College Essays About Parents With Cancer

When I was 16, I lived with the Watkins family in Wichita, Kansas. Mrs. Watkins was the coordinator of the foreign exchange student program I was enrolled in. She had a nine year old son named Cody. I would babysit Cody every day after school for at least two to three hours. We would play Scrabble or he would read to me from Charlotte’s Web or The Ugly Duckling. He would talk a lot about his friends and school life, and I would listen to him and ask him the meanings of certain words. He was my first friend in the New World.

My second family was the Martinez family, who were friends of the Watkins’s. The host dad Michael was a high school English teacher and the host mom Jennifer (who had me call her “Jen”) taught elementary school. She had recently delivered a baby, so she was still in the hospital when I moved into their house. The Martinez family did almost everything together. We made pizza together, watched Shrek on their cozy couch together, and went fishing on Sunday together. On rainy days, Michael, Jen and I would sit on the porch and listen to the rain, talking about our dreams and thoughts. Within two months I was calling them mom and dad.

After I finished the exchange student program, I had the option of returning to Korea but I decided to stay in America. I wanted to see new places and meet different people. Since I wasn’t an exchange student anymore, I had the freedom--and burden--of finding a new school and host family on my own. After a few days of thorough investigation, I found the Struiksma family in California. They were a unique group.

The host mom Shellie was a single mom who had two of her own sons and two Russian daughters that she had adopted. The kids always had something warm to eat, and were always on their best behavior at home and in school. It would be fair to say that this was all due to Shellie’s upbringing. My room was on the first floor, right in front of Shellie’s hair salon, a small business that she ran out of her home. In the living room were six or seven huge amplifiers and a gigantic chandelier hung from the high ceiling. The kitchen had a bar. At first, the non-stop visits from strangers made me nervous, but soon I got used to them. I remember one night, a couple barged into my room while I was sleeping. It was awkward.

After a few months I realized we weren’t the best fit. In the nicest way possible, I told them I had to leave. They understood.

The Ortiz family was my fourth family. Kimberly, the host mom, treated me the same way she treated her own son. She made me do chores: I fixed dinner, fed their two dogs Sassy and Lady, and once a week I cleaned the bathroom. I also had to follow some rules: No food in my room, no using the family computer, no lights on after midnight, and no ride unless it was an emergency. The first couple of months were really hard to get used to, but eventually I adjusted.

I lived with the Ortiz family for seven months like a monk in the deep forest. However, the host dad Greg’s asthma got worse after winter, so he wanted to move to the countryside. It was unexpected and I only had a week to find a new host family. I asked my friend Danielle if I could live with her until I found a new home. That’s how I met the Dirksen family, my fifth family.

The Dirksen family had three kids. They were all different. Danielle liked bitter black coffee, Christian liked energy drinks, and Becca liked sweet lemon tea. Dawn, the host mom didn’t like winter, and Mark, the host dad, didn’t like summer. After dinner, we would all play Wii Sports together. I was the king of bowling, and Dawn was the queen of tennis. I don’t remember a single time that they argued about the games. Afterward, we would gather in the living room and Danielle would play the piano while the rest of us sang hymns.

Of course, those 28 months were too short to fully understand all five families, but I learned from and was shaped by each of them. By teaching me English, nine year-old Cody taught me the importance of being able to learn from anyone; the Martinez family showed me the value of spending time together as a family; the Struiksma family taught me to reserve judgment about divorced women and adopted children; Mrs. Ortiz taught me the value of discipline and the Dirksen family taught me the importance of appreciating one another’s different qualities.

Getting along with other people is necessary for anyone and living with five families has made me more sensitive to others’ needs: I have learned how to recognize when someone needs to talk, when I should give advice and when to simply listen, and when someone needs to be left alone; in the process, I have become much more adaptable. I’m ready to change, learn, and be shaped by my future families.

ANALYSIS OF THE "FIVE FAMILIES" ESSAY

Remember that movie “The Sixth Sense”?

I won't ruin it for you, but I will tell you that there’s a moment toward the end when a crucial piece of information is revealed that triggers in the mind of the audience a series of realizations that have been leading up to this Big Revelation.

That’s kind of what this writer does: he buries a series of hints (one in each paragraph) that he “explodes” in the final paragraph. In short:

  1. He buries a series of essence images in his first paragraphs (one per family).
  2. He doesn’t tell us what they mean until the end of the essay, when he writes “I learned and was shaped by each of them.” Note that each essence image is actually a lesson--something he learned from each family.
  3. When he reveals each lesson at the end, one after the other, we sense how all these seemingly random events are connected. We realize this writer has been carefully constructing this piece all along; we see the underlying structure. And it’s a pretty neat one.

