Almost a month ago, I attended CURE Childhood Cancer‘s annual “Quiet Heroes” luncheon and silent auction in Atlanta, held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. It was the 12th annual luncheon and my second time to be invited (last year was my first) by Executive Director Kristin Connor.
“Quiet Heroes” – honored at this event – are parents of childhood cancer patients, survivors, and children lost to the disease. My son Jack was diagnosed with and battled brain cancer at the age of 19. Because he was over 18, he was a legal adult, and had to sign all the consent (and other) forms during his treatment. But because he was under 21, he was termed pediatric, so he (technically) qualified as a “child” with cancer. We were told that was fortunate for him, and it was: he received care that was a little gentler and kinder than patients over 21 do. I was grateful for that, and I think he was, too.
On Jack’s 19th birthday, May 8, 2010, the unthinkable happened when he learned he had a brain tumor. But after an arduous and very difficult journey (chronicled in my book ALL THE ABOVE), he survived. He is now 25, 6 years cancer free, holds a Masters degree, and is working full time.
As he puts it, he was one of the “lucky” ones. His brain tumor, though rare, was the type with the highest cure rate. Other kids–many others–weren’t, or aren’t, as lucky. I met the mother of one of them as I was leaving this year’s luncheon.
Like last year, I had come alone to the event. I didn’t know anyone there (though I had met Kristin), but I was acquainted with Lynn Crow, fabulous Atlanta photographer, so I said hello to her. But as I walked around to view the auction items, I felt a kind of bond with the other moms–at least, with those going through what I did as Jack’s caregiver, and with those whose child had survived.
By happenstance, I met two women who weren’t actual “Quiet Heroes,” but who are involved in the event and in CURE: Joanne Hayes, Publisher and Founder of Simply Buckhead Magazine (and recently, 17th South Magazine), and Allison Palestrini, Principal at Type A Development. We chatted for a few minutes, and both were welcoming and kind.
I met some other moms at my table during lunch, and loved the program, which featured a panel of three very inspiring young cancer survivors. Afterward, like everyone else, I got ready to leave. Then in the Ladies’ room, as we both washed our hands, I met another woman named Theresa. She had come with her good friend Donna, whose son, Theresa told me, died two years ago, at age 14, of an extremely rare cancer called sarcoma. I told Theresa about Jack, and about how blessed I know we are that he made it.
A few minutes later, in front of the hotel, I ran into Theresa again. This time she was with Donna, and she introduced us. We three chatted as we waited for the valets to bring our cars, and I felt an instant like with both women. Have you every felt an instant dislike for someone? I have felt that way, a handful of other times over my lifetime. But (luckily) more often, I’ve felt an instant like.
Anyway, just when I thought I would see them both next year (or maybe, never again), one of them asked if I’d like to join them for a drink at a nearby restaurant. At first, I declined; I didn’t want to intrude on their time together. Then, one of them (I think it was Donna), said, “Are you sure? We can talk, and kind of decompress together.”
There she had me. It was only 2:00, anyway, and I didn’t have to be anywhere until 4:45. We decided to drive a few blocks up the road to Phipps Plaza and sit outside at the Tavern restaurant.
Boy, am I glad we did!
During the next two hours, we got to know each other a little better. Like me, they had gone to high school in the Atlanta area (I’m older, though), but not to the same one. They told me the story of how they met (at the beach, in their 20s), that they live in Suwanee, Georgia, and a lot about their lives and what they do. I felt an even stronger connection as we drank wine and laughed together (“decompressed”), and I shared much about myself. They wanted to hear all about my books, including the one I wrote about Jack’s battle with cancer.
I loved telling them about all that, but I also wanted to know more about Donna’s son. Turns out, his name was Cooper–which happens to be my maiden name (and yes, I told them). His battle lasted a little more than a year, and his cancer was aggressive. Hearing about his journey, I was filled with compassion. How did his younger brother handle it? I asked. What was his treatment? and, How did you make it, as a family, when the worst happened?
Those are pretty direct questions–but, having lived through Jack’s brush with death, I felt like I could ask–and like I should ask. Remember, I already had that instant like with Donna and Theresa, and by this time, I thought they felt the same way. Before we left, they invited me to an annual event in Suwanee to honor Cooper’s memory, raise awareness of sarcoma, and raise funds for research.
The event is a golf tournament, silent auction and dinner at the River Club in Suwanee, and it was to occur only three days later. I thanked them and said I would try to attend.
Well, I did attend, and I’m so glad I did. I arrived that day in the late afternoon and joined a huge crowd of Cooper O’Brien’s friends and family, called “Cooper’s Crew.” Again, I didn’t know anyone (except Donna and Theresa), but after a quarter of an hour, I found them as I perused the auction items. I met one of Donna’s coworkers and best friends, Cooper’s brother Parker and his father Kevin, and also met Theresa’s daughter Michaela, who was a lifelong friend of Cooper’s. Kristin came to the event (and spoke at it, during a program after dinner that included a video and a speech by Kevin). I got to speak to Kristin, too.
If you’re like me before that night, you don’t know about Cooper O’Brien, Cooper’s Crew, or sarcoma. Now, you do. They even have a website, and I urge you to check it out.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing, and I’m glad I happened to meet Theresa, Donna, and all of Cooper’s Crew.
What heroes they all are.
Donna, me, and Theresa at Cooper’s Crew event in September, 2016