Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Celebrating Birthdays and Heroes

She's got an unending supply of energy. Wavy blonde hair, almost white really, and big, round blue eyes. She loves to draw, pretend she's a mother bird, and dig in the dirt for "roly poly" bugs. She wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. And she turned five years old today.

She's my baby girl. Not such a baby anymore; we just went shopping for school clothes for kindergarten. But forever my baby, nonetheless. She's my dream come true, the baby I thought I might never have thanks to a cancer diagnosis in 2003. But four years later, she was in my arms, and I alternated between the excitement and heart-clenching love that a new mom feels for her newborn, and a crippling fear that I'd leave her before she was old enough to remember me.

Today I took her downtown to meet a real-life hero, Jenn Gibbons. I "met" Jenn by phone a few years ago when I was coordinating a rowing event between her organization, Recovery on Water (ROW), and the one I volunteered for, Young Survival Coalition, Chicago Chapter. Jenn, a former Michigan State rower, founded ROW, a non-profit that raises awareness about the importance of exercise after a cancer diagnosis by training a team of breast cancer survivors-turned-rowers. While the event that we were trying to coordinate never happened, I've since been interested in her organization, and her plans to row the 1500 mile perimeter of Lake Michigan this summer.

Jenn started her trip on June 15, rowing north from Chicago, past Wisconsin, and around Michigan. I tracked her progress through her blog and Facebook posts, and was just amazed that this woman could take on such an adventure, on her own, to raise awareness about breast cancer. From my couch, I quietly cheered her ups - meeting people along the way that were so kind and generous, many who had lost someone special to breast cancer, and her conquering of waves and wind. I lamented her downs - seasickness that had her vomiting and dehydrated, and the lonliness that would drive others to abandon the trip altogether.

To hear that early one July morning, while sleeping in her boat, Liv, tied to a dock in Michigan's Upper Penninsula, a man entered her cabin and sexually assaulted her, was heartbreaking. Not only did she experience what I could only imagine the terror such an assualt must have brought, but this trip of a lifetime, that she had been planning and training for for over two years, would be forever tainted by the actions of some lowlife piece of shit. Why terrible things happen to such good people, I'll never understand.

But Jenn persevered and did not give up on her trip following the rape. She altered it to ensure her safety, biking with friends over 350 miles to again board Liv at a point on the lake that was not as desolate. She was no longer alone, but it's certain that the memories of what happened that night had not left her either. Jenn went public with her experience on interviews both local and national in order to speak out against sexual assault, and eliminate the stigma that often keeps rape survivors quiet.

So on this gorgeous sunny day, her fifth birthday, Joe and I brought my daughter to see Jenn row into Chicago's Monroe Harbor. It might be her only opportunity to see a real-life hero in person, and even though she didn't understand the significance of it today, I hope one day she will. I never expected to get cancer at age 30, and Jenn never expected to be raped on her monumental trip. It's the way in which we choose to move forward from devastating life events that define us as people. I hope that message becomes clear to both of my kids one day.

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