I Can Do This
April 29th, 2011 by Tara Simkins
“‘I can do this.’ This is a thought that can change an entire life. Don’t underestimate the power of those four little words.” Meadow Devor
“Why CAN’T I go home for The Masters, Mommie?” Brennan inquired. “I mean, if I can’t go home, why did I get out of the hospital?”
Not only was the question reasonable, there was some “juice” to B’s thought behind it. This one thought – going home for the Tournament – created enough energy to cause Brennan to raise his head and engage in conversation. Just seconds before, I looked in the back seat. Brennan was hanging his head and staring blankly at his hands folded in his lap, and I wondered whether he would perk up at all during the course of the coming week. It was April the 3rd. Brennan was Day +69 following his 4th allogenic bone marrow transplant in 18 months. A remarkable feat. He was just discharged, at least one week ahead of schedule if not two, from in patient status after treatment for acute intestinal pneumotosis (air in his intestinal wall). The Masters Practice Rounds started in 14 hours. The Tournament itself began in 4 days. I could feel the dogwoods and azaleas pulling my spirit to make this annual pilgrimage home. Brennan felt the tug too. Could we make this happen? Something told me we could, and that it would be important. How important would blow me away.
The logistics for the trip fell into place. Dear friends volunteered to pick me and Brennie up on Friday, fly us to Augusta and return all 5 of us to Memphis on Sunday. The Traveling Angels were in play. Time for me to talk to our medical team.
“Hey, Susan,” I called Brennan’s devoted PA Susan Shelton. “Brennan would like to go home for a quick 48 hour turn around trip. You know he hasn’t been home since September the 17th. I think this is really important for him psychologically and emotionally. We promise to keep him away from crowds and sick people. If he were to spike a fever, the Medical College of Georgia Children’s Medical Center is right around the corner with a team of people who know and love Brennan. I think he really needs to go home, to see it and to know it is waiting for him.”
Susan agreed to consider our request and present it to Dr. Leung. The next day, Susan called. “Dr. Leung left the decision to me. While I have some reservations, I think you should go as long as ….” Green light with one condition – no hiccups during the week. The Medical Angels were in play.
“Brennie,” I shouted while running up the stairs, “Susan and Dr. Leung say we can go home Friday afternoon and return Sunday afternoon.”
Brennie was sitting on the bed in the South Bluffs house watching a movie with Aunt Pam. “Oh, Mommie!” he exclaimed as he reached his arms out to hug my neck. I leaned in and hugged him right back. These hugs never get old.
“Okay, so our job is to keep getting stronger this week so that you can make the flight,” I instructed.
“I can do that,” he replied. His familiar refrain brought a smile to my face. “I can do this.” “I am strong.” “I can do that.”
And that he did. He pressed on through all of the diarrhea, nausea and pain. Aunt Pam and I took turns holding the throw up bucket and escorting him to the bathroom. Each day, his physical symptoms improved, and his spirits followed suit. Preparing himself for a weekend out of the bed, Brennan began to show interest in an outing per day.
On Tuesday, he announced that he wanted to show Aunt Pam the evening lights of Memphis, so we took a ride.
On Wednesday, instead of going straight to bed after his clinic appointment, Brennan elected for a roll and a stroll over the pedestrian bridge from South Bluffs to Martyrs Park. The sun felt warm on our faces. I closed my eyes and walked into the warmth while Aunt Pam pushed Brennan in his wheelchair, and I imagined Brennan running and kicking a ball on a day just like this. The Park, lush from all of the spring rains, sits high on the bluff. We stopped at the historical marker overlooking the Mississippi River. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, most of Memphis’ population fled, but 19,000 people decided to stay and help those who were infected. Close to 80% of the remaining 19,000 caught yellow fever and 25% of those died. The sculpture commemorating this event is stunning. Standing close to 30 feet tall, the metalurged bodies, a symbol of our universal brotherhood, stand shoulder to shoulder as they face their challenging time together. I can’t help but wonder about those who stayed in Memphis and survived. What role did their faith in humanity play in the Memphis our family experiences today?
On Thursday, our cute friends from Augusta, the Chandlers, stopped by Memphis during their 2011 Mid-South Spring Break Tour. Brennan decided he would host a trip to Graceland — wheelchair and all! Little William Chandler was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma about 2 weeks before Brennan’s first relapse. I will never forget visiting William and his mom, Kriston, at MCG’s Children’s Medical Center the day after William’s diagnosis to give a hug and to let them know I believed in a CURE for William. “You can do this.” Now, Kriston reminds me of the same.
