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Footprints on My Heart
The very first time I sat in this room looking out this window, the grass was green, the sun was shining, and the days were longer. Now a year later, events have run life into a full circle. When I look out the window now, I see everything around me drowning in white. Our first snowfall of the season and it’s still going strong. So much has changed this past year. I’ve had to face things I once thought could never happen to me. I cried many times late at night, and I know there are more tears to come. The hurt and pain weighs down my heart with such a force, there isn’t much strength left to feel anything else.
“Do you want me to bring you back a Dr. Pepper, Shannon?”
I grin before answering him, “Yeah, thanks. How’d you know?”
“I just know you so well.” Anthony says smiling out the door. “Come on Xander, let’s go.”
His smile is infectious and I can’t help, but smile back. The first smile I gave anyone in a long time. I used to smile all the time and people would say I had the most beautiful smile around. I was always happy. I had no complaints in life. I married my college sweetheart and we had two healthy children who were my whole world, but just bbecausethey’re born healthy doesn’t mean they will stay that way. Sometimes kids get sick, but then they feel better within a few days. When my daughter got sick, she didn’t get better. She didn’t get better bbecauseshe was more than just sick. She had a disease and it’s called Leukemia.
Jess has been sick now for fourteen months. Three months ago, she was given only six weeks to live. She has been so lucky to beat the odds so far, but now we’ve landed ourselves back in the hospital, and we’re all thinking this could be it. My baby girl is only seven and a half years old. I’m not ready to lose her. At the same time, it’s not fair for me to hold her back and let her suffer through the pain.
I try to stay strong for her and for myself, but it’s hard. I am constantly praying that we won’t lose her. I wasn’t close to God before, but now I’m talking to him all the time. Before this week the cancer seemed to barely affect her, and now it runs her life. She has lost a lot of weight, her skin is pale and she has bruises everywhere. Her hair is shaved and there are scars along her torso from surgeries in the past. I shudder at the thought of everything she’s been through.
The doctors are saying the same thing every time they stop by. Anthony and I don’t even get up anymore when the doctors enter the room. Each time they step into our room they make apologies and give their sympathy. Maybe it’s bbecausethey feel bad or are trying to figure out what went wrong; I ask myself that question every night.
We were visiting the hospital regularly for Jess's appointments. The chemotherapy was going well and her tests were looking better too. Jess was acting like everything was fine, and I remember her last day before her relapse was the same as any other.
She had got up at 7:30AM and I made pancakes for everyone. Anthony had left for work, and Xander was in the living room playing with his trains. Jess and I hung out in my studio all morning busy with our paintbrushes. I snuck up on her and painted streaks on her face before she turned around and painted me back. Minutes later we both had paint all over our faces and up and down our arms. We just looked at each other and started laughing. When our bellies hurt from laughing so much, we fell into the bean bags in the corner by the window.
After lunch, the kids took afternoon naps and I cleaned up around the house, periodically switching out the laundry. When they got up, Anthony was home from work so we took a walk out to the park. For an hour, the kids were running all over the place until they ended up in the sandbox. After they were finished there, we took them home for a bath and dinner.
We played Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land. We watched Toy Story while eating popcorn and M & M’s. Later the kids brushed their teeth and we tucked them into bed, rreading each one a book. Jess wanted to read My Little Pony and Xander chose Thomas the Train. Nothing was unusual about that day since it had been our new normal for many months.
The next morning should have been no different. Still, what happened that day puzzles me. There was nothing to suggest Jess might get worse or not survive this thing. Even though her chances weren’t good, she was fighting it well. We all thought we would finish this round of chemo and then hopefully take some time off. She was looking better every day and then all of a sudden something went wrong.
I slept in later that day and had missed Anthony leaving for work. Both of the kids were still sleeping and I assumed they were just tired from yesterday. Jess had also been experiencing fatigue lately. I made myself breakfast and got dressed. Xander, being four, woke up soon after me and I fed him breakfast as well. By 9:30AM, Jess was still sleeping and I began to worry. When I checked on her, she looked fine and I left her sleep.
A half hour later, I went to go wake her up, but I didn’t see her right away. I ran into the room and saw that she had rolled onto the floor. When I knelt by her, she had her eyes closed and I checked to make sure she was still breathing. When I had reassured myself she was still alive, I noticed the vomit next to her cheek. I dialed 911 and then called Anthony’s work, leaving a message for him to meet us at the hospital.
