb on the equipment, I could tell it took a great deal more effort than it would have before her surgery. But this opportunity to get out and test herself physically seemed to make her feel more powerful than she had felt since diagnosis.
Up to this point, the way we had got through this was by pretending that Chase was a “Superhero-in-Training,” that she was here at St. Jude to gain her superpowers that were necessary for her to have so she could defeat the evil cancerous villain, Medullo-BLAST-oma. (She decided that her radiation was helping her gain x-ray vision and when she lost her hair that would be the way she could shape-shift to hide her identity…and every MRI she entered was a time machine sending her on her heroic missions.) As her parents, we looked at this game as a much-needed distraction, a fantasy that helped to entertain and empower her as help her stay a child a little longer while living in a scary adult world.
Seeing her exhilaration as she made her way through the playground flipped a switch for me. I watched in awe at her fierce determination working to overcome all that she was facing, I realized that none of this was a game or a fantasy, it was all true! There was no greater hero than this little girl of mine or any of the children living in the building surrounding the playground. In fact, to me, they were the very BRAVEST of superheroes. In a very real way, each of these children was facing the greatest villains they could ever face. The battles these warriors waged were incredibly difficult and life-threatening. Yet somehow from inside these walls, we still heard laughter and witnessed immense joy. At that moment, it became absolutely clear to me that Chase was superheroic and that belief was giving her the strength she would need to make her way through the incredible battle she was waging. Right then, I no longer wanted her to imagine herself as a “Superhero,” I wanted her to know that she actually was one.
I called her name and asked if she wanted to find out if she had started to gain her powers of flight. When she turned to look at me, I stuck my arms out and braced myself, letting her know she could trust me to catch her. She smiled a huge grin and struck the strong Supergirl pose with one arm at her hip and the other straight up in the air. Then with complete trust, she ran, jumped and flew. She landed on top of both of my steady arms with her legs outstretched, one arm powering through the air.
Chase was already tiny from losing so much weight. She now weighed a mere 54 pounds. It was with amazing ease that I zoomed around the playground, flying her in, out, under and through all the climbing equipment. My adrenaline carried her farther than I possibly thought I could. The world seemed to fade away for both of us. Chase later told me that during those moments, she no longer felt like a cancer patient. Instead, she felt was stronger and braver than she had ever been before and that she really, truly was FLYING.
When I finally set her down, we were both completely winded, and our laughter made it even harder for us to catch our breath. As we sat next to each other, trying to recover, Chase gave me a super tight squeeze and said, “Thanks Mom, that was amazing.” At that moment there was absolutely no doubt in either of us that no matter how terrible this incredible battle was going to get, together we were going to get through this and our Supergirl, Chase was sure to prevail.
Chase has now graduated High School with high honors and college, Magna Cum Laude. She is married to her elementary school sweetheart and is working hard to become an American Sign Language Interpreter. She is also using her communications degree as both an Ambassador and Spokesperson for St. Jude, and to help run our non-profit charity, “Hats and Hair from Kids who Care.” As of last month, Chase Savanna Burch Marmolejo is twelve years cancer-free!