It’s the Bounce that Counts

 Resilience. Let me explain: It’s like a tennis ball. Sometimes in a game the ball skips away from you. You swing but you miss. And you have to work harder, whether it’s the next serve or the rally that follows or it’s the next game. It may even be the next day. You think hard about it, you lift your head and straighten your shoulders, then you hit that ball again and

. . . whack! That, pals, is resilience.

Both our daughters had it. The good parts, of course, often get mixed up with the bad but life has a habit of getting in the way, right? Right.

So. A few random thoughts rolled around in my brain and—pop!—out came stories about our kids and their resilience.

Valerie, our little one, was diagnosed with bone cancer when she was three years old and we lost her when she was nine. As a result, Val didn’t have time to display all the marvels inherent in her personality. Yet my husband Ed and I knew her resilience was there. One example stands out and we relish it to this day.

When Valerie was six, the bone cancer that Ed and I hoped had disappeared came back and she had to have her right leg amputated above the knee leaving just her thigh. The night before surgery, the orthopedic surgeon said he didn’t want me to be in the hospital room when he told Valerie about the operation. He felt it would be best to speak to her alone: “she’ll be angry with me, Mrs. Goldstein, not with you.” Although I didn’t understand that at all—I knew Val wouldn’t be angry with me—he didn’t explain further. I nodded (this was before I became a feminist!), said “okay” and left the room. All the same, I stood right outside her doorway in case she needed me. While I’m not sure exactly what he must have said—“I’m going to take off your leg, Valerie”—or something similar, to a small child it must have been incomprehensible. It was to me.

Ed returned from the bathroom as the surgeon was walking down the hall toward the elevator and he hollared out, “Get a good night’s sleep, doctor.” Ed did not say it as a joke. Once back in Valerie’s room, he and I tried to discuss it with her but got nowhere. All she said was, “Mommy, turn on the TV. Can I have some juice, too?”

The night after surgery was painful but the nurses kept Valerie as comfortable as possible: I tried to be helpful but I think I was simply in the way. I had been sitting up in a chair next to her hospital bed bleary-eyed with worry when the next morning, Val, fully awakened from the anethesia, and surprisingly without any pain, smiled at me as only a cheery six-year-old can. My daughter put her hand on my arm and, without any preamble, said to me, “Mommy, the doctor told me he was going to take away my whole leg. He didn’t. He left me a little leg!” Okay, I was wrong about Valerie not understanding what the doctor said.

But then, as I made complete sense of what she was saying, my eyes filled with tears and I thought my heart would burst. I beamed, kissed my little one gently, several times, maybe more. And from that moment on, everyone in our household and beyond called Val’s missing limb ‘her little leg.’

Her ability to bounce back from misfortune is what we call resilience.

Stacy was five years old when her three-year-old sister was first diagnosed with cancer and, I’m afraid, the illness became embedded in her. She was confused, she was cranky, she was saddened at the change in her family’s life. Yet, what I saw as her resilience cropped up time and time again.

Early on in Valerie’s illness, when Stacy was in first grade, she astonished us by diving full force into the role of Peter Pan in a Parent’s Day play. Our outwardly shy little six-year-old wasn’t going to let something like her sister’s cancer prevent her from showing an adaptability, a buoyancy that allowed her to jump into something that she had never done before and do it with gusto. I don’t remember if Stacy stayed after school to rehearse but she was stunningly at ease in front of an audience that afternoon.

That’s what resilience is all about.

For Stacy, it was only the beginning.

Hey. Wait a minute . . . How did she remember her lines when she couldn’t remember to pick up her clothes? Oh well. In any event, she was a terrific Peter Pan. And I say this as the mother of a woundrous child, a mother who instantly had images of a soon-to-be famous actress in the clan. Didn’t happen. 

Resilience. Bounce. Call it what you may, our kid had it.

Which reminds me of another example: a swim coach who had seen her one day at the Jewish Community Center swim pool after school. Stacy was seven. He was very impressed with her swimming prowess and wanted her on his swim team. In fact, he pleaded with me to say yes for her. I told him that I had to ask Stacy first but I didn’t think there would be a problem.

What did Stacy say? My daughter said no. Then, calmly, without another backward glance at me, went back to her homework. Wrong again. I don’t think this has anything to do with resilience but I thought it was a cute story.

Years later, we were at Stacy and her husband Robert’s home—Stacy was 36 at the time—married, with a small son Jonah and was 11 years into fighting breast cancer. We were standing around chatting in the backyard and playing with Jonah when Stacy called for quiet. She said she wanted to read a poem she wrote. What? She wrote a poem? 

Stacy then climbed up on a two-foot high cement wall surrounding a big old tree, grinned at us and recited her funny poem to an amazed audience of four with the same enthusiasm and eye-popping expression she had in her role as Peter Pan all those years ago. Great bounce, huh?

When she was 37, and in her 12th year fighting breast cancer, Stacy entered a phase II trial of a new cancer drug at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. She understood the trial might help not only her but others as well if it proved feasible. It was a big IF. I think she knew that too.

The daily procedure was over early each afternoon. Stacy always felt sick afterwards but by the time we got back to her home, she usually felt better. This particular afternoon she asked if I would read an essay she had written. No kidding. She wrote an essay? My child continues to surprise me.

Stacy had mailed a story she wrote called “Conflict” to The New York Times a week before. She never indicated an interest in writing to me, the writer in the family! Unfortunately, it was not accepted: The Times is too fussy but, regardless, I would have encouraged her if I had known. On the other hand, it might have blocked her enthusiasm for doing what she wanted when she wanted. Be that as it may, I took the story home, read it and loved it. Although we lost Stacy a few weeks after she mailed “Conflict” to The Times, both Stacy’s resilience, and Valerie’s, knew no bounds.

The above are only a few of the ways our girls ran away from gloom’s door: it’s their form of resilience, their bounce.

I believe that resilience exists within us all—yes, it is there—though it’s not always up front and center. We have to work at it.

For my husband and me, the tennis ball’s fluff has worn off a bit, it doesn’t bounce as high and if one looks closely the ball is misshapen. Time has altered it yet there’s still that bounce. It is resilient. And so are we.

What about your children? Tell me their stories. Tell me yours. I want to hear every single one.


Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein