Cameron Gallagher would have been bold enough to ask me, “what is a life meant to be?”
I often think about that when I’m cooing and coaxing an infant into cooperating for a check up.
I don’t remember every checkup I did for Cameron, but I do remember the day that I understood something very important about who she was. Everything about her was larger than life, and she asked hard questions.
As an infant, her eyes were hugely beautiful … and knowing. They were the kind of eyes that can turn a firm-absolutely-no “No” into a Let-me-think-about-it “Maybe.” There’s something I admire about eyes that understand persistance. Cameron met the sharp edges of my medical world more often than I’m sure any child would have liked. From shots and blood draws to IVs and surgery, she learned early in life how to reach for her mother’s hand and summon up a larger-than-life bravery. She could stomp a foot, with her hands on her hips, and refuse to go another step until she understood the oft-repeated question: “Why?” She gave me a great deal of practice as a pediatrician admitting that I didn’t always know why.
When her family moved to Australia for a time, she almost had me convinced I should hide in her suitcase and come along. She expected that she would need a doctor in her new country, and I was declared ‘very good at being a doctor.’ It was possible to convince her that there were good doctors everywhere and that she knew how to be an engaged patient (long before ePatients were fashionable.) I like to think I inspired confidence in Cameron Gallagher. She certainly inspired it in me.
I was overwhelmed with a sense of grief and loss on March 16, 2014. Cameron had come to my office a number of times in the months before she died. She had just finished running her first half marathon, and she was coming out of a very low period in her life. She described the struggle of those days in a way that I have never forgotten:
My life is like our family’s kitchen. It feels so full and busy and noisy and light and bright, and we are all moving so fast. We eat breakfast and pack our lunches, and we’re all hurrying out the door so we won’t be late for school, and it seems surreal. And then at night, sometimes I can’t sleep, and I go down to that same kitchen. The tile is freezing on my feet, and the whole room is gray and cold and quiet and lonely, and the emptiness in that room is awful. I cry and cry sometimes because nobody can really understand this. Nobody can make sense of all this for me.
Cameron may have seen her life as bright and energetic at the same time that it could be profoundly cold and lonely; but I don’t believe that she could see the ways in which her interior life was a light to others. Most of us don’t. It’s that way for most of us when we look at one another… we never really see the big picture, appreciate the whole person, understand a person’s whole life.
In the years since Cameron’s death, countless young people have spoken up about her influence in their lives. They’ve made promises to be more authentic, more loving, less selfish. This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced as I watch how far the ripples have extended her reach like a pebble tossed into the lake. Cameron continues to challenge those of us who knew her: Live with more courage, Have more compassion, Enjoy more Nutella. Cameron loved Nutella.
That small baby girl, the one with the big eyes and the long legs grew to be a young woman of faith and fragile emotions, but I will always remember how much she enjoyed the rich, bittersweet taste of Nutella. Just like life. Rich and bittersweet. Cameron was larger than life. Even her sandwiches were bigger and better than a plain old PBJ.
Our children are small babies when they arrive in this world, and yet each one of them holds infinite potential to change the world. Just like Cameron, with each breath, every kind word, every mischievous moment… just like Cameron, they do change the world.
The time we have with our children is far shorter than we can fully comprehend, and it passes much faster than we imagine it will. Understanding that reality, Cameron would remind me to tell my own kids how much I love them, how proud I am of all the meaning that they create with their life choices. She would want us all to speak up. To fight the good fight. And finish the race.
Celebrating Cameron Kathleen Gallagher.
January 21, 1998 – March 16, 2014
[2 Timothy 4:7] “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Gayle Schrier Smith, MD