Last summer during our time at home, Kriston gave me a light blue “Warriors for William” wristband, and I gave her a red “Brennan Bracelet.” We are in this together. Standing shoulder to shoulder. The colored wristbands have never been off either of our wrists. Brennan and William had never met, but Brennan often asked me about the Little Boy with the Blue bracelet and how he was doing. Hosting William, his parents and his brother and sister around one of Memphis’ most famous landmarks was important to Brennan, and when he learned that Aunt Pam had not been to Graceland either, that cinched the deal. The staff at Graceland took care of business for Brennan. They organized a private bus just for our group and gave us the “back door” tour. We had a ball together. William’s dad, John T., and my Aunt Pam swapped small town Alabama stories! The kids hit it off, and I received the greatest gift of all – seeing William so strong and witnessing that spark in Brennan’s eyes that he gets whenever he is around other kids. As Christopher observed one day, “Mommie, if you give Brennan God’s light, you know he is just going to turn around and give it right back to you!” And that is what I witnessed during that one hour at Graceland – Brennan giving that light right back to the Chandlers, Aunt Pam and me.
While that light had never left Brennan during transplant #4, it had certainly dimmed, and we knew that opportunities like these were the gentle breeze needed to help feed his light.
With Brennan’s spirit effectively stoked by each of the outings that week, Turner threw a big log on the fire Thursday afternoon. “Hey, Brennie. Guess what? Christopher and I ran into Phil Mickelson today in the parking lot at The Masters, and we told him that you would be here tomorrow.” The Golfing Angels were in play.
Back in January, a friend of a friend shared with three time Masters Champion Phil Mickelson that Brennan was celebrating his 9th birthday just days before his 4th bone marrow transplant. I really can’t imagine the number of requests someone like Phil Mickelson receives concerning a child or a friend of a friend. I mean think about it. These guys must receive hundreds if not thousands of requests like this a year. “It would really mean a lot if you could call so and so and wish them a happy birthday or send an encouraging word.” Well, Phil just happens to be one of those guys who understands the power of an encouraging word. All I can say as the mother of a kid on the receiving end of one of these calls is ‘it really means a lot.’ I wish you could have seen how big Brennan smiled when he heard Phil’s message, “Brennan, I just want you to know that there are a lot of guys out here on the PGA Tour pulling for you. We know you are strong. And we hope to see you in Augusta the first week in April.” I cannot tell you the number of times that we listened to Phil’s birthday message to Brennan. We replayed it for our nurses, doctors, family and friends.
The hero’s message was clear. “Hey, Brennan. You can do it.”
And ‘do it’ Brennan did.
So guess what? Phil Mickelson invited Brennan and his brothers to a private lunch in the Champions Locker Room Saturday at The Masters to celebrate. No grown ups allowed.
There it was the recipe for a perfect 48 hour trip home. We woke up Friday morning, received the final blessing from our medical team at St. Jude, shared the news of the exciting invitation, picked up goodies in the ALSAC/St. Jude Gift Shop for the entire Mickelson family (Brennan’s idea), and packed our bags and the car with boxes of medicine. Aunt Pam drove us to the airport, we boarded the plane, and … Brennan felt like crud … I hooked up his pain and nausea medicines, which he had held off on taking until he was buckled in on the plane, and I prayed that we hadn’t made a big mistake.
Thankfully, Brennan slept for most of the trip, but when he woke up, he wasn’t feeling much better. It’s going to be okay. We can do this. We just need to get him on the ground.
Any doubts that I had, were erased as soon as we landed. The pilots unloaded Brennan’s wheelchair from the cargo area and rolled it to the bottom of the steps. One of the kind gentlemen on the plane, carefully led Brennan down the steps and onto his wheelchair. We hung Brennan’s 15 pound backpack with all of his nutritional fluids and accompanying pumps onto the handles of the wheel chair and pushed him down the tarmac toward the gate. His floppy hat flopped in the wind. Turner, Christopher, Mimi and Pat Pat had all come out to greet Brennan at Bush Field Airport in Augusta. Within seconds of seeing Turner, Brennan’s arms went out in his signature reach for a hug and stayed out for the next 100 feet until he met his Daddy. Turner took the hug and shouted, “Welcome home, Brennie!”
“I did it, Daddy,” Brennan responded. I looked around at Turner, Brennan, Christopher, Mimi and Pat Pat. There wasn’t a dry eye in the bunch.
