I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport crying.
Wait, let me try that again.
I am sitting in the Atlanta airport typing away on my laptop, sobbing, after sprinting through the B concourse and into the C concourse with a gigantic Moana poster.
Let me explain why I appear to be a hot mess.
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I’m headed home from the 2017 NACA Nationals Convention (National Association for Campus Activities). While it’s one of the highlights of my year, it means nonstop concerts, education sessions, campus activities market place (CAMP), networking, and organized chaos from 8am[ish]-1am[ish]. Note: that’s part of why I’m carrying a 3 foot by 5 foot [ish] Moana movie poster– I’m attempting to bring it home for my students (Shoutout to Meghan from Swank Motion Pictures).
It was the best, but I’m exhausted. I get anywhere from 4-6[ish] hours of sleep a night (seeing a theme?), so my emotions are on edge. So now let me explain why crying seemed to be the best option as I huff and puff in a NACA shirt carrying this Moana poster in the middle of the largest Delta hub.
My sister-in-law has an extremely aggressive type of brain cancer.
A few months ago Stephanie began having really painful headaches. Time passed, they were looked into, doctors said different things, and Stephanie finally discovered she had a grade IV Glioblastoma tumor. She started blogging about her experience, so you can read her post and stay updated on her extremely passionate optimism and faith here.
I first knew something was up when I was visiting Stephanie and Michael (my kick-ass brother and sister-in-law, in case you haven’t realized that) in mid January during a long weekend. It was Friday, January 13 and Stephanie received a phone call. Not thinking anything of it, I continued chasing Sarah, my 2 1/2 year old niece, around the house singing silly songs.
Stephanie came out later with some light tears in her eyes and told me that she went to the doctor for the headaches and he just called back saying it was “venous angioma”– a malformation of veins in her brain. Although concerned that something was off in her brain, Stephanie was more anxious about the fact that Michael was flying and she couldn’t get ahold of him yet than scared about the results. If she wasn’t worried, then I certainly didn’t need to be.
A few weeks later (from this point out a lot of the timeline blurs, to be honest) she found out that those headaches were due to a lesion– a brain tumor. Oh.
Fast forward through a lot of phones calls and communication that I could barely keep up with– before I knew it, my mom, my dad, Michael, Stephanie, and Sarah were all in Gainesville so they could go see the neurologists at Shands Hospital. Of course all this happens during one of the busiest weeks of my semester: my comprehensive exams for my graduate program which was followed by an on-campus interview.
My heart hurt. And my brain didn’t have time to process it all.
I want to make this disclaimer now: I am in no way, shape, or form trying to “take the attention” away from Stephanie. I am not trying to make this situation about me. She is the focus of this all and I in no way want to or will discredit what she is going through. My entire family is squishing Stephanie with love and support and we are surrounded by a tsunami of love from close friends to strangers. I am simply sharing my page of this story, recognizing that each family member is dependent on others. You would never know that Stephanie was an “in law” of the Koslow crew and I won’t treat her like one. She has always been one of us. She has always been my sister. And when she’s hurting, we all hurt. Because we are a family, and that’s just what happens in good times and bad.
Back to the story.
I come from a line of “count your blessings, not your problems” family, and I’m thankful how that mentality still stays with me, especially in situations like this. I was thankful to have my family in town during the crazy week. I was able to go over and play with Sarah, eat some food, go out for ice cream, and spend some very normal time with the people I love and hold so dear to my heart.
When I left for the conference, I didn’t have a lot of answers. They were still waiting on the official results from Stephanie’s biopsy, but they knew it wasn’t good. Everyone was trying to stay hopeful and calm, but we all had the disgusting war of fear just churning around in our stomachs as if we just ate the worst mexican food and our stomach was just attempting to digest the mess (bad analogy, but it seemed appropriate somehow).
The day I arrived at the conference (note, I flew in Friday and out Wednesday) I was in my hotel room unpacking and settling in before grabbing lunch with the others grads before our first pre-conference meeting. I got a call from Michael. I hadn’t heard much from him directly, so I knew this was some sort of update. I hated seeing my brother’s photo pop up on my phone screen and having it ignite a feeling of anxiety rather than a feeling of joy.
It wasn’t just a tumor. It was cancerous.
My sister-in-law has brain cancer. Not just brain cancer, but aggressive brain cancer.
I put down the phone, changed, and walked down to the lobby to meet my new friends for Chipotle.
– – –
That afternoon we were able to participate in Dear World, one of NACA’s sponsors for the National Convention. A little about Dear World:
Dear World is an interactive, award-winning portrait project that unites people through pictures in their distinct message-on-skin style. Their work has been published in over 30 countries and have been featured on the Today Show, CNN, PBS and in the New York Times, Washington Post and Inc. magazine.
We ask people to share a story that only they can tell.
Dear World is part business/art project/social experiment.
We explore stories of hope. Stories of struggle. Stories of a brighter day.
Our next step? We’re working towards a beautiful, wonderful world where more people send a message to family, friends and strangers in this way.
Where people get that we’re connected and that you can build something fast alone, but to build anything great you have to go together.
