I’M EIGHT, and standing by my bed is an actual grownup in iguana-themed pajamas: Aunt Jane.
“Wakey-wakey, ‘Lil Wingman!’” my weekend guardian commands. “What’re we doing today?”
“Ummmm…pajamas, TV and Häagen-Dazs all day long…and NO TELLING Mom!»
“You’re on, kid.”
We spend the next 48 hours sugar-high and stoked on back-to-back “Star Wars” flicks.
Jane’s officially the Pied Piper of my childhood.
TEN. It’s my birthday, and Jane brings a record–old to her, new to me.
She and my dad start singing, dancing, playing air guitar, pulling me in. The music swells like an ocean, its hypnotic waves–love, loss, freedom–all new to me.
And time feels…infinite.
“Wait’ll you see Springsteen!” exults Jane (a Jersey girl). But I already know: I’m Born to Run.
THIRTEEN. My Bar Mitzvah is eclipsed by shocking news: Jane has pancreatic cancer. I can’t even fathom what I’m Googling: a 7% survival rate??
Jane starts chemo; I start high school. Immersed in chemistry, biology, statistics, I find no antidote to fear. I do find PanCan (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network). Inspired by its motto—“Wage Hope!”—I launch a website that’ll tell Jane’s story while raising funds and awareness, team-jane.com. A bashful kid, I’m starting to…Run. Because maybe time’s not infinite after all.
FOURTEEN. Team Jane flourishes online and off as I coordinate supporters for a 5K. Jane walks nervously alongside me, wearing a brilliant smile. We raise $3K, far exceeding our goal. Afterwards I phone her, bursting with plans for our next event. She’s weirdly subdued. “Wingman,” she confides, “it was the worst day of my life.” First I’m stunned, wounded. Then I realize I’ve been given a trust. My Pied Piper’s yanked me past childhood and into the abyss where only she and her tumor live.
“Heyyy…c’mon,” I stammer, helpless for words of my own, “y-y-know what Bruce says, ‘No retreat/no-ohhh sur-ren-derrr…’”
“Of course!” she responds, playful again. “And we’re a team now, thanks to…my captain!”
Her new nickname for me–“The Captain”–fuels my shaky-but-growing belief in myself.
SIXTEEN. Brooklyn, Delaware, Chicago–at PanCan Walks nationwide, Dad and I represent Team Jane. Jane, despite cancer’s spread, keeps fighting. I keep coordinating, blogging, fundraising. I’ve raised nearly $150K, and with it, my confidence.
I summer-intern at PanCan. It’s intimidating–lobbying on Capitol Hill, being interviewed on TV, addressing hundreds at 5Ks. Most rewarding is creating “Voices of Hope,” a platform for teens to connect with survivors. Hope: it’s the only thing that quells the fear in kids like me, racing against time. Except…it’s not enough.
On 9/24/16, I cling to the last remaining beeps of Jane’s monitor. The only other sound in her crowded-but-hushed hospital room: Bruce, serenading from somebody’s phone. She can’t speak anymore but recognizes me, still tries flashing that smile that launched a thousand crazy adventures.
I can’t speak either, because there are no more words. Together we’d fought for life/love/family/all-day PJs/nonstop ice cream/Springsteen/a freaking CURE.
Anything but this statistic.
SEVENTEEN. Heavy-hearted and lead-footed, I summon Jane’s mantra: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I intern at another pancreatic cancer organization, CodePurple, where massive amounts of data are the chief weapons against this monster. Travelling the Northeast, entrusted with a self-designed project, I interview leading clinicians and researchers.
It’s illuminating. Progress, I’m learning, is fueled by passion and data, like life encompassing both sugar-highs and heartbreak. I grapple with paradoxes: Jane’s eternal childlike persona and her adult hell. And I resume Running–not “away” from anything, but towards everything.
My momentum is now for the 65,000 Americans battling this cancer and the 50,000 who’ll be diagnosed next year. For Jane and all the others whose races have ended. And for my own self; for the ability to marry fear with hope, hardship with joy–to fill finite hours with infinite fun. Blessed with this rare gift, my aunt took on the world. Today, armed with a Häagen-Dazs pint and a playlist, I plan on doing the same.