Although Brennan had indeed done it, I don’t think he really believed that he had done it until he touched ground in Augusta.
The weekend was exceptional in every way. We witnessed our hero’s rebirth in a manner we eagerly had awaited for the last several months. Turner’s faithful documentation of all of the twists and turns Brennan’s course has taken since September 17, 2010 have captured the joy and the struggle so well. From our inside looking out and Brennan’s outside looking in, we have tried our best to convey what we have witnessed. It was this weekend, at home for the first time in 7 months, during the 2011 Masters Tournament, however, that Brennan shared with us his perspective, from his inside looking out.
I was caught off guard that Saturday morning by my conversation with Brennan – still flying high from the events of Friday night – first at the Tournament and then at Mimi and Pat Pat’s.
The first thing Brennan wanted to do after arriving in Augusta was to go straight out to the Tournament. We landed around 6:30 and made it to the grounds by 7:15. Tiger Woods was putting out on 18, and Brennan wanted to see him. Uncle Paddy escorted Brennan to a great vantage point just off of the 18th green. Tiger birdied the 18th with a fist pumping second round of 66. Needless to say, Tiger was grinning ear to ear when he hopped on the golf cart and headed to the Press Tent. I was standing about 20 feet away with my niece Natalie when all of a sudden Tiger stepped off of the golf cart and stepped up to Brennan and Turner. Natalie leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Aunt Tara, I have never seen Tiger Woods smile that big in my entire life.” She was right. The smile of the man currently in third place grew three times bigger upon meeting Brennan. I am not exactly sure what the guys said to one another, but when I asked Brennan about it a few minutes later, he matter of factly said, “Mommie, I think Tiger was really happy to meet me. Did you see his smile?” Why yes. Yes, Brennie, I did. (And you can too thanks to a photojournalist from the Charlotte Observer. Google Brennan Simkins and Tiger Woods.)
Later that night surrounded by friends and family, we shared a meal and watched in awe as Brennan ditched his wheelchair in the garage and walked upstairs to the playroom in Mimi’s house where he proceeded to stand for 2 hours straight and play ping pong and pool with his cousin Albert and our friend, Taylor Lackie. Aunt Gigi stood by dutifully to help Brennan coach Albert and to help with anything else Brennan might need. The rest of us just walked around in a stupor. “Hey, Turner, have you seen Brennan playing ping pong with Albert upstairs?” “Hey, Mr. Lackie, have you seen Brennan and Taylor playing pool upstairs?” “Hey Mimi, Hey Pat Pat, Hey Nonnie, Hey Pops, I don’t think he has taken a break yet!”
Miracles are a lot like hugs. I just can’t get enough of them!
So Saturday morning, before the big lunch date, Brennie and I were hanging out. He turned on the TV and shouted, “Mommie, you have to come watch this.” I walked into the room and sat down next to him on the bed. He was watching Ty Pennington’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Ty and his team had chosen to makeover the home of a very special family. As we were introduced to each member of the family, we learned that the oldest daughter was born with a whole in her heart. The girl is 12 years old today and has endured countless hospital stays and at least three major heart surgeries. The little girl’s mom shared a scrapbook with Ty which chronicles her daughter’s life and is punctuated by hospital rooms, surgeries and scars.
Brennan inquires over my left shoulder, “Mommie, have you kept a scrapbook like that about my fight against leukemia?”
I swallowed hard and responded, “You know B, I haven’t made a scrapbook like that. I do have lots of pictures of you and your brothers, and Daddy and I have kept detailed journals about this time in our lives.”
“Would you like for me to put your story together in a scrapbook for you?”
“Yes, Mommie, I would. I don’t want to forget it, and I think it would help me if I had it to show to people.”
Hum. Don’t want to forget. Help me. Show people. Something is brewing in that brain of his.
We turn our attention back to Ty and the show. Next up an interview of the beautiful 12 year old girl. “Well, I didn’t think that I would make it through the last surgery. I don’t think anyone did really.”
Over my shoulder, “Mommie, that’s exactly how I felt.”
I turn around.
“I’m sorry, Brennan. Would you repeat that.”
“I didn’t think that I was going to make it this time,” Brennan shared. Then he started to cry.
I scooted right up beside him and held him, “But you did make it B.”
“I know. Hey Mommie, I think I want to do something for other people like Ty is doing. I don’t know what it is yet.” The light was growing.
