Doctors found a large tumor in my daughter’s neck a few weeks ago. There’s no way to say that but to say it, and to say that as you read this, please read knowing that it colors every word I type to you now, it narrows the breath I draw from the room.
Friends. I’m going to need to talk to you about another person’s baby today, too. Soon.
Six months ago, I lifted my daughter’s face to kiss her goodbye for school. Her lymph node seemed swollen. She had just been sick recently, mid-December. It didn’t seem overly unusual but I don’t take chances, not with my children, so I took my child to the doctor. My doctor takes no chances either. I love him. Bloodwork. Ultrasound. All clear. ENT, just to be safe? Yes. Definitely. The ENT is excellent, he agrees, this looks normal. Repeat ultrasound, no changes. Kids get swollen lymph nodes, sometimes for up to eighteen months, they tell me. Google confirms. One of those things. We all breathe easier. I still research lymphoma symptoms and warning signs, I check her lymph node and tonsil every night to look for changes. Months pass. It doesn’t change. I know it doesn’t. I am watching. Deep in the tissue of my daughter’s neck, pressing against her precious carotid and her jugular and her vocal and vagus nerves, there is a tumor that her lymph node is screaming against. I don’t know. Six months ago, there’s a lot I don’t know will happen.
Elijah McClain’s last words, as anyone knows them, were “I just can’t breathe correctly, I can’t fix myself.” Elijah McClain died in state custody in August of 2019 after being detained for wearing a ski mask and dancing to music as he walked home. “I’m just different,” he said, “that’s all, I’m so sorry.” Elijah was choked by police in a carotid hold. Elijah’s precious carotid.
Six months ago, I did not know Elijah McClain’s name.
My daughter’s tumor is rare - rare in children, rare in location, rare in size. Tens of kids worldwide a year. We couldn’t have known. That’s all we know. And it’s terrifying knowledge. Confronting primordial helplessness when you look at your own child is an agony that is breaking my brain. It is ripping my soul apart. I understand I couldn’t have known, that no reasonable doctor would have known. But six months ago, I felt a change. I knew I did. And even though it seemed reasonable to think it nothing, I kept looking and looking and looking at it. I don’t take chances, not with my children.
Am I looking this way at other people’s children, too?
Six weeks ago, as I checked her lymph node, like I had checked it every other night, I felt a lump behind it. Tiny. But there. I pull her hair back. Is it swollen behind her ear? I can’t quite tell. Is this a lymph node, too? We make another appointment. Okay, I think. This means more bloodwork, this might mean scans. I breathe. I will worry when I have to.
Elijah McClain’s mother had to worry from the moment she became pregnant with her son. His mother had to worry - because before she knew her baby was a boy, before she knew her baby was autistic, before she took her baby to violin lessons, before she raised him to be a healer, before she watched him grow into an animal lover - Elijah McClain’s mother had to parent her child in the hostile environment of white supremacy. She had to parent him to be safe in a world that would view him as inherently less valuable, as inherently more threatening - no matter how precious and innocent he was. And he was.
Six weeks ago, I didn’t know my daughter had a tumor in her neck.
Six weeks ago, I didn’t know Elijah McClain’s name.
Six weeks ago, I didn’t have to.
I wonder what could have been prevented if I did.
It’s the human condition to turn away from unpleasant knowledge - we vilify its pursuit in roots as old as a tree in the Garden of Eden, we often shame truth telling as accusatory, irrelevant and indicting all at once. Culturally, we practice denial as a means of survival. Ignore the pain - your own, everyone else’s - at all costs. Comfort takes all. How else are we supposed to get by? Life can be so, so brutal. It requires a hardness of us.
It requires a softness in us, too - lest we become the brutal piece of someone else’s story.
Denial may seem, and feel, innocent. It may seem like the obvious response, a way to avoid punishment, guilt, discomfort. Everyone is doing it. Really. But denial is an evil in this world and in ourselves. It truly is. It chokes out relationships that might have thrived, it prevents growth that might have flourished - it keeps us from actively participating in our reality. It keeps us from changing the things we might have changed, if only we had spent less time pretending it was okay to keep them the same.
We tend to take on unpleasant truths only when we realize that we truly have to know them. We do this when it’s time to move on, when it’s time to make hard decisions, when it’s time to share hard news. It’s been a time of looking a hard reality squarely in the face for me, lately.
In a few weeks, skilled hands will slice through the tissue of my little girl’s neck with precision and care. The surgery will take a full day, it will be complicated and delicate and full of possible complications. It will cost thousands and thousands of dollars. She is worth all of this and more.
So was Elijah McClain.
Elijah McClain was choked unconscious by the police in Aurora Colorado while being detained under dubious circumstances, then given a shot of ketamine in the back of an ambulance by an EMT. He died days later. Had he simply been permitted to wear what he wanted and dance down a sidewalk, Elijah McClain would most certainly be alive. No one who participated in his careless, preventable, predictable death is being held responsible.
There was no cost for taking his precious life.
How can we deny that this is wrong?
Put simply, we can’t. So don’t. If you know this is wrong, if you know that Sheneen McClain’s child was as precious and valuable as mine, recognize this as the moment you truly need to know that. See it as a moment to take action. Tell someone what you think. Share this blog post. Send money to his family. Donate to an animal shelter in his name. Show up at a protest near you because yes, they are still going. Don’t ask why, because if the protests had stopped when George Floyd’s killers were charged, we still wouldn’t know Elijah McClain’s name. Do you realize that?
People don’t tend to acknowledge hard things until we really, really have to.
Friends. Now is the time. We have to.
In keeping with the spirit of this post, Sheneen McClain's fundraiser to create a park in Elijah's honor is below.