Distracted by Life

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Harrison and two of his good friends are playing wiffle ball in the front yard while I write in the den.

And I am happy to be distracted by their playing, because the distractions are the sounds of life.

Laughter is often missing in the world of childhood cancer. The cancer journey can be a lonely one. Thankful that Harrison has friends to laugh with on his journey.

Deadlines can wait, there is life to be lived.

Steve McKinionDistracted by Life

Give It Your All

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As a follow up to my recent post about the opposing player who compared Harrison’s status in his league to Derek Jeter’s in the major leagues, I wanted to share this reminder:

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This statement, by one if baseball’s greatest legends, characterizes Harrison’s approach to life. This attitude has, I believe, helped him immeasurably in his fight against cancer.

Every day with cancer demands a determination that must be unmatched. Stop fighting and you die. There is no alternative.

And when I see Scripture’s use of the imagery of war, battle, and athletics, I am reminded that my life as a Christian should reflect the same attitude.

Although I don’t fight cancer in my body, I do join my son in his fight. And I battle every day the anxiety, stress, and hopelessness that accompanies a childhood cancer diagnosis.

I am grateful to God for his rich provision for every battle we face, for every mountain we must climb, every anxiety we have.

Steve McKinionGive It Your All

His Team’s Tim Tebow?

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Baseball season has begun, which has me again thinking about where was and where he now is.

Before cancer, another player was watching Harrison play shortstop and remarked, “What Derek Jeter is to the Yankees, Harrison McKinion is to his team.” ┬áIt was a tremendous compliment for a nine year old kid.

Raleigh Family Photographer

But cancer has put Harrison in another role on his teams, I believe: Tim Tebow.

To get the comparison, one need only recall the Florida Gators’ loss to the Ole Miss Rebels in 2007. After the loss Tebow came to the post-game presser and gave his famous speech in which he took the blame for the loss and expressed and unwavering determination to never let his team lose again.

The Gators went on the win the National Championship behind Tim Tebow’s leadership.

What Derek Jeter is to the Yankees, Harrison McKinion is to his team.Player on an opposing team

Now I am not saying Harrison is the athletic equivalent of Tim Tebow. Nor am I saying he has the same leadership abilities at Tebow.

But Harrison is a natural leader. In football he was the quarterback. He moved players around, putting them in the right position, coaching them on the field. As an eight year old.

He’s always been the shortstop. The leader both by his actions and with his words. And if how he’s played for his middle school team so far is any indication, he’ll continue to make plays for his team.

Now, with cancer, Harrison plays an even more important role on his teams. Whether he is the most athletic player or the most talented player or the most gifted player is debatable. Other kids are just as good, and better. Cancer has allowed everyone else to catch up with him.

But Harrison refuses to lose. His determination to fight, claw, scrape his way forward reminds me of all the accounts I’ve read about Tebow. While others may question his abilities due to cancer, Harrison just plows ahead. Again and again and again; refusing to settle for personal or team defeat.

I don’t know if Harrison will grow up to be an athlete (or if he will grow up at all, unfortunately). But I know this, every day that he is here he will live with determination and confidence. The day may come when his body cannot function as well as it does now, or when no one wants him because they doubt his abilities. But until then, Harrison will start the days he has remaining facing forward, making the most of every opportunity he has.

And, much like Tim Tebow, he will never let his teammates down. They will always get his best. Whether he is sick, fatigued, suffering from joint pain, fighting headaches, or pressed on every side, he will fight.

I wish you could have seen him play before cancer wrecked his body. I pray that one day he will overcome the side effects of the treatment. But even if he never does, you’ll never know it from watching his face. You see a kid who will give everything he has, knowing that God is his strength. He will press on to the prize set before him in Jesus Christ and model a “never give up” attitude.

Steve McKinionHis Team’s Tim Tebow?

What Might Have Been

Steve McKinion Uncategorized 2 Comments

I spent the night conflicted, as I often do parenting a child with cancer.

Harrison learned yesterday that he earned a spot on his middle school baseball team. This was his dream since his brother made the team six years ago. Words cannot express the elation he felt having achieved this dream. In some many ways, baseball has been a life-saver for him. I have thought many times, “baseball has saved Harrison’s life.” I still believe that to be true.

But as I reflected, I was conflicted over where he is now compared to where he “could” have been without cancer.

From the time he was four, and began playing organized baseball, he has been the prodigy. He was always picked first. He wowed parents and coaches alike. He played far above his years. His physical skills at baseball were second only to his mind for the game. He was as fundamentally sound as any player I have seen, and had a higher baseball IQ than most coaches I’ve known; certainly higher than mine.

Three years ago no one who had seen Harrison play baseball would have questioned whether or not he would make any team he tried out for. Even the varsity coaches at the time recognized his talent.

Once, following his diagnosis, beginning of treatment, and near-fatal stroke, Harrison went to Lachlan’s pre-season baseball workout. They let him hit off the tee. On his first swing he missed the ball and fell because his legs were so weak from the treatment.

Tears swelled up in my eyes.

But Harrison just got up — unfazed by the embarrassing fall — and took another cut. Then another. Then another.

It was amazing. His form was still there. He was as fundamentally sound as ever. In fact, one of the coaches, a former major league baseball player, called the high school players over to watch his form.

He said, “Watch him, he is a natural. His hands are perfect.”

I thought about that episode when Harrison left the house to try out.

He’s a natural. His hands are perfect.

But a lot has happened since then. Harrison is no longer the player everyone wants on their team. His legs don’t work as well as they used to. He can’t run like before. Because of the Vincristine his feet don’t always work right. He sprained an ankle because of it, just before tryouts.

