One night, as is so often the case, I couldn’t shut off my thoughts. I watched them sail across the screen of my brain, fluttering away when I tried to contain them. I hoped to retain at least the good ideas until morning, knowing nothing would be there after sleep. But then one thought jumped out at me from the screen and made my heart race: two Izzys. Two little girls I had yet to meet, but whom, thanks to blogs written by their parents, I had come to know in a way only possible in the 21st century. Their stories are very different, but two things connect these two girls: courage and the name Izzy.
Isabelle Blessing was four years old when her adoptive parents, Kari and John, brought her and her brother Caleb home. This coming home didn’t involve a fresh-smelling baby, only hours old but wise in the knowledge of her parent’s love. These children had already seen and experienced too much to be the empty page most babies are who wait to be filled with love that leads to trust. Instead years of neglect and living in survival mode defined their first years. Izzy’s mom Kari writes, “When you are being adopted as a 4-year-old, I’m sure it can feel a lot like being kidnapped. While things were explained to her as she was going through the process, it was nearly impossible for her as a 4-year-old to wrap her head around all the changes that were happening in her world, to understand all the decisions being made on her behalf, let alone deal with all the pain she previously experienced in her short 4 years.”
Even with loving parents and three new siblings excited about her arrival, making the transition from Ghana where she was born to the States was difficult for Izzy. How can a child suddenly understand that there is enough food when there never was before? How can a child comprehend she doesn’t need to compete for her parent’s love when until now she’s had to fight for everything? And how can she feel safe closing her eyes at night when she has probably never been able to let go and fall into arms that will protect?
Even the language Izzy now heard – even if filled with love understandable to any child – was different. Izzy first spoke Twi (prononunced Chree or Tree), the language she learned in Ghana and came home to the States knowing only a few English phrases. According to Kari it took Izzy only six to eight weeks to become fairly fluent in English. She seems curious and asks about words she hears and doesn’t yet know like fire hydrant or surrender, a word she heard on the radio. Kari shares that Izzy is looking forward to half-day kindergarten in the fall. Only a little over a year since Izzy came home, and already she will start school without any additional language support.
Of course I would have to ask permission of their moms, both women I know from worlds past, Kari from high school and Molly from college. Both moms readily agreed and then life took over, as it tends to do, and my idea got put on hold. Months later I felt a nudge, a rekindling of that initial fire. These Izzys were asking to come together, to have their stories of courage and ability to overcome retold.
Israelle Marie turned six a few months ago. She too goes to kindergarten every day. At first glance she might even seem like any other kid doing normal kid stuff. Until you get a little closer and notice her pink hearing aids and then you might wonder: is she like the other kids? In countless ways she is – just recently she batted her lashes at her daddy long enough to get the white kitten she couldn’t live without. But in one major way she differs: this kid has gone two rounds with neuroblastoma and come out on top both times.
Izzy was first diagnosed on December 23, 2011. On December 27, 2011 the doctors successfully removed the cancerous tumor, an adrenal gland and surrounding lymph nodes. No further treatment was necessary. This was the first round.
In June of 2012 after a routine six-month check-up, round two began. A large mass was discovered, but that wasn’t the bad news. It had spread to her bones. Stage 4 neuroblastoma. A journey began that included weeks of hospital stays away from her father and brother, chemotherapy that would steal her blond hair, and 56 days in isolation while she waited for healthy stem cells to return, just to take a tiny peek at Izzy’s nightmare that became real.
But even as Izzy suffered pain and questions of her own mortality, she looked beyond herself and used her experiences to touch others. When a 19-year-old young woman was diagnosed with leukemia, Izzy decided she might need some cuddles. Izzy prayed over her, along with Molly, and climbed into the hospital bed that for once was not her own and snuggled. I wonder what healing those snuggles called forth.
Izzy faced round two and fought it. On December 17, 2013, Izzy was again declared to be “No Evidence of Disease.”
I have a vivid imagination and a gift (sometimes it seems like a curse) of empathy. It’s easy for me to imagine how others are feeling, for me to feel their pain or share their joy. It is from that place that I write. From far away I watched these girls overcome. I cheered when Izzy was united with her American siblings. I cried at the injustice when doctors ran into problems with Izzy’s treatment because really, has she not gone through enough? And how often have I yearned to drop by with a meal, showing my support to both families in a tactile way just once.
