Spotlight Editor: “Rapid Growth” a Personal Essay

In this segment, Courtney McNamara gets real personal in an essay not only about rapidly growing cancer cells, but also the personal growth as one matures and grows older. With no further ado, we present to you: “Rapid Growth.”

“Rapid Growth”
Chemotherapy kills the rapidly dividing cells in your body. This includes the problem, the cancer cells, but chemo patients also find the destruction of blood cells, cells that line the stomach, and the most outwardly obvious, hair follicle cells. Stopped in its tracks is anything that is trying to grow in your body at a rapid rate. So while the cancer patient’s life course changes at a rate more rapid than anyone can imagine, the physical reaction inside his body is actually quite the opposite.

I opened one eye and took a peak at the row ahead of me. There was a line of “greyhound green” Loyola cross-country warm-up jackets, teammates sitting shoulder to shoulder in the stiff wooden pew. I closed my eyes again and thought of the prayers I typically had while sitting in this pew on a Sunday. “Please God, let me finish that 6-8 page paper due in 14 hours that I have yet to really start. And forgive me for being hung-over in church.. And let me run better at our next meet…”

I shook my head, pushed it into the top of my interlocked fingers, and began a series of unorganized pleas. It’s not fair. Make her better. Please, for him and his family. He needs you. Listen to us. It is funny how inarticulate you can be when you really want something.

As our matching team dispersed to continue with the typical Sunday night panic-attack routine, I found myself back in my room, engrossed in my own simultaneous paper writing, Facebook stalking state. Prayers were for church, right? Besides, I had my own procrastination consequences to deal with now.

I am a person of habit, and bad habits at that. I bite my nails, cannot function without coffee, live in a world of unprecedented disorganization, and perhaps the most problematic is my habit of procrastination. Pandora had just informed me that I had exceeded the maximum number of listening hours for one month under my status as a free user. Did I want to subscribe and pay for unlimited access to Pandora? Unless I could use my Loyola Evergreen card, with money pumped in by my parents each semester, it looks like I was going to be abandoning the internet radio site for a while. I clicked back to the word tab and continued reading over my final page of my final exam of my final winter semester of Loyola…finals. I figured the end of Pandora was a good enough signal that I had exhausted my efforts, so I wrote an overemotional email to my professor, expressing how this particular course has altered the track of my life forever, attached the paper that I had been diligently working on “All semester” and hit send. I proceeded to let out a short, odd-sounding laugh, which must have been a side effect of the caffeine diet I had subjected my body to over the past two weeks. I squinted as I looked out the window, feeling the glare of the Arctic tundra outside my Long Island suburb bedroom window. My legs felt like jello as I stumbled down the stairs, excited to alert my parents that I had officially completed my 7th semester at Loyola. My mother, seated at the kitchen table, gave me a weak smile as I announced my accomplishment, a far cry from her typical overzealous responses. I sat down at the table and looked at her quizzically. As I glanced back and forth at my parents, even in my dismal and dazed state as a human being, the ringing in my ears could not cover up what I would later say to myself repeatedly. “Courtney, I am going to be fine, just fine…”

When your father is lying in a hospital bed, about to have laparoscopic surgery to remove a cancerous mass from his colon, an uncommon reaction is a feeling of confidence. But there I was, sitting in the waiting room of Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York City with no doubt that my father would return from surgery in mint condition. While my older brother popped Xanax to calm his nerves, and my mom squeezed my hand to comfort herself, I sat calmly, just waiting for the nurse to bring us back to my dad’s room where he would sit up and tell a joke about the service he was getting in the hospital. When we were eventually called back into the room, I saw a different man. I immediately realized that the McNamara genes had a kryptonite and it was cancer. But still, Jack McNamara spoke the words he said to me 3 weeks ago- “Courtney, I am going to be fine—“ this time, I found it harder to believe him.

As the growth of the rapidly dividing cells in my father’s body came to a stop, I found myself grappling with the possible paths I could travel down after senior year. However, my nature as a person of chronic indecision left me aimless. With new anxieties in my final semester at Loyola, there were even more excuses than ever to put things off. The concerns of schoolwork did not seem significant when compared with the “C-word”. I felt compelled to direct all of my emotional energy toward praying for my father, worrying about whether he was okay. My family’s health issues took precedence over any other possibly problem. Suddenly the words “Courtney, I am going to be fine” rapidly starting to lose significance. I heard from many close friends who had family members undergo chemo, painfully, yet without many complications. My father’s body decided it wanted to go its own route. What are the chances you can have a heart attack when receiving chemotherapy treatment? Oh, about 1 in 1000. But Jack McNamara always had to be different. “Courtney, I am going to be fine” became more like a joke. Oh really, Dad? I found myself angry at anyone who wanted to give me sympathy; this was clearly the worst scenario faced by any Loyola College student. Even as my thoughts traveled back to the death of a teammate’s mother who suffered a much longer and more painful battle, I could not help but be selfish in my pain. Screw you; don’t you know that my father has cancer? What a great excuse to give up. You were supposed to figure things out senior year, grow up a bit. I made the selfish decision to let the chemo halt any rapid growth in my own life. All I had to do was make it through the 10-day trip after graduation before I could go home, and devote all of my energy towards my family.

We all sat cramped inside a stuffy room, lumps growing in our throats as we heard the strained voices of the El Salvadoran women speak of war horrors that none of us could have ever imagined. “Alive you took them, alive we want them back” was the cry of the Co-Madres, a group of women who dedicated their lives to finding their sons taken by the government during the brutal Civil War in El Salvador. Instead of any joyous reunion these women found themselves brutally tortured for their efforts. “They asked me where I wanted to die and laughed at me when I wet myself.” The demoralizing stories brought us all to tears, but I felt a nauseating pain in my stomach after I heard one of the final physical effects of their torture: both of the founders of the Co-Madres were afflicted with ovarian cancer due to the brutal sexual assault they endured trying to save their sons. The C-word crossed the cultural barrier and I found myself flooded with guilt. I felt guilt for every time I prayed for my father, who was receiving the best medical care in the world at Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York. I felt guilt for thinking my father’s cancer was the biggest tragedy in the world. And most of all, I felt guilt for all the things I took for granted in my life- even the fact that I was spending 10 days in El Salvador, only to return to my exorbitant life in the states with a tan and some jewelry. For the next few days there was little I could do besides reflect on the apprehensive feeling I got about my presence in El Salvador; I was not worthy to learn from these people.

You do not go on Encounter El Salvador with people who want to make things easy for you. This is not to say my companions on this immersion trip were anything but some of the most compassionate people I have ever met, but we all challenged each other in ways I did not think were possible. “I am grateful to be able to experience these emotions” were the words of one good friend who accompanied me on the trip. I thought about these words a lot and realized that growing from this trip is not possible when you are being paralyzed by guilt. We had a responsibility and it was not to regret the life we were given. It was to go home and recognize the opportunities we had as American students, to think of the El Salvadoran people every time we had the chance to go forth and do great things. The children we met in El Salvador will probably never go to college, they will probably never leave the tiny villages where they find joy in during the times they can find a worn out soccer ball to kick around a grassless open field. But we owe it to them to change ourselves from within; to succeed because maybe they can not.

Jesuit Mark Ravizza said in a presentation at Loyola that “Human nature is most deeply realized when it pours itself out in love for others”. I do not claim to be a saint, nor have I done extraordinary things back in the United States. I can say that I have finally let myself grow a little. Although it may not be a rapid expansion, an unexpected growth can help make life a little easier.

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