I yelled for Xander to come to Mommy, and he darted into the room. When he saw Jess, on the floor, he became very scared. I started doing CPR on Jess from what I had learned during my time as a lifeguard. The ambulance came, I grabbed some things and we jumped in the back with Jess. When we arrived at the hospital, Anthony was there and asking the doctors tons of questions. I ran to him and cried as I watched the doctors wheel Jess away from us.
That was four days ago. I almost lost her and I’ve been a wreck since. The doctors said I saved her life and that I got there just in time. I don’t feel any better after hearing this and I’m barely able to reply. I feel more like sinking into the chair next to her hospital bed.
After she woke up, she wasn’t the same. She hasn’t been recovering as well as we had hoped. We knew she was given only six weeks to live, but after she lived past that we had hoped she would survive after all. But then this happened and we realized the doctors were right; she was going to die soon. They were only off by another six weeks.
“Here you go,” Anthony said, holding the Dr. Pepper out to me.
“Thanks.” I snap open the can and take a sip before asking, “What did you guys have for lunch? You were gone a lot longer than I thought.”
“We went to Wendy’s and I got this toy. I wanted to play with it so bad right away, but Daddy said I had to eat my chicken nuggets first.”
“Wow! Daddy’s so smart. What movie is this guy from, Xander?”
“This is Iron Man. He’s the best one. He’s really cool. And he’s the hero. I don’t like the bad guys.”
“Wow! That’s great. I’m glad you enjoyed lunch.” He ran off to the couch to play with his toy and didn’t look back. “No toy for you?” I asked with light sarcasm, looking up at Anthony.
“No, but I did get to pay the bill.”
I laughed at his comment and glanced over at Xander with a smile on my face. Anthony kissed the top of my head and then walked towards him, sitting on the couch. The two of them began playing with the new toy Xander just got. I picked up my book I had been trying to finish during our recent stay in the hospital, hoping to read. Instead I found myself distracted again.
As Jess takes a nap, I look at her and I see her slowly breathing. I am awed by how big she has grown. I know every mother out there says this, but it’s true. A little more than five years ago she was my baby girl and I could wrap her up in my arms. Since then, she has been the joy of my life.
I’m going to miss the way she used to laugh and then stop when she noticed you looking at her. The way she would squeal and twist and giggle whenever you tried to give her a kiss. Or when she used to be able to eat spaghetti, she would eat it noodle by noodle. She would pinch some of it between her thumb and finger and by the time she made it to her mouth, she had dropped almost all of the spaghetti. After she finished her spaghetti, she would need a bath bbecauseshe would make a huge mess, all over herself and on the floor.
The best thing of all was how proud she was to be a big sister to Xander. She would talk about him with everybody and show him off with the biggest smile across her face. She once told me that her favorite present ever was the day we came home with Xander.
I can’t imagine what life will be like without her. The house will feel emptier and I will miss seeing her little face smiling every morning. I know we will still have Xander, but how will he feel about everything? How will we explain to him he can’t see his big sister anymore? Will we want to try again after she is gone? The thought of all these questions is too much to bear, and I realize I have tears sliding down my cheeks. I look up from the book I had been trying to read for the last twenty minutes and notice I’m on the same page I started with.
“Mommy?” Jess whispers.
“Oh honey. When did you wake up?” I say as I try to wipe away my tears before Jess will see.
“Not long ago, but I wanted to watch you for a little bit like you always watch me.”
I grin and blush like I’ve been caught in the act of doing something I know I shouldn't’t have been doing. “I’m sorry sweetie. I’m just worried about you, that’s all.”
“I know. You looked like you were thinking really hard. Almost like you couldn’t remember the word for something and it was bugging you pretty bad.”
Now I flat-out laughed. How she continued to make me do that I’m not sure. She is so innocent to the world and its secrets. I don’t understand why it would want to take her away from it.
”Mommy, can we talk, but just you and me?”
“Of course we can. I'll be right back,” I say as I walk over to the guys. I lay my hand on Anthony's back to get his attention and told him what Jess was asking.
“Hey, little man, how does taking a quick trip with me to the house sound? We need to drop by and pick up a few things. We can also grab your other super heros.”
“Yeah! Let's go.”