I’ve wanted to participate in Dear World for a while and was ecstatic that I had the opportunity to finally share my story. The team is absolutely amazing and was helpful as we all brainstormed what to write. They told us to pick a story or person that means a lot to us– someone or something that has influenced us or changed a way we view life. After receiving the news then immediately suppressing it, Stephanie immediately popped into my mind. After all, she is my favorite sister-in-law. (Yes, she is my only sister-in-law, but what’s your point? She still is.)
The staff said it didn’t have to be something deep or philosophical, but to write a line or phrase that was specific to our story but didn’t completely explain it– the whole point is to write something that is intriguing to spark the ability to share your story. It took a little bit of time to realize what I wanted to write. They recommended an inside joke, but I didn’t want to write about wine. They recommended something they always do, but I couldn’t think of a concise way to explain how the weekend they discovered the brain tumor, Sean and I were supposed to visit. Despite the news, Michael and Stephanie still were opening their home for me and Sean. They wouldn’t turn us away. They wouldn’t tell us no. They promised that we could always come by, and they were going to keep that promise. Sean and I ended up changing our plans that weekend and I drove to visit him, which worked well because that’s the weekend Michael and Stephanie ended up traveling to Gainesville. But nonetheless, their selflessness didn’t diminish. I still didn’t know how to write that.
Then someone came up with this idea, and it immediately hit in my heart that this is the message I wanted to share about Stephanie:
It was perfect. A play on “sister-in-law,” it captured my love and relationship with Stephanie while staying light-hearted and loving, just like how Stephanie is handling all of this. I was honored to be able to share how much she means to me, even if in the most subtle of ways.
– – –
Back to the crying in the airport thing. Remember?
I found out towards the end of the conference that Michael and Stephanie were headed to Oklahoma (I think to talk to more neurologists? That question mark demonstrates how out of the loop I was at the conference on what was happening back home). I was on the plane Wednesday morning talking to my mom, who was at the airport with Sarah looking through the glass to Michael and Stephanie (Ya know, because the Gainesville airport is only 3 gates and separated by a glass wall so it’s easy to creep). I discovered they were flying to Atlanta too. I was extremely ecstatic until I realized they began boarding a half hour before I even landed. Dang.
As luck would have it– we landed early. I immediately texted Stephanie and let her know and found out what gate they were at. The boarding process was just beginning, but if I hurried and they waited until final boarding, I may be able to catch them long enough for a hug.
And that’s exactly what we did.
As soon as our flight landed, I jumped up and began weaseling my way through the groans and yawns of passengers slowly standing up. Although I wanted to yell “Excuse me, I need to rush to a different terminal so I can see my sister in law with brain cancer and brother as they are boarding a flight to Oklahoma right now” I instead whispered “Excuse me” and stared at my phone. I picked up my poster from the coat closet, and began the most hot-mess express of an epic sprint through the airport. I came into Gate D1 and was headed to Gate C41. Think: Rocky mixed with Forrest Gump. I was a running hot mess, carrying this MASSIVE DISNEY POSTER. It was quite the sight to see.
I made it.
It was the best 3 minutes.
I hugged them both as I panted and gasped for air. I explained the Moana poster. I told them I loved them both so much and hugged them again. My throat was burning as I saw some tears slowly build up in Stephanie. We even snagged a selfie real quick:
They are headed to Oklahoma but waited and waited at the gate. They waited for me to show up. They waited to board their flight last, so that I could see them and hug them. They’re the best.
We did a final round of hugs and goodbyes, and just like that they walked onto the bridge and were out of sight.
That’s when the tears started rolling.
How lucky am I to have some people that care about me so much. They could have easily boarded the plane at normal time, but instead they waited for me. They talked with me the whole run there to make sure the timing was going to work. And I’m so thankful it did.
As I walked towards my gate (which was either conveniently or ironically just two gates down), I called my mom. Because of comps and job search and conferences and everything, I hadn’t had a lot of time to process what was happening. All I knew was that my heart hurt, I am so bitter that this has to happen to them, but am in such awe with the way that they are handling the situation and fighting with faith, hope, and love.
– – –
Sister in love. Stephanie is so much more than a sister-in-law. She has been such a rock and pure piece of joy in my life. I know I can always count on her for anything. Sister-in-law is a really unique relationship, because you have the intimate relationship like a sister but have someone to balance you like a best friend. Plus, we all waited for the girl that Michael would fall head over heels in love with– but we never expected her to fit into our family so well.
– – –
I made it home, tearless but with my poster board. It’s been an exhausting week. Heck, it’s been an exhausting few weeks. It’s hard to focus on myself and the job search when I just want to be with my family all the time, but I know that I also serve as a point of joy and happiness during these struggles. I know that one thing I can do to help is love hard and work harder. Love my family harder. Love Sarah harder. But work harder– keep my own sense of normalcy as best I can. To not feel guilty when I want to text Stephanie about random or goofy things in my life. If Stephanie can be fighting off brain cancer on the inside but loving life on the outside, then I have no reason to not do the same thing. So Stephanie, thank you for continuing to serve as faith, hope, and love. You continue to inspire me, and I continue to look up to you. I love you so much. Now go kick cancer’s ass, my favorite Sister In Love.
quote of the day (dedicated to Stephanie): “Three things will last forever–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13