A couple of conversations had begun. We would pick them back up through out the weekend. It was Saturday, and we had a lunch date to make.
After lunch, Phil birdied two of the first three holes. Amazing. Although, he did not take home another Green Jacket that weekend, Phil Mickelson did take home our hearts.
Next on Brennan’s itinerary: a chat with his buddy Padrig Harrington. Padrig has been a big Brennan supporter for the last two and a half years, and Brennan was looking forward to spending some time with Padrig who stayed in Augusta to practice after missing Friday’s cut. What a great guy. Brennan watched Padrig practice his short game and eagerly awaited a few minutes alone. Padrig made a B line for Brennie as soon as he finished. They talked about golf, Graceland and Christopher’s gift of gab! (Apparently, Phil picked up on this too!)
The trip was important. It was as if Brennan was finally waking up from a dream. He was home. He was ready to talk, and talk he did over the course of the weekend. He talked to me. He talked to Aunt Susie. He talked to his friend William. He talked to his cousin Kathleen. With each recounting, he grew stronger. While Kathleen talked about a cut on her leg, Brennan talked about his brush with death. Just a couple of kids swapping tales about their injuries.
“Aunt Susie, you know what I am talking about, right? Remember that dark period when I slept the entire time. I really didn’t think I was going to live.”
“Yes, Brennan, I remember, and I am so glad you did.”
That night snuggled in bed with Brennan I thanked him for sharing his thoughts with me earlier in the day, and we talked a little more.
“You know, Mommie, I thought my light was going out. I didn’t know if I could make it.”
“But you did make it B. How did you do it?”
“I kept telling myself ‘You can do this.’ ‘You are the strongest boy they know.’ ‘You can do this.’ And I just kept going. Just one more breath. I just kept my light from going out and I felt everyone around me who helped my light grow a little stronger. It wasn’t a lot, Mommie. Just a little.” Brennie rolled over and fell asleep. His light was shining bright. I thought about the forty-eight hours leading up to our visit in the ICU. I thought about this little boy who kept muttering to himself, “I can do this.” I thought about the statue on the Mississippi. I thought about the spontaneous Press On fundraisers initiated by Brennan’s brothers, cousins and friends that weekend: the Rice/Simkins/Adamson crew sold cokes door to door on Montpelier Dr., Gray Morris provided massages to his parents and grandparents on Milledge Road, and down the street a little further the Irwin Smith kids sold lemonade to Masters patrons who were waiting in traffic. All in all, these kids raised $300 for Press On. Christopher, Emma and Albert surprised all of us at the dinner table Saturday night when they announced their clandestine efforts and presented Erin Chance with an envelope of money to give to Kristin Connor at CURE; Aunt Caroline surprised Nonnie with Gray’s box of Press On contributions Sunday at the Tournament; and Monday morning Laura Irwin Smith sent me an email detailing her children’s fundraising efforts. And I wondered what will be said about this time in our lives when so many came together. Will they see the faith in humanity we all shared. Will they see our belief in a CURE for childhood cancer. Will they say during their lifetimes “They did it. We can do it.”
Sunday morning, I woke up in my Grandmother’s condominium across the street from the boys’ school, my school and my brothers’ and sister’s school, St. Mary on the Hill, and on a direct axis with the Adoration Chapel where so many people have spent so many prayerful hours before the Blessed Sacrament on Brennan’s behalf. This place has provided a sacred portal to me over the last six years. On Sunday morning, I woke up early feeling the pull of the light beside me in Brennan and the light from the Adoration Chapel across the street. Gratitude filled my heart. The trip had served its purpose. Spirits were healing. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal of what God has called me heavenward.”
Another Tournament came to a close. We watched the final putt, boarded the plane for Memphis and were back in bed at the South Bluffs house before we knew it. Over the weekend, a friend shared a link to Caroline Casey’s TED Talk from the December 2010 TED Women’s Conference. Ms. Casey delivers an amazing talk about her personal story and the strength of believing in yourself, and I couldn’t wait to show the boys. (If you haven’t seen it, google it and watch it.) Before we said our prayers, we watched the talk.
At the end, Brennan announced, “Mommie, I want to do that one day. I want to stand in front of people and tell them my story of how I didn’t know if I would make it and how I just kept telling myself ‘You can do this’ and I did it. Maybe when I am 17, or 14.”
“I think that would be wonderful, Brennie. You can do it.”
We said our prayers, and I kissed him good night. I know he will do it one day. We all will do it – together.
XOXO + Press on,
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