What I Did on My Summer Vacation, By: Leigh Vandiver

As the adorable ‘back to-school’ pictures of my friend’s and family’s “chillren” scroll through my social media feed, it seems fitting that today is the day we return to regularly scheduled blog programming. Although I valiantly posted up until the middle of June, Coralie and I effectively took a summer break from the blog. Summers are the busiest for Coralie (always) and I certainly had my own things going on.  Although it was liberating to live life with no post deadlines, we both agreed we’d missed it and were glad to resume it.  So, what have I been up to since June? In the spirit of the ‘back to school’ season, I present my post-summer summation report. And in true back-to-school fashion, despite having known about this post for weeks, I struggled with it but still waited until the night before it was due to truly start it.

If you know me, then you know that family is extremely important to me. If you know my family, then you already know why. Somehow I won the cosmic lottery and was born into an incredible family full of many graces, the most love, and so much humor. Like all families, we are flawed and funny. But, if queried, there wouldn’t have been too much more for which I would ask. My heart breaks to hear about people who don’t have the same kind of tight-knit relationship with their family as I do. Everyone deserves that kind of love in their life somewhere. And just as they would do anything for me, when my 22-year-old brother contracted leukemia (at almost exactly this time last year), I dropped everything to do anything I could to help my family navigate through the choppy seas of blood cancer.

I joke that of the two of us, only Josh has lived in LA for over two years. I’ve, technically, only lived here a year and a half. The other half of my year was spent mostly in Atlanta at the Emory University Hospital– for the treatment for blood cancer is extreme and requires several long-term hospitalizations. My brother’s stem cell transplant was scheduled for the 15th of April and I flew in to Georgia on the 7th for a week of quality family time before heading into the hospital. We went up to the mountains of north Georgia and did just that, until it was determined that his doctors had a few more hoops through which he needed to jump.  The transplant was postponed for a month, but I was alas already in Georgia. During that time I celebrated my 35th birthday, attended a wedding reception for two of my dearest friends, and spent any remaining time with my grandmother.

The whole Emory scene (historically) has not been one of my favorites. It will always be associated with illness, heartbreak, and fear. The neighborhood is haunted by memories and the feelings upon being reintroduced to the scene are complex. The long-ago injuries and illnesses (from which almost all are long-since recovered) may be in the past, but emotional trauma resonates forever.

Now, however, I can also associate Emory as a place of hope and recovery; of surprising kindness, and brilliant results. The entire team (doctors, nurses, technicians, PAs, NPs, administrative and parking personnel, and food services) who helped make the experience as wonderful as dealing with a life threatening illness can be… will always have my eternal gratitude. I have all the respect for the people who work at hospitals or other emergency, high-stress professions. There were so many amazing people who went above and beyond. I thank them, in my heart, daily.

But, at the end of the day, those people get to go home. We checked in on May 15th and most of my summer was spent living at Emory Hospital. Hospitals are cold, scary places. There are reasons why no one wants to go there, let alone live there. Of the 66 nights Russell spent in the hospital this latest round of treatment, I was there for 59 of them. For I was one of the few who bothered him the least. When going through chemo/radiation, sometimes that is the best you can do.  It’s funny the life you create when living at the hospital. Passing exhausted, sad caregivers in the halls in the wee hours as they, like you, shuffle like zombies to the communal caregivers bathroom, or to get ice chips for their loved one. The routines you create to combat the utter surreal quality of living in a state of long-term emergency. Laying in the quiet, realizing that the “Code Blue” alert you just heard means that there is more than likely a dead body several floors beneath you. The moments of utter beauty and love, coupled with moments of terror, fear, sadness, and fatigue blur together. The only person who spent more time than me at the hospital during all this was Russell. As thankful as I am for everything everyone did for us, I am also so grateful to not be there right now. I enjoy not sleeping in the room next to the helicopter landing pad, thankyaverymuch!

Along the walkway from the hospital to one of the nearby restaurant areas, there was a bronze bench that had been donated in someone’s honor. Being the astute journalist that I am, I of course got none of that information. But the bench shows a beautiful, wooded scene replete with frolicking unicorns and piping satyrs. On the right, upper corner of the bench the phrase, “Love Is All” is cast. I walked by that bench a million times, and every time it resonated with me. Because love is all. Love is all. Always.

Love Is All Bench Collage

I’ve struggled with this post for weeks. Wanting to do the subject justice but wanting not to dwell on the horrors which are blessedly receding into the distance. I wanted to put a pin in this chapter of my life and turn the page. Russell continues to thrive and is resuming school. But, resuming seems like the wrong word. Although sometimes it may have felt or seemed like my life was on hold, it wasn’t. Maybe my career got put on hold, but my life certainly continued to happen. There are times when family takes precedence over career. Contrary to how it feels in the moment of crisis, time never stops. No matter what happens, the sun will continue to rise each morning. Time and tide wait for no man. People talk now about how we can all resume our lives, but that’s the thing. When did they ever stop? That time was my life; now a part of my story.

Having the privilege to live and experience life in a world so beautiful exacts a heavy cost. But, often the greatest changes come from the greatest turmoil. Everything tastes sweeter when you’ve lived so close with the idea of possibly losing it. These moments that are the most trying are also the most significant. They are times that teach and shape you.

I spent my summer basking in the contrast between extremes. I saw a dogwood tree blooming in the wild, but I also watched as doctors systematically poisoned my brother to try and save his life. My life occupied spaces of terrifying reality, but also of breath-taking beauty, of late night bridge marathons, and the unadulterated love of the Read family in whose home I stayed in Buckhead when I was not at the hospital.

My only regret of the summer is not seeing my sweet Georgia friends more. I caught a few, but not nearly as many as I would have preferred. But, I know they understand. That’s why we’re friends, after all. T’were there only more hours in a day. Hopefully, t’woneday. T’woneday soon.

My sweet Jojo held down the fort for me in Toluca Lake. When I came back to Los Angeles at the end of July, all was just as I had left it. Including the sweet potatoes I had left in the bowl which subsequently sprouted in the intervening three months. As I had left instructions for Josh to water and care for my plants, I just chalked it up to his taking me too seriously.

sweetpotcollage

Also, on a side note, there is a lot of misinformation right now about stem cells. The issue of stem cells is not all about fetuses or Planned Parenthood. It is an incendiary subject which I care not to debate, but I watched this summer as stem cells saved lives. Stem cells from registry donations and from umbilical cord blood. There is a little girl in Germany, right now, that shares DNA with my brother. Because of her mother’s donation, my brother got a new immune system– one that will hopefully be better equip to not get cancer. Before this year, I imagined a “stem cell transplant” involved splitting your femur open and cramming spongy, bone marrow up in there. The process itself was anticlimactic- it was merely transfused like a unit of blood. But, here is the amazing thing, doctors don’t really know how the body knows where to distribute the stem cells. How they make their way to where they are needed. They just do. Educate yourself to the amazing world in which we now live and join the registry!

What is YOUR summer report? Are you glad to be back in “the grind”? As always, let us know!

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Leigh

Leigh

4 Comments

  1. Thank you Leigh, for being the eyes and ears and voice for all of us, who waited and prayed and looked for signs from the universe that Russell would be ok. Love you!

    • Love YOU! Not spending more time with my aunts was also on my list of regrets from this summer. :\

  2. Just having you in the same state was a blessing, although I do miss you more. Well, this blog is like a short sweet visit! We’re with you even though you’re far away geographically. Love!

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