On one horrible night in September, Kay Jemsek discovered a strength within herself, inherited from her mother, to do whatever it takes to protect her child.
She was still grieving over her mother's death from cancer six weeks earlier, still feeling lonely and tearful. Then she learned that she had breast cancer. As devastated as she was, three days later none of that mattered.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Jordan, was diagnosed with leukemia.
Kay cried for hours and hours and on through the night. Not for her mother. Not for herself. But for her little girl. Jordan was all she could think about.
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That single-minded devotion would carry mother and daughter through nearly seven months of radiation and chemotherapy, heartache and joy.
As Kay lay awake that first night, wondering how she could cope with so much at once, she became intent on delaying her own treatment so she could focus on getting Jordan healthy.
Shouldn't a mother take care of her child first? Not always, a friend said.
She reminded Kay that in an airplane a mother puts on her oxygen mask before she puts a mask on her child. Her husband, Joe, insisted, too: You've got to take care of yourself, he told her, because Jordan is only going to get worse before she gets better.
So while Jordan had chemotherapy, Kay had a lumpectomy and radiation. For most of seven months, they shared a room at Presbyterian Hemby Children's Hospital, cuddled beneath pink princess sheets in twin beds pushed together.
On nights when Kay fell asleep first, Jordan would nudge her awake. As tired as Kay was from her own fight with cancer, the sound of distress in her daughter's voice touched a place in her heart that a mother cannot ignore. She would turn around and snuggle until Jordan fell asleep in her arms.
A mother's love
"Nothing worthwhile," Kay's mother often told her, "ever comes easy. But there's nothing you can't overcome."
Sunday is Kay's first Mother's Day without her mother. Bette Thomson was her best friend, her confidante. They even looked alike, the same fair coloring, the shape of the eyes.
They loved to read, both mother and daughter, and loved words. One would start a crossword puzzle, and the other would finish it. When her parents divorced in 1980, Kay transferred from UNC Chapel Hill to UNC Charlotte, in part because she worried so about her mother being alone.
Kay married Dr. Joe Jemsek, an infectious disease specialist, in 1996. She was 37 when their son, James, was born three years later. She was 42 when she became pregnant with Jordan. She had so many complications - including a blood clot and hernias - that her doctor ordered bed rest.
Bette was undergoing chemotherapy then, but she was more concerned about Kay than about herself.
She would show up at Kay's house with macaroni and cheese or bread pudding. She played with James, who was 4. She cleaned the house.
"She would be sicker than I was," Kay said, "and insist on coming over to help. She was amazing."
As the end of life approached last summer for Bette, after a 71/2-year-fight with ovarian cancer, Kay moved with James and Jordan into her mother's house and they all looked after her. Even after she lapsed into a coma, Jordan would rub her Nana's hands with lotion.
When Bette, who was 71, took her last breath on Aug. 6, a single tear ran down her cheek.
'Take the bad with the good'
After the funeral, Kay bought a statue for her garden. Bette had wanted her ashes scattered at North Myrtle Beach, so the statue is Kay's way of honoring her memory in Charlotte, like a headstone in a cemetery.
Nana's Angel is about Jordan's height and stands in a shady corner of the garden beneath two holly trees, where the gentle splash of a waterfall drowns out the sounds of the city. Kay likes to go out there in the morning and talk aloud to the angel, whatever she might have confided to her mother.
"She always told me to remember to take the bad with the good," Kay said. But Kay never imagined so much bad would come in so short a time.
Some days, she half expected to see a tear run down the angel's cheek.
Then bad news
Kay learned she had breast cancer six weeks after her mother died. While taking care of her, she found a lump, but she had found a lump before and it was benign. So she put off seeing the doctor.
The lump was benign. But a biopsy revealed cancer cells nearby.
When Kay told Jordan, she didn't use the word cancer. She didn't think a 5-year-old would understand that word.
I have this bad germ in my body, she remembers telling Jordan. The doctors are going to go in and scoop it out, and I'm going to get better.
I'm going to be fine.
And worse news
Three days later, Kay took Jordan to the pediatrician.
Jordan had been getting ugly bruises on her arms and legs. She likes to roughhouse with her father and brother so at first Kay didn't worry. But Jordan, who has an outgoing, whimsical spirit, turned fussy and the bruises turned a deep purple.
Kay and Joe Jemsek feared the worst.
The pediatrician called Kay that same evening with results of the blood tests.
Jordan, he said, needs to be hospitalized immediately.
Walking by faith
How does a mother tell her child that the child has cancer?
The fact that both Kay and her own mother had cancer made it easier to explain.
My germs are here, Kay said and pointed to her left breast. Your germs are in your bones. The doctors can't scoop them out, so they're going to give you medicine in your blood that goes inside your bones.
