A 19-year-old woman is dying. It could be days, it could be weeks, it could be a few months. No one really knows, mainly because no one knows much of anything about the form of cancer currently infesting her brain.
You have heard of this woman. You saw her story playing on the TV in the living room as you barreled through another day: Work, dinner. Kids’ homework without end, amen. “Terrible,” you thought.
You read about her on the dot-com, but only a sentence or two, until your cellphone rang or your neighbor appeared at the door, needing to borrow your leaf blower. “Awful,” you thought.
You knew a little about Lauren Hill. What is it, brain cancer? She plays basketball where? You know enough to make small talk at happy hour or on the first tee. “Can you imagine?” you said.
You are moved, momentarily. You shake your head and offer a quick prayer for Lauren or, more likely, for the blessing of your own kids’ good health. Then you can’t find your keys and soccer practice starts in 15 minutes and you have to stop at the cleaners and your car has no gas, and just like that the story of Lauren Hill retreats to the big warehouse in your head, joining the rest of the jumble. We are so well informed, yet so poorly versed.
You are who Lauren wants to speak with. It is to you she is dedicating the rest of her brief and precious life. Have a minute?
“One January night, I was having a meltdown,” she begins. “I asked God if I could do anything. I didn’t know what He sent me here for. I wanted to know what He sent me here for. Whatever you sent me here for, I’m ready to do.”
Does she have your attention now?
“What keeps me going is remembering why I’m here,” she says.
Lauren Hill is here for all of us. She’s a soul engine, and all she wants to do for the rest of her life is remind us how good we have it, and that we need to make that goodness matter, for everyone. That would include kids with the cancer she has, which is inoperable and incurable and swiftly fatal and receives very little attention.
To that end, she is doing all sorts of interviews, locally and nationally. Her cause has become a phenomenon, its apex occurring Nov. 2 when she plays in her first college basketball game. The game was moved from Nov. 15 at Hiram College to Xavier’s Cintas Center to accommodate a packed house and Lauren’s distilled timeline. The 10,000-seat arena sold out in less than a day.
She is a shy young lady, rapidly emerging from her shell, to advise us that lives don’t have to be lived long to be lived triumphantly. Hers is an impossibly sad story. But only if we choose to look at it that way. Lauren doesn’t.
“I told (God) I’d take every opportunity to speak for the kids who can’t speak,” she says.
LAUREN HILL Thu., October 23, 2014
Mt. St. Joseph College sophomore basketball player Lauren Hill practices a play especially designed for Hill to make a lay-up in the Nov. 2 game. The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran Mount St. Joseph basketball player Lauren Hill will play one last game on Nov. 2 in MSJ’s opener at Cintas Center, which is sold out. Hill has brain cancer and is not expected to live much longer. The NCAA agreed to move up the game to ensure Hill so that she could play. (Photo: The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran, The Cincinnati Enquirer)
Most of us tackle mortality on the vaguest of turfs. We write a will, we pay the life insurance premiums. If we think about dying, it’s usually because someone else has died. A friend, a parent, an athlete we idolized growing up. Death? Not us.
Lauren knows she’s on a schedule. Her cancer fatigues her. The meds she takes to forestall the cancer come with nasty symptoms. “My vicious circle of medicine,” she calls it.
The steroids swell her face. She has terrible stomach aches and migraines. She rubs the joints in her pained hands and knees. Her pain comes and goes, hour by hour. One hour, she’s fine. The next, she isn’t.
All that’s certain is her resolve. It’s what she can control. “I’m spreading awareness on a level that’s never been spread before,” Lauren says. “I really hope it’s going to bring a change to the world. Being able to have this opportunity is all I’ve wanted and prayed for.”
Lisa Hill, Lauren’s mother, could tell stories about the lack of funding and attention paid to Lauren’s form of cancer, called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). “There is such desperate need for research and funding and new drugs to battle this thing,” Lisa says. “Families should not have to go through this.”
Says Lauren, “Nobody should have to go through this. Nobody should be told their child has a limited time to live.”
She is dignified, poised and composed. Everything we love about our greatest athletes.She is more concerned for others than for herself. Like every young person faced with a serious illness I’ve met, she is impossibly wise. Lauren seems to own an inner peace the rest of us do not.
Mt. St. Joseph College freshman basketball player Lauren Hill is congratulated by teammates after making a lay-up in practice. (Photo: The Enquirer/Carrie Cochran)
We talk 45 minutes. She wobbles only when thinking about others. When Lauren was diagnosed a year ago, she asked if there was anyone else locally living with DIPG. Brendan Kelly was a 24-year-old from Cincinnati. Lauren leaned on him.
