Like little Leo

It was when they all left the room, just after handing us bags full of personal hygiene items like toothpaste, deodorant, dry shampoo, socks, and other comfort gifts they give parents who find out their child has cancer, that we both broke down.

Meg Loeks, a photographer based in rural West Michigan, didn’t think much about the aches and pains her first-born son Leo was experiencing because they were so inconsistent- on one day, then off the next. She and her husband assumed they were growing pains. But the cycle seemed to linger, not abate. Meg reached out to a friend, who was also a nurse, and was told to bring little Leo in immediately. They did. But after the nurse ran some blood tests, she sent them home thinking it might just be arthritis. It seemed like no big deal — Leo went to daycare and Dad went back to work. They carried on with the day as usual.

“The next morning around 10am” Meg recalls, “I received a phone call from our pediatrician saying we needed to pack our bags and head to our local children’s hospital immediately.” The blood results had come back. Leo didn’t have arthritis; he needed to be tested for leukemia. “I don’t remember much else from the conversation. I called my husband, cried, and he left work to pick up Leo and come home so we could all go together.”

In the days that followed, before their first appointment with the oncologist, Meg and her family enjoyed the quiet days of summer — winter tucked away in boxes. “I remember the few days leading up to the first appointment because they were incredible. We didn’t do much at all. We just stayed home and played together. We played in our sprinkler and grilled out on our porch.”

By early June, they were meeting with Leo’s oncologist to discuss the results of his bone marrow test.

“I remember pacing in his hospital room,” Meg recalls, “Then a couple social workers walked in with toys for Leo to play with. My husband and I we were led to a conference room. I knew then that he had leukemia.”

“We sat down, and I remember the boxes of tissues in the middle of the conference table. There were no windows in the room. I looked over at my husband and asked, ‘So, is this good or bad news?’ He just shrugged, but we both knew. It wasn’t good.”

Leo’s oncologist didn’t waste any time. He told them Leo had leukemia. “All I remember was how grim he sounded. I know now he was just being sympathetic but at the time I thought that maybe Leo’s chances of survival were not very good. {The oncologist} had so many papers to give us and so much information. He told us we probably wouldn’t remember most of it and he was right. We don’t. Even though he was very kind I remember that I just wanted him to stop talking.”

LOOKING BACK, WHAT STANDS OUT THE MOST ABOUT THOSE FIRST DAYS?

“I remember feeling like I was suffocating. I remember thinking that there was a good possibility that my child might die. The one that made me a mother first. The one I had cloth diapered, made baby food for, and sent to the most expensive Montessori prep daycare since he was a baby. I remember trying to keep my composure and being surprised at myself that I didn’t really cry in front of the doctor. There were some tears but both my husband and I remained calm.

It was when they all left the room, just after handing us bags full of personal hygiene items like toothpaste, deodorant, dry shampoo, socks, and other comfort gifts they give parents who find out their child has cancer, that we both broke down. I honestly don’t think it was because they left the room that we both cried. It was those bags they gave us that made it seem real; that we had officially joined the parents we saw wandering the halls outside the conference room with their children who were fighting cancer.”

IN THE MIDST OF THIS DEEP CONFLICT, WHAT TRUTH(S) WERE REVEALED? ABOUT LIFE? ABOUT YOURSELF?

“Over the summer we stayed home a lot because the hospital visits exhausted all of us, and because Leo often didn’t feel well. I think the greatest truth during this time was realizing the importance of childhood and the art of play. This is something that has always been a priority for my husband and I while raising our children. I know my parents influenced a lot of this because they always made time to play with my brother and I growing up. But it wasn’t until a lot of that was taken away from my son that I realized how important it was. I realized that the best moments are often the ones created at home when we were doing absolutely nothing but being present and with each other. We didn’t have to go off on some great adventure or hike to have a great time. The best memories from that summer involved us laying together in our hammock and playing with the boy’s bubble machine in our front yard.”

WHAT ROLE DID YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY PLAY IN THIS PROCESS? WAS IT A DISTRACTION FROM THE WORRY? A MEDIUM TO EXPLAIN THE PAIN? OR AN AID IN THE HEALING?

“I think photography was a little bit of all of that for me during the first few days. It was so easy to lose track of time in the hospital, and I constantly craved fresh air and to be outside. Whenever my husband and I would trade spots at the hospital, one of the first things I would do once I arrived home was head outside with my camera.”

“While at the hospital, I felt the need to document this moment in time for Leo. I wanted him to be able to look back and see all that he had accomplished. It was interesting for me too because I’m not a documentary photographer, but photographing my son at the hospital forced me to be one. I captured everything… the IV tower he was constantly hooked up to, the walks around the hospital he had daily, the train set he loved to play with in the playroom on his floor. I think it was therapeutic for me to capture these moments but then again photography always has been.”

Too often we try and protect ourselves from heartache and pain, and all too often, we fail, because heartache and pain and suffering are a part of life; they’re unavoidable. But they’re also essential. When life suddenly shifts, when it’s giant cracks violently rip open, forcing us to our knees, we reach out and cling to what is important, what is true, and to what matters most. Like simple moments with family on a summer evening. And community.

According to Joseph Campbell, ancient civilizations used to hold tribe rites every year to prepare the community to endure the season of terrible cold that was to come. They did not try to keep it at bay but instead prepared to endure it — together.

Just days after Leo’s diagnosis, Meg Loeks and her family were not alone. “I logged onto my social media accounts and saw several images of children dressed in superhero gear,” Meg recalls. Click-in Moms, a community of photographers of which Meg is a member of, began to capture superhero-related images to help the Loeks family endure the terrible season that was to come. They were tagged #strengthforleo, and they were, for Leo, his family, and the community. Because communities endure — together.

Tribulation, great and small, reminds us of what is truly valuable, that we are not alone, and that there is hope. Hope that we will be refined, that through the strength of community we can endure, and that, in the midst of the pain, there is purpose.

Like little Leo.

After months of uncertainty, of treatments and visits to the hospital, Leo is doing incredible. He’s in remission and currently in the last phase of his leukemia treatment which will continue till August of 2019. He now receives monthly chemotherapy instead of weekly, and his hair is starting to grow back. He’s attending school full time.

Meg and her husband have daily reminders of how they could have lost their first born and how their life could be very different. But they also have the memory of a kind oncologist who gave them hope, and it is something Meg will never forget. “He told us statistics show that children who have fought cancer often grow to be successful leaders later on in life. I remember being moved by this because he was being thoughtful and humanistic… something I think many doctors appear to lack. His kindness gave us hope that everything was going to be ok.”

Hope, like love, is strengthened when tested by deep adversity, and can only be fully realized when shared. Thank you, Meg Loeks (and family), for being vulnerable, for sharing your story, and reminding us of the importance of seeing the beauty in the everyday moments. Thank you for reminding us of hope.

To see more of Meg Loeks’s inspiring work at Megloeks.com or on Instagram at @meg_nlo.

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