But still those emotions are not my own. If I choose I am able to distract my thoughts and return to my reality. These women Molly and Kari, however, cannot turn off their concern or distract their worrying at night. It is impossible for them to move on to less emotional places because this is the reality they live in.
Since the idea about bringing these Izzy girls together first skipped across my brain, I’ve realized something: theirs is not my story to tell. Both girls have bright smiles that match bright eyes, but I’ve only seen it in pictures. I can’t share their sweet little girl sayings because I haven’t heard them speak. The courage these Izzy girls muster has encouraged me, but only because their mothers (and fathers too – you are not forgotten!) are willing to share their journeys.
I first met Molly in a creative writing class at college. How appropriate that the power of writing is what continues to connect us today. In her blog izzystory.com Molly shares their fight with neuroblastoma in a raw and unguarded way. She writes often of how their faith sustains them – both Molly and Izzy – but shares just as openly about wrestling with God. And when Molly declares life over Izzy, as she does at the end of every new post, she speaks with authority. This woman means business and reminds God of the promises He has made, “stand(ing) firm in (the) authority He has given us to declare […].” But she remains vulnerable, willing to admit when the words fail her. In her post from Feb. 11, 2013 Day 33 – A Love So Deep she writes, she has been “call(ed) to be the mother of a little girl Israelle. To protect her, to fight for her, to be her voice loud and strong. And even just to hold her hand as she falls asleep.”
While John does most of the writing for their blog – teamvandervelde.wordpress.com – Kari quietly does her mom thing. John writes on Day Three! from April 29, 2013, “Izzy is still struggling, but we are working through it. Kari is absolutely incredible. Really. A mother always seems to have a special way to connect and break through the pain and draw a child in. Kari is making big progress with our little Izzy.”
When Izzy was too scared to fall asleep by herself, Kari dropped all she was doing (which with five kids in the house, wasn’t just a bit; it was probably more like a mountain) and dedicated that time to Izzy, providing her the security she was just then starting to understand. For a whole month Kari took time out of her day to wrap her arms around her sweet Izzy until she fell asleep. She allowed the physical space to grow each week (first from the bed to the floor, then eventually to across the room to the dresser, then the far end of the dresser and finally to [and out] the door), but only after Izzy’s emotional distress lessened.
For both Izzys the journey continues. Izzy has continuing health issues and had several hospital stays as a result. And Molly makes no secret out of neuroblastoma’s nasty habit of coming back. And yet she continues to hope and declare life over Izzy, empowering her daughter to live, as only this Izzy can.
Kari grieves the time lost with Izzy and Caleb when they were infants, knowing those emotional binds “help create (…) healthy attachments and positive bonding experiences that my biological kids got to have, that are so incredibly valuable in the development of a person.” They know a time will come when Izzy will ask about her birth family, will want to know about past family health issues and where her baby pictures are. Not to mention questions about skin color. There’s so much more – issues only adoptive parents can understand – but Kari writes, “the beautiful part is that they have a family NOW. We respect the past and grieve what happened, but we don’t stay there. We celebrate today, as well as what is yet to come, and we are thankful that God brought them into our family. Like I said, we are tremendously blessed. All of us (NOT just them).
Molly and Kari have asked others to join them on their journeys. Honestly it might be easier without other humans along for the ride: humans who rarely say the right thing; humans who are so afraid they refrain from saying anything at all; humans who are always asking questions and who want to know more. And going it alone would mean no one could see their struggles; it would mean keeping those things hidden, which we would rather keep to ourselves. But they have committed to their communities which surround them. They have chosen to open up allowing, others to share in their joy, but also in their pain.
This blog post is not to tell Izzy stories. Their parents are doing a fabulous job and they certainly don’t need my help. But what I do need to write is that your work, Kari and Molly, does not go unheeded or unseen. Your Izzy girls are courageous because you are their champions, raising them up in hope. We look on and are blessed because of it.
Starting out I recognized two traits which connect Israelle and Isabelle: a shared nickname and being two of the most courageous girls I know. But I’ve discovered something else they have in common: incredible moms.