Just about 17 years ago, I was peeking out the dining room window of my childhood home, watching the goings on of our suburban neighborhood, when I saw a little girl bobbing up and down on the sidewalk with her mother. New neighbors, I had yet to meet the family but I had heard that they were a young couple with a daughter who may or may not be suffering with some sort of illness. Watching her play joyfully with whatever toys she had outside with her made me smile. I was an avid babysitter at that point in my life and I was excited about the prospect of a new family in the neighborhood.
When I finally introduced myself to the Healys, I was acquainted with the true story and was introduced to their daughter, Elizabeth. Her sweet, squeaky voice is implanted in my memory so deeply. She was full of life and curiosity, despite a genuine and intense fight for her life. Diagnosed at the age of two with a brain tumor, Elizabeth had undergone surgery to remove the tumor as well as a protective piece of bone at the base of her skull, and subsequently sat through endless rounds of chemotherapy. Elizabeth and I instantly bonded and for many, many years we were inseparable. I sat with her through her final chemo treatments, celebrated with the family when she was in remission. When she wasn't feeling well, we'd sit on the well-worn navy blue leather sofa in the living room and I'd read her every storybook in her expansive library. There were times when I lost my voice reading to her. Sometimes we'd watch a movie and I'd tell her how much her hair had grown by looking at the soft peach fuzz illuminated by the end table lamp. When she wouldn't eat anything else, I'd make her a little serving of her favorite food, White American Cheese. I'd sit and gently rub her forearm as she tried to lull herself to sleep, blanket in hand and thumb in mouth. I was her best friend and she was mine.
When her siblings were born, I babysat them too. Jessica and Tommy, her sister and brother, were so much more rough and tumble than Elizabeth, and I believe I never connected with them as much because I sought to protect Elizabeth. She was a sweet, delicate bird in comparison. I pulled away from the family as I grew into my teenagehood and as Elizabeth was growing up and into her own person. She was doing well for many years and started school at St. Timothy's, where I had attended, and we talked about her friends and the uniform and things that interested her. I went off to college. I came home. When Elizabeth was about nine years old, a quirky cough she had ever since I can remember turned into a more profound issue. As a result of the chemotherapy, she developed what I can only recall was a chemically-induced form of emphyzema. She went from occasional oxygen treatments to 24/7 oxygen. She was on a number of medications to suppress the inflammation caused by her lungs, and when I saw her the New Year's Eve during my holiday break from my year in Switzerland, her cheeks were plumper than plump, a side effect from profoundly high amounts of steroids. She ran to me that night, jumped into my arms and hugged me like she never wanted me to leave. I carried that with me when I returned to my position in Liestal, and in the Spring, right when she was at her worst and in desperate need of a lung transplant, I developed a case of head-to-toe hives that would not go away (a persistent theme in my life, when people are unwell). It's as though my body knew, despite the thousands of miles, that Elizabeth was knocking on death's door.
She received a double-lung transplant at Hopkins in 2001 and when I returned from my year abroad, she looked better than ever. Eager to show me how she could dive into a pool AND stay underwater, I was so pleased and proud that she was doing well. For whatever reason, it was then that I started to separate from the family. I guess that at some level of my being, I felt like Elizabeth was out of the woods and on the path to normalcy. A few years later, I saw the family at Starbucks, where we chatted uncomfortably. Elizabeth's journey into adolescence seemed difficult and uncomfortable for her...the medications, treatments and complications she encountered in her younger years seemed to affect her still. She wasn't really interested in talking to me, and I admit that I felt guilty about separating from her and proceeding with my own life. I was also afraid of being rejected by the family at that point.
When the miracle of social networking appeared on the scene, I would periodically search for Elizabeth just to see how she was doing. This turned into a ritual over recent years, especially around today, December 11th, because it was her birthday. And every year it seemed like things were getting worse. I was able to collect information that suggested she was on oxygen again, her body rejecting the lungs that gave her life just a few years prior. She was so weak that she was in a wheelchair. After extensive back and forth within my own head and heart, I decided that this year was the year to reestablish contact. It needed to happen. I'm sort of on an adventure to reconnect my roots, creating a stronger relationship with family and people from my past, and this was a very logical next step.
You can imagine my devastation when I found out that Elizabeth passed away. On October 25, 2009 she traveled to Heaven after a lifelong fight for her life. She would've been 20 today. There's been a Facebook group set up in her memory, I sobbed through the 10 minute slideshow set up with pictures of her by the funeral home. I've cried off and on ever since I found out. I'm crying as I write this. Never in my adult life have I had a struggle with the concept of death, but my heart aches so much thinking about Elizabeth leaving this world. She was the sweetest, kindest, most generous person I have ever known in my life. She loved so purely and intensely. I will, and do, miss her more than words can express and I am committed to honoring her life until the day I lose mine.
You were loved, Elizabeth. Deeply loved. I will miss you forever.