Last Sunday, March 25, 2012, marked three years since my aunt lost her battle with cancer. Teresa Cotton was only 47 years old and left this world far too soon, but she fought tooth and nail to stay here as long as she could. Teresa was first diagnosed in 2004 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a type of cancer in the blood and bone marrow that slowly takes over the body’s ability to fight infection. As a result of her treatment, Teresa’s cancer morphed into mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and uncommon type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She sought treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, but after five years of fighting for her life, her body just couldn’t take any more even though her spirit was as strong as ever. Teresa died on March 25, 2009, leaving behind a son and a daughter, a husband, and countless friends and family members who loved her dearly, me included.
From the time I was a very small child, I always felt like I had a special bond with my Aunt Teresa. She lived three states away from my mom, my sister and me, and I only saw her a few times a year, either when she came up to Illinois to visit us or we made the seven-hour drive to Saltillo, Mississippi, where she, my grandparents, and my uncle Terry (Teresa’s twin brother) lived. I loved those trips and couldn’t wait to leave home when my mom told me we were piling in the car and heading south. While I loved seeing all of my family there, especially my Uncle Terry who always let my sister and me get into whatever mischief we wanted to, the person I always wanted to see the most was Teresa. She was a beautiful person, inside and out, and made me feel like I was the center of her world during the far too few days I spent with her every year. When I was still small enough to be carried, she rarely put me on the ground. When I got too big for that, she let me curl up in her lap where I’d stay for hours as she and my mom had long conversations catching up with one another.
And man, was she ever fun! Her laugh was completely contagious – loud and full with just a little bit of snorting thrown in – and you couldn’t help but feel happy whenever you heard it. I have so many memories of crazy things she did with me and my sister when we were young. The best one is when she took us on our first teepeeing raid in the middle of the night in the backwoods of Mississippi. The victim was my Uncle Terry, and while he slept we covered every inch of his house and property with roll after roll of toilet paper. For good measure, we soaped his windows, too, and I’m sure it wasn’t hard for him to figure out who the perpetrators were from our messages of “Love you, Uncle Terry” left with bars of Ivory. I’ll never forget the time we went to Saltillo for Halloween and Teresa took us trick-or-treating. While most of the other adults we encountered going door to door just wore plain clothes, my aunt embraced the spirit of the evening completely and donned an elaborate getup that made my sister and I howl with laughter. I have no idea what my or my sister’s costumes were, but I can clearly picture Teresa dressed up in a fluffy white bunny costume, covered head to toe in white fur with huge ears, a poofy tail, and custom bunny teeth that the dentist she worked for had made especially for her to wear that Halloween. I’m pretty sure that she had even more fun than we did that night.
Teresa taught me the meaning of kindness at a very young age. She was one of the most loving people I’ve ever known and she wasn’t afraid to express it, like so many people are. I remember her always greeting people she knew with a big hug and a kind smile, and if she cared about you, you knew it. Her kindness wasn’t just extended to people, either. She had a big fat Siamese cat, “Snuggles,” the most horrible, most evil cat to ever roam the earth. He hissed. He scratched. He clawed. He bit almost everyone he came in contact with, but not Teresa. She could pick him up and actually snuggle with him, but anyone else needed to have a suit of armor on just to get near him. For whatever reason, her demeanor seemed to calm the demons that raged inside that vicious animal, and she loved him despite his meanness.
We traveled to Mississippi for New Year’s Eve one year and I had gotten sick while we were there. While everyone else was outside in my grandparents’ front yard shooting off fireworks to celebrate the holiday, I was stuck inside, watching from the screen door with a fever and an earache. I remember Teresa coming inside from the rollicking festivities that were still going on, sitting on the floor right beside me, and staying inside with me as we watched the fireworks exploding in the air. I suddenly didn’t feel like I was alone and missing out on the fun anymore because of her small, kind gesture. That trip ended much the same as the ones before it, and many after it – me curled up on the backseat of my mom’s car, crying like a big baby, as we made our way home. “What’s wrong?” my mom would ask me. “I miss Teresa!” I would blubber in response. My mom always said the same thing: “It’s not like you’ll never see her again.” But to me, that’s how it always felt.
As it always does, life happened. My sister and I grew up and got busy with high school, extra curriculars, and friends. Then came college, and then careers as we became adults. Teresa had a family of her own and her two kids were the absolute love of her life. The trips to Mississippi for us and to Illinois for her became fewer and fewer as the years went by, and eventually stopped. We kept in touch with phone calls, letters, and e-mails. I remember when my mom first told me that Teresa had leukemia. I remember hearing that it was treatable, and it seemed like she would beat it without too many problems, and then back to normal. I wish that’s how it happened, but it’s not. Teresa endured countless chemo treatments, hospital stays, and radiation that at one point burned a hole in her esophagus. But she kept going, she kept fighting.
