How do you tell a 3-year-old that she has cancer, her left eye is being taken out and she’ll be partially blind forever?
Single mom Krystal Cathcart, 28, had that conversation last year with her youngest daughter, McKenzie, after the girl’s diagnosis of pink eye turned out to be retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye.
“I told my daughter that God had put a star in her eye and that the star was going to have to be taken out,” Cathcart recalls. “We’re going to get you a new one. I remember she asked me: ‘Will I be able to see out of it?’ And I had to tell her ‘no.’ ”
Four-year-old McKenzie’s cancer is in remission now, thanks to chemotherapy.
The family’s finances remain in turmoil, however, because Cathcart had to stop working as a hair stylist to tend to McKenzie’s extensive health needs. They were forced to move in with friends in April, and Cathcart is sleeping on the couch, while her daughters share one of the two bedrooms.
Christmas promised to be a dismal affair until Cathcart learned of the annual Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau, which supplies toys to children from low-income families. Her three children are among 11,360 registered this year. The cost will be covered in part by Observer readers who donate to the Empty Stock Fund.
Cathcart says this will be the family’s first real Christmas in two years. McKenzie’s left eye was removed Nov. 3, 2014, and she stayed in the hospital until Christmas Eve. The family was consumed with uncertainty at the time, so the holiday was essentially put on hold.
“Having McKenzie’s eye removed was one thing, but it’s the chemo that can really kill you,” Cathcart says. “That’s when I really thought my baby would die. She was so small, and I thought the chemo was going to eat her body up.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, McKenzie took it like a champ – at least, early on – and developed an almost unnatural craving for crab legs and pancakes. Illness came later, along with a seizure that scared everyone badly and put the girl in the hospital for two weeks.
Cathcart stayed stoic through the worst of it all, even shaving her own hair when McKenzie’s fell out during the chemotherapy. But there came a day at the doctor’s office, after the eye had been removed, when Cathcart could take it no more. She started crying and had an emotional breakdown that lasted nearly two days. Her mother stepped in to help at that point.
“I held my emotions in so long that it happened when it shouldn’t have happened,” Cathcart says. “It all came out ... when they were trying to teach me how to put in the (false) eye. I couldn’t do it. My child was screaming and yelling. I wasn’t hurting her, but that sound. It was more than I could take.”
McKenzie is back to the bubbly, loud, often-singing girl she was before the surgery. It’s Cathcart who is having troubles. She worries what the future holds, noting doctors say it’s possible cancer will return. She also worries about the cruelty of other children who might mock her daughter’s appearance.
She says McKenzie is hoping for a doll house for Christmas and loves anything connected to music and Doc McStuffins toys. Her oldest sister, D’Riya, wants a bike, and her middle sister, Emileon, is begging for the $110 needed to register for gymnastics classes.
Cathcart would like to believe this could be their best Christmas ever. However, she has a plan, just in case the girls lose sight of the day’s true meaning. She’s going to cook extra food, just like she did on Thanksgiving, and they’ll go out as a family and hand free meals to homeless people walking streets on Christmas.
It’s something Cathcart wants to be a family tradition, although McKenzie enjoys it more than the older girls.
“On Thanksgiving, McKenzie told one homeless guy she wanted to give him some money, too. But I saw she handed him Monopoly, play money,” Cathcart recalls.
“I started to say something to her, but the man looked at me and said ‘Don’t.’ He told her: ‘I’m going to save this money forever.’ That’s the kind of little girl she is.”
The Empty Stocking Fund
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. Last year, readers contributed nearly $374,000 to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone’s memory or honor, we’ll print that person’s name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund/. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. For questions about your donation, call 704-358-5520. For questions about helping families, call Salvation Army Donor Relations: 704-714-4725.
Total raised so far: $222,851