As I lay staring into the darkness, I saw the faint figure of my father move across the Connecticut hotel room.
Tomorrow would be my wedding day.
Dad sat on the edge of the bed. "Remember, Jo," he said. "If this doesn't work out, you've fought a tougher battle than this."
Six months later, Dad would again make the 12-hour drive from Michigan to Connecticut. It hadn't worked out. This time, Dad wouldn't be there to give me away; he'd be there to move me back home.
Dad was speaking of my battle with cancer. I was diagnosed with lymphoma in the summer of 1999. I was 27. It had taken over my bone marrow. My doctor likened it to a "liquid tumor" that flowed throughout my body.
By the time of the December 2000 wedding, I had been through six rounds of hard-core chemotherapy followed by six rounds of kinder treatment. Doctors had told me that September that there was no sign of the disease.
It had been a long haul. There were moments of darkness, but light always followed -- with the dozens of letters, phone calls, visits and kind words from family and friends.
There for me
On the night of my first treatment, friends listened as I lay on my apartment floor between the bedroom and bathroom, moaning, "I will never do this again." (I did do it again. Five times.)
And they always, always hoped (sometimes in their own ways). Grandma kept mailing me St. Jude cards. ("Mom," I said, "does she realize it says 'patron saint of hopeless cases'?")
It was more than a physical battle. The most difficult moment of the entire experience was telling my mother -- via telephone -- of the diagnosis.
Others faced different crises:
Rob was despondent the first time I saw him in the medical oncology unit at Yale-New Haven (Conn.) Hospital. He sat in a wheelchair, his head hanging down. I leaned over and whispered, "It gets better."
The last I heard, he and his wife were turning to experimental drugs. But I remember his smile beneath worried eyes as he told of a daughter going to a West Coast college to study marine biology.
And there was Lois. She was sick in bed when she reminded her husband to call me to invite me for a ride on their boat when she was feeling better.
We never went on that boat ride. Lois died in the emergency room one night with an infection. Her husband later gave me her horseshoe ring: "When you look at this remember how lucky you are," he said.
I was lucky. I got better. Thank you, Dr. Rappeport. Thank you, researchers. And thanks to a new drug called Rituxan.
It's two years now since they said there was no sign of the cancer.
I was once told the cancer will "probably" come back, within 10 years. I get blood tests, visit a new doctor monthly and knock on wood. The disease is still a part of my life.
So, on Thursday, I'll join others touched by the disease at Youngstown's first Light the Night walk at Youngstown State University. (Register at 6 p.m. at Beeghley Center if you want to join in.) Walkers have collected for the Leukemia & amp; Lymphoma Society's Northern Ohio Chapter. As they walk, they'll be carrying lighted balloons. Mine, as a survivor, will be white. Supporters carry red.
More than 640,000 Americans live with a blood-related cancer. The society funds hundreds of researchers as well as patient and community services and education.
I did a similar walk last year in New Haven and saw how the floating balloons lifted spirits and brought light to the dark night.
I watched others walk, some in celebration, some with memories. We shared stories; we wrote messages of hope. The camaraderie was an example of how we light one another's nights as we battle not only cancer, but other kinks in life's plan.
If my darkness comes again, I've learned of the many places I can look to lift my spirits or light my night.
I may find light in a sterile hospital, as I lean over to whisper words of encouragement. Maybe it will shine through a wren hopping across a city parking lot or sunflowers clustered beside the freeway.
There may be big moments, like a community gathering to say, "We won't give in to this disease."
Or there may be quiet ones. Like whispered words from a man, sitting in the dark, trying to tell his daughter he believes in her -- no matter what.