A part of my childhood I’d like back? This one is easy for me. I want two things, actually….two people. My brother, Jeff, who passed away the day after he turned nineteen, and my best friend, Heather, who died of leukemia at age thirteen.
I’ve written about my brother in previous posts, but I haven’t shared any stories about my childhood best friend. We met when I moved across the street from Heather’s family. We were both four years old at the time and ready for anything the big, wide world could toss our way.
Heather was pale and freckled, with glass-blue eyes and white hair that fell thin and board-straight around her round face. I had a very dark complexion and a head full of long, thick, unruly black curls that came close to being an Afro. We were opposites in every dimension. I was long and lean, nothing but bone and muscle packed tight with high energy and a tendency to daydream. Heather was softer, calmer, more patient, and always the steadier one of our pair.
When Heather’s father took a job in Ohio, her family relocated for a while. I remember chasing their car, crying, just like in a scene from a movie (I was also the dramatic one). We wrote letters and when we had our first chance, I traveled to visit her. We spent the week vacationing with her family, taking an adventurous road trip up through Canada (that’s a book in itself!) but at each stop, Heather walked with a bit of a limp. Not much, just enough to slow our pace a little. She also had a bruise on her leg, and she couldn’t remember the cause of it.
As soon as I returned home to Louisiana, Heather’s mother took her to the doctor in Ohio. When they tested her white blood cell count, they admitted her immediately to the hospital. Soon, Heather returned south to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN., where she underwent treatment for nearly two years. She was diagnosed with two types of leukemia (AML and ALL) and when one would go into remission, the other would thrive.
I was witness to much of Heather’s journey. The toxic treatment caused her to lose her beautiful white hair. She suffered an eruption of tremendously painful ulcers that covered her mouth, tongue, and throat. When it was at its worst, she lost the ability to eat, barely able to digest her food before vomiting violently. As some stages, she was too weak to leave the bed, while other times she was allowed to come home to Louisiana and even return to school for a short while. But never once did she complain. Eventually, Heather’s teen sister heroically donated bone marrow and a transplant was performed. Unfortunately, the procedure didn’t save Heather’s life.
I visited Heather at St. Jude several times, and each time I felt as if I had entered a special, almost-Godly atmosphere. Even as a kid, I could sense there was something magical about St. Jude. It is a miraculous place that continues to give families who are going through hell a peaceful, supportive environment to fight cancer with the best research and medical interventions available…all at no cost to the patient. Heather’s parents, Charles and Gayle Williams, were a humble, hard-working duo who had never been involved in prestigious circles or major fundraising campaigns, but after Heather’s death, they dedicated their lives to supporting other families who faced such desperate battles against cancer. They have raised millions of dollars for St. Jude in the last twenty-five years and were even named Volunteer of the Year once by St. Jude. We continue to keep in touch, and it’s hard to believe Heather’s 40th birthday would have been last month.
I was blessed in my youth to have Heather in my life. I have never met anyone like her, and I have never had a friendship that compared. Therefore, if I could regain one gift from my childhood, it would be to have my brother and my best friend back again. Not just for an hour, or a day, but for good. Many suns and moons have shone here since Heather and Jeff left this world for bigger skies, but still…there is not a day that passes when they aren’t both missed greatly, and not a day that sweet memories don’t fill my soul.
If you’ve been waiting for the sequel to Into the Free, here’s your chance for a sneak peek of When Mountains Move. The full book releases Sept. 1, but for a short time, you can download the first two chapters FREE from iBookstore. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/when-mountains-move/id634696843?mt=11