The words don’t come easy, but the tears do. Staring at these photos, staring at an empty dress that once hugged you. When I hugged you. The tears come now, when I look at the photos side by side, one dress on you, one dress empty. The same emptiness I felt as the camera flashed for these photos. When I held your dress, and my heart felt as empty as it was without you beside me.
But this is childhood cancer. This is my statement to the world; Here I hold a collection of tulle where you once stood. Here is the photo form of what was stolen from me- from all of us, from you- your life. Childhood cancer robs the average child of 71 years of life, it robbed you of memories and experiences; of a high school prom and a first kiss, of a college graduation and a wedding, of a life outside of cancer, of a childhood.
This is childhood cancer. I hold your dress in the Miss Rhode Island dressing room because I can’t hold you. Because you can’t walk beside me on stage like you once did. You weren’t supposed to, you were in a wheelchair, but you did. Because you were strong, and that is what keeps us strong. The stitching on the fabric of this dress like the way you keep all of our hearts together- stitched together with memories of you.
Senior prom I returned back from a half year studying abroad in Germany. I didn’t want a date, I wanted you to come with me, but you were too young. I felt it deep in my heart the need for you to experience prom- the internal knowing I had, but I had no idea that you wouldn’t experience your own prom.
This is childhood cancer. An empty dress, an empty seat at the table, parents with empty hearts. Friends collecting glimpses of you in whatever we can. Holding onto the past like we try to hold ourselves together every day.
If you feel something from these photos – sadness, anger, fury – you should. These photos are a tangible representation of what we have lost. We have lost seeing the brightness of Ella’s smile every day. We have lost the opportunity to hold a back and forth conversation with her. We have lost seeing her grow up- as we lose 7 children a day in the US. This is childhood cancer.
But what have we gained?
Because of these children, because of Ella, we have gained the ability to have hope. Hope that one day, we will never lose a child to cancer. We have gained a community of driven friends, parents and families who strive to make a difference in this world in their child’s honor. We have gained a new perspective on life.
These photos are heartbreaking. They are meant to make you feel something. But despite the emptiness, I know there is great fullness as well. Fullness of a heart, a heart that got to know Ella and so many other kids that are on the Other Side now with her. A fullness that could only come from experiencing the light she brought us in her short 14 years. Fullness in knowing that we will be together again one day- and that we are always together, maybe not physically, but she is here. She is there when we are taking photos, she is there wiping your tears, she is there in your happy moments and in your sad moments.
Childhood cancer is not rare, and it is not fair. We know that she is there, but that is not enough. No family should have to lose their child to cancer. No friend should have to go to prom without their best friend. Feel what you feel from seeing these photos and reading these words and use that to fuel the fire to make a difference for children battling cancer. It’s not your child or your friend until it is, don’t let it be. The kids need us now- they need those who are unaffected to be affected by this. To make a difference for them.