December is letter-writing season. But this year, instead of penning a list of “wants” to Santa or mailing a letter home, I’m writing to you. By now, you’re likely aware of how deeply your story is impacting those affected by pediatric cancers such as DIPG, the brain cancer that changed the course of your life.
But I hope you also know that by refusing to give up on your dreams, by making your struggle public and by fighting for the thousands of kids who are unable to speak for themselves, your impact is far exceeding your original intent.
But if not, I hope this letter will help you understand the depth of your reach.
In the weeks since I was one of the lucky 10,000 to attend your first college basketball game, I’ve tried to explain to friends and colleagues what it was like to stand in your presence, to be overcome with emotion when you made your first basket and to have the privilege of shaking your hand. When people find out I was at the first college basketball game of the 2014-15 season, they don’t ask me about basketball. They don’t ask me about the final score. They want to know what it was like to meet you.
Over and again, I try to find the words to explain how I felt that day. But it’s never easy to do. What stands out to me most about Nov. 2, however, is how little I talked about sports.
Instead, I spoke with moms and dads and fans and players about children and hope and fundraising and community and the 19-year-old girl who’d brought us all there. Around every corner, I met someone whose story gripped me firmly by the heart. A mother who lost her six-year-old son to DIPG; a father whose young daughter was still fighting; a Bengals fan who read about your story in the paper, sold his tickets to that weekend’s home game and bought tickets to yours instead. I gave hugs and got goose bumps and all but forgot I was in Cincinnati to cover a game.
As journalists, we’re taught to mind the caution tape and write from a safe emotional distance. It’s never been my strongest trait, and that Sunday I abandoned the notion entirely and checked my objective detachment at the door. It’s an impractical premise anyway–to experience without feeling. It was especially impossible that day.
I arrived at the arena three hours before game time, expecting to encounter a few ESPN colleagues and little else. Instead, I found Mount St. Joseph parents tailgating in the parking lot, cooking hot dogs and playing corn hole, with their cars decorated with your name and #PlayFor22. Two hours before game time, hundreds of people stood in line outside Xavier University’s Cintas Center, bundled and shivering, but not once did I hear a complaint. Inside the arena, the air felt like it had been replaced with a mixture of oxygen, nitrous oxide, and Katy Perry tunes. Volunteers in gray T-shirts sold rubber wristbands and programs, and security guards hugged teary-eyed fans.
The day was powerful, memorable, and utterly beautiful. It was filled with wonder and love and so much happiness. And it was heartbreakingly difficult to reconcile the positive emotions of that afternoon with the fact that they were made possible by a hideous disease that’s attacking your brain and robbing your body of function. There was an ugly truth underlying that day, yet there was laughing and hugging and as much humanity as I’ve ever experienced in sports.
That was your gift to us all that day. No matter our role, no matter what brought us to Cincinnati, you allowed us to become part of your story. Your experience was ours, and your courage gave us permission to live as boldly, to share our stories with strangers, and cry when the moment took us there.
Three years before I learned your story, my dear friend, Collie, lost his 5-year-old daughter, Maddie, to DIPG. She was blond and bubbly and had a particular affection for sea turtles. The day I met you, I thought a lot about her and about the other young children who will inevitably be diagnosed with the same disease and how the awareness and money you’ve raised and the hope you’ve shown will provide their families with the tools to fight.
To date, you’ve earned more than $400,000 through your #Layup4Lauren campaign, which might more appropriately be called #Layup4EveryoneElse, given that it’s future children who will benefit from your efforts. Your Mount St. Joseph opponent Muskingum College donated $10,000 to your cause. The Cincinnati Bengals made a donation. So, too, did the V Foundation for Cancer Research. Your alma mater retired your jersey. There will be a Lauren Hill week in your town. You inspired Georgetown (Kentucky) College junior forward Jessica Foster to swap jerseys with a teammate so she could play in your honor while wearing your number on a fundraising night she organized at her school. On the day of your first college basketball game, you raised $40,000 for pediatric cancer research and did more for the 10,000 people in that arena than you will ever truly know.
You’re remarkable because you chose to spend your remaining days not just living, but also sharing and giving and making your final moments about so much more than yourself. Your life is valuable, but the way you chose to live it is meaningful beyond words.
So, Lauren, I’ll end this letter where I should have begun, with the simplest of sentiments, which I’ve felt since learning of your existence: Thank you. For honoring me with the privilege of telling your story, for showing us what it means to have courage and strength and compassion, for sharing your dream and your fight, and for lending your voice to so many children who are afflicted with this hideous disease. Thank you for allowing us to feel and to share and for reminding us to slow down, to pay attention, to breathe, to connect, to give, to think of others, and to make today and every day count. Thank you for making us think, and thank you for making us care.
But above all, thank you.
Do you have your own sentiments to share with Lauren Hill? Share with us and her via Twitter using #Letters2Lauren.
This was originally published on espnW.
Photo: Lauren’s Fight for Cure / Facebook