“He helped me through the first part of my journey,” she says. “My radiation. Life stuff. ‘I’m in a funk, how do I get out of it?'”
Brendan handled his illness with a deft sense of humor. He joked that his problem “is all in my head.”
“We were supposed to double-team the Hyde Park Blast,” Lauren says of the day-long event last June, proceeds benefiting cancer research. Brendan died in March, less than a year after his diagnosis. Before he passed, he wanted to give his family things to remember him by. Specifically, jewelry for his mother and sisters.
Lauren and Lisa fulfilled that wish for Brendan, but his father took Brendan’s death especially hard. Lauren didn’t know if the dad wanted the gifts delivered. He did, but the uncertainty shook Lauren up. “I was worried about him,” she says. Now, “I’m worried about my dad.”
Lauren says Brendan “lived in the moment. That’s why I loved him so much.” It’s what she has tried to do, too. “It’s not something I’ve always done,” she says. “It’s almost like you’ve been sleeping your whole life and someone says, ‘Hey, wake up.'”
Says Lisa, “You almost have to stay in the moment, because if you let your mind wander, if you don’t keep it roped in, it can take you to dark places. Why worry about what’s down the road when you don’t know how long it really is. Do you know what I mean?”
The Hill family – Lauren, mother Lisa and dad Brent, brother Nate and sister Erin – has tightened, some of it at Lauren’s insistence. TV watching and computer time have dwindled. When asked what she wanted to do on her birthday a few weeks ago, Lauren said, “I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want anything. I just want to be with the people I love.”
She will spend the rest of her life doing what she loves. She plays basketball, shooting left-handed now, even though she’s a natural righthander, because the cancer has weakened her right side. She thrives in the sisterhood of the team, whose members understand her pain and are learning from it.
She will talk of the need for funding and research. “I want to be the next Susan G. Komen,” she says. Komen died of breast cancer in 1980 at 33. The organization formed in her name has since raised almost $1.5 billion for breast cancer research.
She listens to the singer Katy Perry, specifically the song Roar, which Lauren first heard while undergoing radiation treatments:
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar.
Lauren will welcome the attention, for the light it will shine. Already, she has been honored at an Indiana Pacers game and been visited at practice by Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still, whose 4-year-old daughter is also battling pediatric brain cancer. NCAA president Mark Emmert called recently. The University of Cincinnati women’s basketball team will honor her at its exhibition game Nov. 7.
And of course, a week from Sunday, she will assume center stage at Cintas Center.
Lauren will shine brightly until her light is extinguished. Even then, she hopes she’ll be remembered for the good she did. This is how to script the most perfect ending to this most imperfect story. It’s spectacular how the imminence of death can prompt so much living. That’s Lauren’s gift. To us all.
I asked Lisa Hill what she thought Lauren’s epitaph might say. Lauren and Lisa speak openly of Lauren’s death. They’re past lamenting it or fearing it. Lauren says, simply, “I just hope I’m not in pain. My wish is to die while I’m sleeping. The pain that everybody else will (feel),” she says, that will be the worst pain.
Says Lisa, “I would say, ‘She never gave up, not even for a moment. She never strayed from her goals. She lived and loved with passion and desire. That’s who she is.'”
Lauren has given us multiple reasons to cry, not all of them bad. And to care. Lots of reasons to care. And to feel and to act. As Lisa says, “We’re all here to teach, and be taught.”
There is no why now. There is only what we believe. Lauren’s absolute terror is also her ultimate peace. All at once. She has chosen her ending. It roars.
Ticketmaster announced Wednesday that Mount St. Joseph University’s opener on Nov. 2 against Hiram College at Xavier’s Cintas Center is sold out.
How to give
Make checks payable to “The Cure Starts Now” and mail to 10280 Chester Road, Cincinnati, OH 45215. All donations go directly to Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma research. The Hill family will receive an acknowledgment of the donation. Information:www.thecurestartsnow.org.
Hill started a campaign to raise awareness and money for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). All donations will go to The Cure Starts Now Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating childhood cancer.
The campaign entitled #Layup4Lauren is modeled after the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that took social media by storm over the last few months. Hill and Mount St. Joseph head basketball coach Dan Benjamin issued the first set of challenges in a YouTube video.
Since her brain cancer often causes dizziness and forces her to shoot with her non-dominant hand, the challenge is to spin three times and make a layup with your non-dominant hand.
Among those Hill challenged: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NBA star LeBron James, former NBA star Spud Webb, Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon.
The Cure Starts Now Foundation set up a link on their homepage in Lauren’s honor.