What used to come naturally to Harrison, what used to be exceptional, is no more. Cancer, and in particular the treatment to cure him, as stolen from him all that made him the player coaches fought over. No one watches him play any longer as says, “That’s kid is amazing.” He’s a very good baseball player, but is a shell of what he once was.

So my heart breaks for him. He’s not stupid.

Just getting out of bed in the morning is a challenge. His body always hurts. His legs never work right. He runs with “duck feet” from the chemo.

Playing baseball requires every ounce of energy and determination.

Three years ago Harrison could probably have made the middle school team with little effort. But those days are long gone. Just to have a chance, he has to work harder than imaginable.

Last night Harrison crashed on the couch. He didn’t have the energy even to celebrate making the team. Just trying out had zapped all his energy.

As a coach, that’s the type of kid I want, however. Coaches all the time say, “We want more than just talent, we want the kid who works hard, overcomes adversity, and always gives 100% effort.”

They got him.

But they more than talent, effort, and determination. Something he did will illustrate why I love this kid so much:

Rather than celebrating his roster spot, was worried about the kids who didn’t make the team. He remembered how much it hurt to be cut from the school basketball team in the winter. So he said, “No one wants to be cut. I feel bad for them.”

Not pity. Genuine concern for his friends.

How does a kid who has to overcome cancer, cancer treatment, a stroke, daily pain, and (just for good measure) a sprained ankle, focus more on his friends that himself?!

You would think he was just be glad to be on the team, but he was instead trying to find a way to make things better for his disappointed classmates.

So I wrestled the entire night with fits of joy and sadness. Of elation and anger. Of delight that Harrison earned a spot and of disappointment over all that cancer has stolen from my little boy.

And then conviction.

Some many of our friends in the childhood cancer community can’t even comfort their sick child any longer. Cancer stole more than an amazing future in baseball. Cancer took their very life.

I wanted to be glad for my son, but I found myself hurting for him. Hurting for what he endures, for his knowing that some coaches no longer want him the way they did, for his having to work harder than everyone else just to be close. And hurting for moms and dads who would love to have even something small like making a baseball team to celebrate.

Harrison told his oncologist on the day he was diagnosed that his dream is to play pro baseball or football. There was a time when I thought that was a possibility. But cancer has dimmed his dream. His dream now: just play middle school baseball.

Our little baseball player my never live to even play high school baseball, much less college or pro ball. But while he has breath, no one will out-effort him. Out perform, maybe, but never outwork.

And while he is left with just “What might have been,” he will make the most of every opportunity he is given. Cancer may take his body, his talent, but he refuses to give up his effort, determination, and hard work hard work with him. And it cannot take his love for his friends.

There may never been another coach who wants a kid like that on their team, but I will always want him to be a kid like that.

Steve McKinionWhat Might Have Been

Two Years in Remission

Steve McKinion Uncategorized 1 Comment

January 24, 2012, will forever be a memorable date for me. That Tuesday morning began with a greater sense of fear and anxiety than I have every know. We were learning if the experiment had worked, if the drug Imatinib, also called Gleevec, had successfully treated the leukemia cells throughout Harrison’s body. To this point those cells had proven entirely resistant to traditional chemotherapy. This morning doctors would draw bone marrow from Harrison’s hip, look for leukemia cells, and tell us if Harrison would live or die.

Harrison recovering from bone marrow aspirate, waiting to hear if he was in remission – Janaury 24, 2012

My colleagues and students were gathering at 10:00 AM to convene a new semester. I huddled with my wife and son. We drove to the hospital not sure if we would all be leaving together. We packed Harrison a bag, anticipating that he might have to check into the hospital for the final time. To say I was frightened would be an understatement. In the six weeks since Harrison’s diagnosis I had lost twelve pounds. I hadn’t eaten in days. I was a wreck.

Dr. Weston had been upfront with us all along. This treatment was a long shot. No other child had been successfully treated for Harrison’s form of cancer. In football-speak, we were throwing a Hail Mary pass. We had one shot. Stanford-Cal. Boston College-Miami. Auburn-Georgia. One play to decide the game. Only failure meant my son’s death.

Dr. Weston emerged from the procedure room with a tube of Harrison’s marrow. That tube contained to answer to the single important question at the moment: was he finally in remission? Would there be even a faint hope of his surviving cancer.

The doctor didn’t say a word to us as he left to hand-deliver the package to the pathologist. He didn’t even look our way. Silently he passed by, as if already thinking he would have to break the worst news imaginable to us in a few short moment. While we prayed with our still-sleeping son, Dr. Weston stayed with the pathologist to learn the results.

Waiting for a call wouldn’t do.

The pathologist looked at the sample of marrow. Then Dr. Weston. Then Dr. Hsu, the fellow. They all saw the same thing. The only thing that remained was to give us the news.

By the time Dr. Weston returned to the clinic Harrison was awake. He was sitting in chair #9 when the door opened. My heart stopped when I saw the doctors. Then, from across the room, Brent Weston smiled from ear to ear and gave us a “thumbs up.” Ginger raced across the clinic with tears streaming down her face to hug him. As we approached he said, “We have a touchdown!!” We all cried. We all hugged. Ginger’s sister and brother-in-law cried with us. The entire clinic celebrated with us. I felt like I’ve never felt before or since.

Remission.

After six weeks of failure. After a near-fatal stroke. After feeling hopeless and helpless, we had the first good news of Harrison’s journey.

When emotions finally settled down we turned our attention to the three-plus years of chemo remaining. No time to celebrate, we still had a monster to slay.

But the passage of Scripture I still wear on my arm, Psalm 126, came to mind as we finally exhaled:

Those who sow with tears shall reap with shouts of joy.Psalm 126

And on the second anniversary of that momentous occasion there were shouts of joy again. Thanks for rejoicing in the kindness of our God with us.

Steve McKinionTwo Years in Remission