Last year, as I finished writing my first book and awaited the birth of my second child, I went in for a routine sonogram and learned that the baby I was carrying had a tumor the size of an egg inside her tiny chest. My doctor gave me an hour to drive home, pack a bag, and return to the hospital for an emergency Cesarean section. At 9:50 that morning, my daughter was born with what my husband and I would soon learn was neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of children’s cancer. We had already chosen a name for her, but when we saw her perfect little face, and began to understand exactly what she was up against, we decided instead on Petra, which, in its Greek origins, means rock. We knew that she would need strength enough to sustain not only herself, but also both of us.
I believe that, although life is not fair, it is worth fighting for. The day Petra was born, I understood for the first time the power of sheer determination, the fierce will to triumph over any adversity. While my husband and mother-in-law followed Petra to a children’s hospital, and my parents stayed home with our older daughter, I sat alone in my hospital room, with nothing to turn to but the final proofs of the book that I had spent the past three years writing. It is the story of an extraordinary expedition that Theodore Roosevelt took down an unmapped river in the Amazon—the River of Doubt. Three men died on this journey, and Roosevelt was brought to the brink of suicide. Yet somehow,ragged, starving, and gravely ill, he survived. Having experienced as much grief in his life as great achievement, he had learned that the more difficult the situation, the more essential it is to forge ahead. “Black care,” he wrote, “rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”
Over the past year, I have come to understand this relentless approach to hardship and loss much more through my daughter’s courage and strength than I ever could have understood it simply by studying Roosevelt’s. I now know that, although we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it. When my husband and I were told that our daughter had cancer, we did the only thing we could do. We fought back, and we watched with amazement and boundless gratitude as Petra fought even harder. In little more than a year of life, she has had one operation to remove the tumor from her adrenal gland and another to place a catheter in her chest. She has endured eight rounds of chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and long hospital stays. But, like Roosevelt, she has never, for a moment, given up—or even stopped to rest. She has been too busy learning about life to notice that hers is a little different, and perhaps a little harder. She has learned how to walk, she is beginning to talk, and she has perfected the art of stealing her sister’s toys. Petra has taught us that while life will never be fair, it is always worth the fight.
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