Jordan had a cancer common among adults, but not children: acute myelocytic leukemia. It's a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
About 500 children are diagnosed with AML each year in the United States. For most, the cancer goes into remission after chemotherapy. For some, it recurs. The Jemseks hoped Jordan could have a bone marrow transplant, to improve her long-term chances, but a match could not be found.
Kay searched for answers. "At some point you've just got to give it to your faith," she said and quoted from Corinthians: "I walk by faith, not by sight."
"I believe God has a reason for everything. I hold on to that."
'Help get me through this'
During the chemotherapy treatment, Jordan would be at risk for infection. The drugs work by killing cells that divide rapidly, not only cancer cells, but also cells that fight infection.
So for as long as the treatment lasted, she would have to stay in the hospital. Kay would stay with her most of the time.
They decorated the walls of Jordan's room with flowers and pictures, and settled into a routine as one month led to another, one chemotherapy treatment to the next.
The drugs caused Jordan nausea, diarrhea and excessive bleeding. Three times, she needed a blood transfusion, once after nicking herself while brushing her teeth.
Jordan never complained. But after her sixth spinal tap and bone marrow biopsy, she asked everyone around her, doctors, nurses, her mother:
"Why are you doing this to me?"
There was no sense telling her she would feel better in a few months. For a 5-year-old, a few months is an eternity.
"I told her: 'God may have wanted you to go through this because you'll go into the medical field like your daddy and you can help children who go through this,'" Kay said. "'You'll know exactly how it feels and how to help them.'"
Silently, Kay prayed: "Dear Lord, help me through this."
In December, when time came for Kay's last radiation treatment, Jordan watched through a glass partition. A technician spoke over an intercom, telling Kay what to do as he prepared to send a powerful beam of radiation into her body to kill the cancer cells.
Raise your arm. ... Hold your breath. ... Don't move.
The session finally ended, but instead of the technician's voice, a little voice shouted over the intercom:
You can put your arm down!
Kay found herself laughing instead of crying. Then the little voice came over the intercom again:
"I love you, Mom!"
'I was lifted up'
As if Kay's breast cancer and Jordan's leukemia weren't enough, Kay broke her leg before Christmas. The timing could not have been worse.
Before any of this happened, Joe had begun planning to relocate his medical practice to Washington, D.C., at the start of 2010. Kay and the children would stay here, and he would commute back on weekends.
Patients come to him from all over the world for his unconventional long-term treatment of Lyme disease. But in the Carolinas, his methods are controversial and Blue Cross and Blue Shield sued, asking him to repay hundreds of claims. He hoped for a more accepting, collaborative environment in Washington.
That left Kay in a wheelchair, recovering from cancer, with her 5-year-old in the hospital with leukemia, her 10-year-old at home and her husband out of state.
She credits her survival to friends and family, strangers even, who stepped up to help, from cooking meals to caring for James to staying overnight with Jordan. And to Presbyterian's Child Life specialists who entertained Jordan and explained in ways she could understand what to expect from each medical procedure.
"I was lifted up," Kay said. "It was like God sent angels to say, 'You're not alone.'"
An Easter homecoming
Jordan kept her spirit, despite being hooked up to IV tubes and losing her hair. She charmed the nurses with her jokes and made-up arias.
Kay struggled. As much as it distressed her, she took James out of Sharon Elementary at the end of January and sent him to live with his father.
You could hear the exhaustion in her voice and see it in her eyes. In March, when a nurse injected the last and strongest of the chemotherapy drugs into Jordan's thigh muscle, Kay grimaced as if she was the one getting the shot.
"Every time she's in pain," Kay said, "it breaks my heart."
A month passed, day after day, night after night in the hospital, and just when Kay thought she could not endure any more, the doctors said Jordan could go home. The chemotherapy was over. Her immune system was strong again.
Jordan and Kay were both in remission.
After tearful goodbyes, they left on Easter morning. For the first time in more than six months, Jordan ran through the grass in her own front yard.
In an online update, www.caringbridge.org/visit/jordanjemsek, Joe Jemsek said his family would have fractured without help from so many people.
"Unfortunately," he wrote, "nothing is guaranteed regarding a remission or cure from Acute Myelocytic Leukemia, a disease that was uniformly fatal to children just a decade ago. Jordan's progress will be closely monitored for years to come, though the first two years after therapy are the most critical."
'Happy Mother's Day!'
Joe and James flew home on Thursday to be with Kay for Mother's Day. James will stay and return to school here.
"I am giddy with joy," Kay said. "It will be sad without my mother, but a happy day because both my children are home."
Jordan said she and James planned to cook scrambled eggs, bacon and toast this morning and serve their mother breakfast in bed. Afterward, they will all go into the garden and plant roses beside Nana's Angel. There, beneath the holly trees, Kay feels closer to her mother than anywhere else.
It's almost as if she can hear Bette's reassuring voice:
"Nothing in life ever comes easy." Not chemotherapy. Not radiation. Not even love or motherhood. "But there's nothing you can't overcome."