It was April 12, 2012. It was the anniversary of terrible surprises.
I won’t name them all. Just a few.
It was the anniversary of the day I was certain that my unborn babies and I would die in the hospital. It was the day after Easter. I had been hospitalized with preeclampsia since the week before when I had gone to my check-up and was told that I needed an emergency induction. I was sent next door to the “best” hospital in our region. The hospital with the Level III NICU. The hospital that people traveled across counties and hundreds of miles for. I had been in active, induced labor for 4 days by April 12, 2004. By then, the preeclampsia had become severe. I was so sick. I was shaking. I was bleeding (from a yet-to-be diagnosed placental abruption). I was being pumped with high doses of pitocin to keep me in active labor — and competing doses of magnesium sulfate because my blood pressures were so dangerously high. And I had gained an inconceivable almost 100 lbs in edema weight since my admission into the hospital. My organs were shutting down. I was hearing Christmas music when there was no sound. I was dying. And my babies were, too.
Fast forward to April 12, 2005. One year later. Two days before my babies’ 1st birthdays. The day the woman who was like a second mother to me took her life… a woman who also had breast cancer young (but for her, her diagnosis came in her 40’s)… a woman who was also the mother of one of my two very best childhood friends. I had known her for what felt like my whole life. I had lived with her during a rough patch in my life. And now she lived around the corner from me in a house matching mine. And she had reached out to me and asked me to spend more time with her…but I was so wrapped up in my own traumas and exhaustion that I didn’t see her as much as I should have. I thought there would be more time. And then the call came on April 12 that I was too late. We all were.
And fast forward ahead again to April 12, 2010. This was the day before I learned for sure that I had breast cancer. Nuff said.
I had to put these difficult/horrible memories the back burner because April 12, 2012 was 2 days before my twin sons’ birthdays. It was also their Spring Recess from elementary school. So we wanted to do something special and make some happy memories for their birthdays.
We packed up the car the day before and set our sights on Philadelphia. I never been there, but we had free passes for the nearby Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. Since it was “only” about an 8 hour drive and we had heard the aquarium was something special, we couldn’t pass the opportunity up.
April 12, 2012. After a struggle with traffic and an almost unsuccessful quest to find cheap parking, we arrived at the aquarium much later than I had planned.
And I was already exhausted. You see, only a couple of weeks before I was lying in an operating room while my gynecologic oncologist was performing a radical hysterectomy and oopherectomy on me. I was 35 and wanted another baby. But what all of the breast cancer crap would have made unwise and extremely difficult, large masses that we were all certain would come back as ovarian and pelvic metastasis, made perfectly impossible.
Despite this, I entered the crowded aquarium in a wheelchair and with a twinkle in my eye. I was planning to enjoy the day with my boys.
It was when I was handed a map at the admission desk that I first saw it. There was something special going on today. At precisely something-o’clock (I don’t remember when the something was!), a few lucky aquarium goers would be selected from the crowd for a special stingray encounter. Now this wasn’t your average aquarium encounter. This was an opportunity to wade into the large stingray pool to hand-feed the rays!
I was determined to be one of the lucky few.
But there were a few major issues with my plan.
- My plan wasn’t a plan.
- I generally don’t win things.
- The place was packed. And I mean packed. Everyone with kids on Spring Break clearly had the same idea as we did. It seemed like the whole east coast was in the aquarium. There was no way I would be able to get anywhere near the stingray tank, let alone in it.
Nevertheless, I told my husband and my boys that I would be in that tank that afternoon. My husband told me to give it up. There was no way. So we visited the other exhibits and made our way through the aquarium. We were looking at the hippos in a giant tank filled with hippos, fish and hippo poo when I said, “Oh no, it’s 5 minutes til something-o’clock!”
Unable to run because of the surgery and my post-chemo fatigue, I asked my husband to push me over to the exhibit, an exhibit located almost all the way over on the opposite side of the aquarium. He told me that it was impossible to get there in 5 minutes and that even if I did, I would never get near the tank and I would certainly never be chosen.
No matter. I called in all of my favors and groveled, something I never ever never do with him. I was determined. So we weaved in and out of the crowds and crowds of people and finally made our way around after what felt like an eternity. When we arrived near the entrance of the giant stingray room and pool, I emerged from the wheelchair and we left it outside. I walked into a densely packed room filled with children and adults alike. It was chaos.
And we were late. They were asking the audience 4 questions. 4 people who were given the opportunity to answer the questions and who answered correctly would be invited into the tank. The selection process had already begun. I had already missed question 1.
Question 2 came and at least 50 hands shot up in a crowd of many more than that. The tank-keeper wouldn’t even see me. She selected a child in front and, with the assistance of her dad, the girl gave the correct answer. Question 2 came. 50 or 60 more hands. She chose a teenager in front who also answered correctly.
The final question came. “What kind of seastar is this?” I knew the answer. My hand shot up with about 1,000 others. She asked a child. Wrong answer. She asked an adult. Wrong answer. I was so buried in the crowd that she would never see me.
But then she pointed in my direction. “The young lady with the longish red-brown hair.”
“Oh, that’s not me,” I thought. “I have ugly short not red-brown ‘I’ve had lots of chemo’ hair.”
But then I remembered that I was wearing my lovely wig. It was me. She was asking me. “A chocolate chip seastar,” I shouted!
It was the right answer and I was invited to come out of the crowd to get ready for my encounter.
It was incredible. I changed out of my winter boots and into the crocs they offered me and we walked up the ramp to be debriefed. We would be given dead fish parts to hold between our fingers and the rays would glide across our hands and take the carcasses into their mouths.
I could barely contain my excitement. I had never done anything like this before.
So I waded into the tank and began feeding these beautiful creatures. It was an incredible experience. And I made a new friend, a giant ray who seemed to want to climb into my lap like one of my dogs. He didn’t take the food from me, but let me pet him as he slid up my shins and splashed me.
When it was over and we were washing our feet off and changing our shoes in the little prep room, I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of the experience that I felt the need to say something to the tank’s keeper.
I told her that I was surprised to have been chosen. Shocked, actually. I told her that this was such a special experience for me because for the past 2 years I had been battling breast cancer. She told me that I was so young and she gave me a hug. She said that she was a 10 year breast cancer survivor. She said that though they caught hers early, she still looks over her shoulder, wondering if it will return. But she said that it also makes her grateful for every day that she is here.
I thanked her with tears in my eyes and we parted. She felt good about her choice. And I felt grateful for this once in a lifetime opportunity to wade with the stingrays.
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