Jess and I waved goodbye to the boys, and then we asked for little cups of ice cream before sitting down to chat. “So what’s on your mind?” I asked her casually. I really had no idea and was curious as to what she wanted to talk about.
“When I was sleeping this morning I had a dream, but it was different somehow,” she started by saying.
“How was it different?”
“Soon after I fell asleep, a man visited me in my dream. He said not to worry and that everything is going to be okay. I asked him what he was doing in my dream and he told me we were going on a field trip. So I took his hand and we started walking along the beach. I was getting really tired after a little walking and started to slow down. He asked me if something was wrong and I told him how I was sick and how long I had been at the hospital. I know I'm dying, so I told him that too. The whole time I was telling him about this, he just listened. When I finished, he asked me where I thought I was going after I died. At first I had to think about for a little bit, but then when I looked at him again, I knew.”
“What? Did something happen?” I blurted.
“Shh. I'm not finished yet. You know the story you used to read to us about foot prints in the sand?”
“Yes,” I said and suddenly had an idea of where this was going.
“I looked back at the sand we had walked on and saw two different trails, and then I looked at my feet for a moment. I smiled and looked up at Jesus. I said to him that I knew who he was and why he had come.”
“Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I notice footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there were one set of footprints.”
“We sat down for a break and listened to the sound of the waves. I finally answered his question and told him I knew I was going to heaven. When he asked me how I knew for sure, I explained how you and daddy would teach us about him and say prayers to him at night. I was cold so he wrapped his arms around me and we watched the sun rise above the ocean.”
“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would always walk with me.”
When it was time to go he asked me one last question. He wanted to know if I would be walking with him the rest of the way. I told I was not ready and that I had to say goodbye to you guys first. He agreed that was fine and that he would meet me at the beach tomorrow.”
By now I was crying and shaking bbecauseI knew what this meant.
“Need a Kleenex?” Jess asked.
I nodded and she handed me a bunch. I blew my nose and wiped the tears in my eyes. I brought my eyes to Jess's face and held her hand. I had to look away bbecauseit hurt too much to look into her eyes and know this was really happening.
“Mommy, I'm so tired. We all knew this day would come. I just want to be able to rest. Don't worry about be. I will be fine, and I will save a spot next to me for you and Daddy and Xander.” At last, she whispered again how tired she was.
I gave her lots of hugs and kisses before I stepped out into the hallway and called Anthony on my phone. He was back in less than five minutes with Xander and I finished telling him the story. He went in to see Jess while Xander stayed with me and after he came out we told Xander to go and keep Jess company. Anthony and I watched him as he walked over to her and climbed on the bed next to her with ease. He reached up and gave her a hug. They held each other for a few long seconds before untangling themselves. Then they both laid down with Xander resting his head on Jess's shoulder.
After we saw this, we stood outside her door in the hallway, holding each other and crying. I can’t remember how long we stayed like that, but eventually we went back inside and called the rest of the family to tell them what was happening.
Jess rested while everyone got here, and when they came she woke up to see all of them. As everyone said their goodbyes, there was a lot of crying and hugging. After three hours everyone had left and we were alone again. Jess was resting, and we were on edge since we didn't really know what was going to happen next.
Around nine that night she woke up one last time looking so tired and weak. We woke up Xander who had fallen asleep on the couch to let him say his final goodbyes. I held him in my arms after he got tired again. The three of us were sitting around Jess in her bed and trying not to cry. We told her we loved her and gave her lots of kisses. By nine thirty Jess was barely responding and there were minutes were she was quiet for some time.
At last she motioned for me to lean in, and as I did she whispered this into my ear,
“I love you. I'm just so tired. I'm going to meet Jesus at the beach and he will let me rest by carrying me the rest of the way to heaven.”
“The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.”
Shortly after she said this, she passed away. We all sat on her bed holding each other and crying for another hour.
The next day we packed up our things and took Xander home. The wake and funeral would be in a couple of days and then we will bury Jess next her Grandpa.
When I think of Jess’s footprints in the sand, I think of how she left footprints on our hearts as well. Her love and life will always be a part of us and our memories. She is free to rest for as long as she wishes, and I'm grateful she went peacefully. In time the wounds will heal and we have the comfort that she is in a better place. For now I am strong and I often smile bbecauseI imagine Jess walking in the sand with Jesus, leaving a trail for me to follow.