It finally all came down to a stem cell transplant. It was the only thing that would save her life. Despite testing family members, friends, and even strangers who showed up at a bone marrow donor drive, a match was nowhere to be found. Until one day, when she got the news that a match had been located. Teresa thought it was someone who lived somewhere in the United States; turns out it was a 22-year-old guy in Germany who just happened to be on the registry and was the best match in the world, literally, for my aunt’s much needed stem cell transplant. As part of her treatment to prepare for the transplant, the doctor told her that she needed to eat as much fatty food as she could get into her stomach every day. For whatever reason, the fattening food would help in the transplant process. I remember how excited she was to be able to eat as much ice cream and as many hamburgers as she wanted. She always found the bright spot in the darkest places. There were lots of setbacks, lots of stumbling blocks on the road to the transplant. She had to be well enough before the doctors could give her the donated bone marrow cells that she had waited so long for, but the cancer always seemed to be one step ahead of her. My mom would give me daily updates about what was happening. “Did she get the transplant today?” I would ask. “Not today. She had to have another plasma transfusion,” or “Not today, her counts were too low again” were the answers I so often got. Until finally, the day had come. She was ready. She was well enough to start the transplant process, and it was as simple as hanging a bag of reddish-colored fluid on an IV stand. All Teresa and everyone who loved her had to do was wait for those miracle cells to take hold and bring her new life. But they never got a chance to work. Teresa’s tired, battered body had been through too much and her kidneys failed. The rest of her started shutting down, and Teresa Cotton died of sepsis three weeks and one day after receiving the transplant we all thought, hoped, and prayed would save her life. It was some of the most devastating news I had ever heard when my sister called me at work to tell me she was gone. I felt like a part of me, the part she helped shape and mold, was gone, too.
Before Teresa got her stem cell transplant, my mom traveled to Houston to see her at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. My mom spent three or four days in her sister’s hospital room, sitting at her bedside and catching up, just like they had always done before. I think when my mom came home, she believed, just as we all did, that she would see Teresa again after the transplant was done and she was on the road to recovery. But she didn’t. Our next trip to Saltillo, Mississippi, was for Teresa’s funeral. It was horrible and beautiful all at the same time. Horrible to think that she had fought so hard for so long and she still lost her battle. Horrible to think that she was gone forever. Beautiful to see the rows and rows and rows of people sitting in the funeral service. Beautiful to look at the line of cars that stretched so far back in the funeral procession that you couldn’t see where it ended. That’s how many people loved my Aunt Teresa.
To this day I wish that I had gone to Houston with my mom when she went to the hospital to see Teresa. My mom asked both my sister and me if we wanted to come with her, and while we did, we both had to work. We had to take care of things at home. I know that I thought I’d get to see Teresa again when she got better. All were lame excuses and I should have gone. I didn’t know it would be my last chance to see her again. My last chance to tell her that I loved her. My last chance to tell her what a huge and positive influence she had been on my life. Not going to Houston then is something I will regret until the day I die. I can’t change it now, but I wish I could. If someone told me I could go back in time and change one thing that has happened in my life, going to Houston to see my aunt one last time would be at the top of the list. I only hope that wherever Teresa is now, she knows how much I miss her, how much I love her, and how much I wish she was still here.
I’ve decided to participate in this year’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk, which raises money for research into a cure for these horrible diseases that affect so many people. Between 20,000 and 25,000 patients diagnosed with leukemia alone die every year. Countless more are diagnosed and have to suffer through difficult treatments that might only buy them a little extra time. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five people I’ve known who have been diagnosed with some form of leukemia or lymphoma. Three of them didn’t make it. One, thankfully, has come through with flying colors, though at one point he was on the brink of death. The other is a four-year-old little boy who is bravely undergoing treatment and fighting the good fight. Leukemia and lymphoma, like most cancers, don’t discriminate. They can hit anyone, at any time, for any reason. I hope in my lifetime a cure is found and I hope by participating in things like Light the Night, I can help that to happen. I’ll be walking in honor of Teresa and I’ll remember how hard she fought and how much she meant to me and so many others. I’ll be grateful for the time I had with her and selfishly wishing she was still here. I hope she can see it. And I hope I make her proud.