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Andre Sobel Essay Award Winner: 'Chai'

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This week, I continue my series featuring the 2010 Andre Sobel Essay Award winners.

I am very proud to present the work of Colette Jaycox, our second place winner. Colette has survived pediatric cancer and is now a freshman at Columbia University. Her exquisite writing reflects her intelligent, cerebral approach as she grapples with the effects of memory loss.

All of us know someone who has had cancer or a serious illness. Through our annual Andre Sobel Essay Award, we ask teen survivors of catastrophic illness to reflect on how illness has changed them. How has it transformed their relationships? Their perspective? Their outlook on life? If you collect our series of winning essays presented this month, you will find them to be helpful in understanding the journeys of those you love. In fact, we propose to create a book of essays for just this purpose. Our experience from listening to teen survivors since the year 2000 is that they speak a universal language: varied voices all speaking the same truth.

And now, I step aside to let you enjoy Colette Jaycox's authentic presentation of what she has endured.

Chai

I haven't seen you for so long.

I am kitty-curled in your car, shotgun seat, my fingers wrapped around a wonderfully hot chai latte. I had asked for tea, but the barista had messed up my order. I'm not particularly upset. It is warm, and that seeps through the cardboard cup, though my skin. Steam curls around the lid and fades. The night is navy-black, and storelights flicker through layers of window and breath.

You lean back in the driver's seat, upset for me. My nurses say I should try to avoid caffeine. "Why did you order that?" you demand. "Colette, you told me you weren't supposed to have caffeine! You shouldn't drink it."

"I tried to order tea, remember?" I tell you. "Besides, I'll be fine." I grin. "At this rate, you'll be competing with my mother soon."

You laugh, and sip at your own drink. You haven't seen me for a long time either, not like this, bright-eyed and without IVs streaming from the flats of my hands. I beam. The windows fog milky with conversation, uninterrupted by the bleating of a hospital monitor, and absentmindedly I begin tracing shapes: Pacmen, stars. You write on your side, then erase it with the cuff of your sleeve. My fingers feel like cool glass, and I realize I am cold again, but I don't see the need to complain. I know how you will react, and I don't want you to have to worry about me

You told me once that when you first heard my diagnosis, you and your mother huddled together and cried. Strangely, this surprises me. I myself have yet to cry. I haven't been able to cry, not when I saw the look on the first x-ray tech's face, not when I felt the clicking wheels of gurney wheels meeting linoleum floor, not when the doctor looming over me said I have T-cell lymphoma, cancer, a giant tumor pushing against my lungs.

Not even when one of the fellows, the one I'm told the head nurse had to keep herself from ripping to shreds later, told me I could die.

But I will live. I will most certainly live. They discovered that the growing mass had yet to slink into my bone marrow. I am assured that this is good news. Two years of chemo, the nurses tell me brightly, and I'll be as right as rain. I spend the first month -- the hardest month -- in a state of floating consciousness, unable to even think, drifting on chemo cocktail and morphine, for the pain. You cry for me. And I am so frightened -- I can feel the chemo eating away at my memory so that the words that I want will hum in the background of my mind, there but inexplicitly not there, and all I can do is fall back on slang, on shrugs, and on the looks in my eyes. I think things multiple times now, so as to make sure the thought is anchored firmly in its place. Otherwise, there's the danger of it simply floating away, like a little boat cast adrift from its moorings, bobbing off to be lost to the horizon and the sea.

I can never tell you this, because telling you would make it real and not just a trick of my mind and over-amplified paranoia. But I think that you know. You see me shake my bald head in a quiet alarm when I forget what I mean to say and all I can offer are odd snatches of understanding. And when you see me do this, you don't bring me hats, like everybody else does. You bring me books and shards of gossip from shared friends, and fill in the spaces that I no longer know how to.

But sometimes, you too will fall silent. You will refuse to say the word "cancer" aloud, and I will tease you about my having the "illness-that-cannot-be-named." You will ask, again and again, if I'm sure I'm alright; you will start to say something and then sputter to a stop, unsure of yourself. You are scared of me because you love me, and you are afraid that you will hurt me without meaning to. Sometimes I want to reach out to you and hug you, despite of all the wires in my arms, and tell you that you know me too well to ever hurt me, even by accident, that you can read me in the shake of my head, but I don't do this because I can read you as well as you can read me, and so I pretend not to see. I know that you will realize soon enough on your own. And you do. You find that I am not made of glass, that I will not break, and that it's alright to smile when I grumble that I look like a Dicksonian waif. Slowly, the IV tubes recede from my skin. And I buy a notebook that fits into my back pocket to capture thoughts, like a firefly bottle in deep summer.

I'm living. I'm doing fine. And that's why it's so nice to be curled up in your car with a cup of chai to ward against the cold, why it's so nice to feel myself laughing. We're quirky together. You and I scramble into the backseat, drawing on the rear window's sheet of steam. The windows will have to be washed later, to get rid of our smudges, our fingerprints, but right now neither of us cares. The night is cold, but your car is warm, and it is cozy as a sickle moon glows through the bits of window we have wiped clean with our hands.

Colette has almost completed her treatment protocol, but it has been a long journey for her to get there. Before her diagnosis, she was actively involved in her school and community as the captain of her high school debate team, president of her Amnesty International chapter and events manager for the Phoenix, her school's arts and literary magazine, as well as interning for a local mayoral campaign. After cancer yanked her out of her old life, she continued to stay involved with all of her old commitments long-distance as well as complete her AP classes through the Stanford Hospital School, muscling through the queasiness, exhaustion, memory loss and pain associated with chemotherapy to finish her coursework.

Colette was particularly inspired to write her piece by her struggles with memory loss during the darker days of her treatment, and how this affected her and her relationships with the people around her. She is so grateful for the support of her family and her closest friends, without whom she would have been unable to cope as well as she did.

To make a donation in Collette's honor, click here. Next week, I will feature a letter from a young survivor to her parents.