After a recent speaking engagement in Chicago, a man came up to me to tell me his nephew needed a second bone marrow transplant. With tears streaming down his face, this man looked me in the eyes and told me the news had devastated the boy and his family. After years of fighting a rare form of leukemia, they had finally lost all hope. I opened my mouth to respond but was silenced by the feel of my body being pulled into this man’s embrace. He managed to say between sobs,
“Thank you, Caroline. Because of you and your story, we now have hope.”
In November of 2004, I was in the very best shape of my life. A few months prior, I had run my fastest marathon in San Diego, beating out all of my previous six finishing times in Austin, Nashville, Dallas, New York, and Boston. One month prior, I had completed the Los Angeles triathlon, finishing in the top bracket in my age division. I was even in the process of training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with my brother.
Then my entire world was turned upside down.
While getting bloodwork and the necessary vaccinations for my upcoming trip to Africa, we discovered my platelets were at a life-threatening level. Within 18 hours I was diagnosed with highly aggressive, incurable stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I was only 27 years old.
As soon as The Cancer entered my life, I faced it head-on with equal parts determination and denial. I refused to accept my new limitations and it took me not one, not two, but three different diagnoses and two bone marrow transplants, each with 40% mortality rates, to finally give in to my new way of being.
I am going to let the cat out of the bag: I am not a writer. I am intimately familiar with my left brain, and am most comfortable staying within my logical, cerebral left side. Creativity has always caused a shudder to shoot up my spine, so you can imagine my surprise when I called a dear friend and told her I was going to write a book. And you can imagine my surprise when I heard her response.
“Well, thank God. The world needs to hear your story. Tell it loudly. Tell it boldly. And tell it from the depths of your soul.”
And that is just what I have done.
We all have our challenges; just fill in the blank. Mine happened to be an incurable cancer. Riley’s was the horrific abuse he endured the first 11 months of his life. Some people deal with depression or financial issues. Some of us get divorced, battle addiction, or lose a loved one. We all have our own cross to bear and we have all had moments where we question if life is really worth living; if the good outweighs the bad; if the joy is worth the pain.
I had my moment of wanting to give up when I refused my last round of chemo after my second bone marrow transplant. I knew with certainty that no amount of joy could be worth the suffering I was in. Nurse Jan just needed me to squeeze her hand; just needed me to say okay; just needed me to choose life.
But I couldn’t squeeze her hand. I couldn’t go on.
Then I looked at the canvas print of my two miracle children, who were lying on the floor with Riley. I focused on their smiles and innocent eyes. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the feel of their kisses on my hollow cheeks. I listened to my husband’s voice as he begged me to fight.
All I had to do was keep my hand limp; keep it from responding to Nurse Jan and Tom’s pleas. All I had to do was let go and the suffering would all be over. All I had to do was nothing. But…
The kids. My husband. Riley.
I squeezed Nurse Jan’s hand.
D-O-G = G-O-D. It’s no coincidence.
As hard as humans try to be supportive, we always seem to come up short. We show up, but after a while we get tired. We get impatient. We get scared. Humans need reassurances that everything will be okay. We need to know life will go on, and that this temporary setback is truly just that: temporary.
But not dogs. Dogs don’t need us to be anything other than who we are in that very moment. With dogs, we can show our fear, our sadness, our weakness. With dogs, we can lose our shit and they won’t step away. With dogs, our love is safe.
With Riley, I was safe.
Dear Riley Rose is a story of love, loss, pain, and the ultimate realization that the hope of true joy always outweighs the struggle. This is a story about the messiness of motherhood and the messiness of healing.
I know I have to tell this story. I understand that everyone can relate to a tale of struggle and the soul-searching that comes with hitting rock-bottom. I believe dogs heal and that love conquers all. I don’t believe in fairy-tale endings, but I do subscribe to the idea that we can always be given a second chance—because it was in our second chance that Riley and I created our life together, and taught each other that there really are some things in life that are worth the fight.
See, thanks to The Cancer, I now know the struggle is what makes life worth living. That’s where we find the treasure. In the depth of our sorrow is where we find the good. In the darkness of our suffering is where we find the love. In the despair of our pain is where we find the hope.
And that’s what it is all about. Hope.
Because if we don’t have hope, then what the hell is the point?