April 26, 2020
Note: This is a true story, but names have been changed to preserve the subjects’ privacy
Ten months ago, a cancer diagnosis transformed the lives of Ashley and her family. They learned that Karenna, then 11 years old and the youngest of their four girls, had an advanced case of bone cancer.
Since then, Ashley and her daughter have driven 30 miles, from their home in the western suburbs of Los Angeles, to UCLA every other week for five straight days of chemo treatment, followed by nine days of recovery. Long before the coronavirus drove America out of the workplace, Ashley put her career as a landscape designer on hold to tend to her daughter, whose condition requires round-the-clock care. The two of them have also been basically on lockdown, since Karenna’s immune system is so fragile.
Then, in March, the pandemic hit. Soon, the rest of the world – plus the rest of their family – joined them in unexpected quarantine.
Ashley: Cancer comes with many questions. Now you have COVID, which is very similar, in terms of how do you get it? Could be this way, could be that way. How long does it last? How does it manifest in each person? Cancer is the same way. How long is treatment? When will this be over? When will we know that it’s not going to come back? So it was like, is there yet another thing now that we have to worry about?
In the very beginning, I was in a state of complete – I mean, you go from this busy life, lots of distractions, very busy work, everyone’s got their full schedule, and then you find out one day your kid has cancer.
Since I’ve now surrendered to cancer, it was easier for me to surrender to COVID. I wasn’t working any more. I had no social life that wasn’t phone calls or walks.
Her doctor at UCLA told us, “I really doubt Karenna’s going to get this (based the way scientists believe the virus interacts with the body, and evidence from Italy and New York City).” He’s more worried about me getting it, or (her husband) Charles getting it. Karenna can’t bear the thought of me getting sick.
For instance, if I was to have a fever, she would have to get chemo alone. Now, anyone 13 or older is getting chemo alone. The kids are sitting there bawling behind other curtains in the chemo clinic. One parent is allowed, but if that one parent is sick, the kid has to get it alone, which is super-traumatic.
Also, Karenna had planned this big trip post-chemo, which was supposed to be in June – she wanted to go to Italy. Now we can’t go anywhere for God knows how long.
But you know what? As awful as it has been, there has been so much beauty. The amount of support! There was this woman who organized 75 people in our neighborhood to bring Karenna a gift every single day. Every single morning there’s a beautiful wrapped gift outside our door. And we don’t even know these people. It’s all anonymous.
There’s something really beautiful about community and the simplicity of our family now. I never played Monopoly with the girls their entire childhoods, and we played Monopoly. Before, we were always going in different directions. It was kind of a big deal after we played, because I thought, Wow, we never do anything like that. The amount of family dinners we’ve had, cooking meals, sitting outside by the pool. We never cleared our schedules in 20 years. Now it’s like, what are we doing for breakfast? What are we doing for lunch? Elizabeth (the oldest girl) gets up and makes coffee for everyone. She takes orders. Anything that you would have gotten at any matcha bar. She’s trying to find boba. That’s all we don’t have.
I’ve always believed in God, but there’s something really different now. I’ve had to accept that I’m not really 100 percent in control. Things are going to happen and I’m going to have to roll with it.
I used to sit down every night and make my list and it was like, Okay, I’m going to get through this list tomorrow. Everything will be done on this list. There is no list anymore. And I don’t even care. I’m telling you I care about nothing anymore but health and family.
Now, with this pandemic, the entire world is worried about health. Every single person knows that health is at risk. There’s a unity.
This is a long-term quarantine, which is very much parallel to what we’ve experienced. It feels like saying, “Do you get what we’ve been going through?” and everyone in the world is like, “Yes!”