Also note:

  • Each of the first five paragraphs works to SHOW. (He waits to TELL us what they mean ‘til that second to last paragraph.)
  • See how distinct each family is? He does this through specific images and objects.
  • The second to last paragraph answers the “So what?” question. (Q: Why did he just show us all these details? A: To demonstrate what each family has taught him.)
  • He also goes one step further. He answers the “So what?” question once more in the final paragraph. (Q: So what am I going to do with all these lessons? A: I’m going to use them to adapt to my next family--in college.)
  • The beauty of this is that he’s demonstrating (showing not telling) that he has an extremely valuable quality that will be useful for doing well at any college: adaptability.

TIP: And that’s one more way to write your essay. Identify your single greatest strength (in this case, it was his ability to adapt to whatever life gave him). Ask: how did I learn this? How can I SHOW that I’m good at this?

Here are all the “Show” and “Tell” moments clearly marked:

When I was 16, I lived with the Watkins family in Wichita, Kansas. Mrs. Watkins was the coordinator of the foreign exchange student program I was enrolled in. She had a nine year old son named Cody. I would babysit Cody every day after school for at least two to three hours. We would play Scrabble or he would read to me from Charlotte’s Web or The Ugly Duckling. He would talk a lot about his friends and school life, and I would listen to him and ask him the meanings of certain words. He was my first friend in the New World.

Show 1: "By teaching me English, nine year-old Cody taught me the importance of being able to learn from anyone."

My second family was the Martinez family, who were friends of the Watkins’s. The host dad Michael was a high school English teacher and the host mom Jennifer (who had me call her “Jen”) taught elementary school. She had recently delivered a baby, so she was still in the hospital when I moved into their house. The Martinez family did almost everything together. We made pizza together, watched Shrek on their cozy couch together, and went fishing on Sunday together. On rainy days, Michael, Jen and I would sit on the porch and listen to the rain, talking about our dreams and thoughts. Within two months I was calling them mom and dad.

Show 2: "the Martinez family showed me the value of spending time together as a family" (implication: he doesn't have this with his own family)

After I finished the exchange student program, I had the option of returning to Korea but I decided to stay in America. I wanted to see new places and meet different people. Since I wasn’t an exchange student anymore, I had the freedom--and burden--of finding a new school and host family on my own. After a few days of thorough investigation, I found the Struiksma family in California. They were a unique group.

The host mom Shellie was a single mom who had two of her own sons and two Russian daughters that she had adopted. The kids always had something warm to eat, and were always on their best behavior at home and in school. It would be fair to say that this was all due to Shellie’s upbringing. My room was on the first floor, right in front of Shellie’s hair salon, a small business that she ran out of her home. In the living room were six or seven huge amplifiers and a gigantic chandelier hung from the high ceiling. The kitchen had a bar. At first, the non-stop visits from strangers made me nervous, but soon I got used to them. I remember one night, a couple barged into my room while I was sleeping. It was awkward.

Show 3: "the Struiksma family taught me to reserve judgment about divorced women and adopted children."

After a few months I realized we weren’t the best fit. In the nicest way possible, I told them I had to leave. They understood.

The Ortiz family was my fourth family. Kimberly, the host mom, treated me the same way she treated her own son. She made me do chores: I fixed dinner, fed their two dogs Sassy and Lady, and once a week I cleaned the bathroom. I also had to follow some rules: No food in my room, no using the family computer, no lights on after midnight, and no ride unless it was an emergency. The first couple of months were really hard to get used to, but eventually I adjusted.

I lived with the Ortiz family for seven months like a monk in the deep forest. However, the host dad Greg’s asthma got worse after winter, so he wanted to move to the countryside. It was unexpected and I only had a week to find a new host family. I asked my friend Danielle if I could live with her until I found a new home. That’s how I met the Dirksen family, my fifth family.

Show 4: "Mrs. Ortiz taught me the value of discipline."

The Dirksen family had three kids. They were all different. Danielle liked bitter black coffee, Christian liked energy drinks, and Becca liked sweet lemon tea. Dawn, the host mom didn’t like winter, and Mark, the host dad, didn’t like summer. After dinner, we would all play Wii Sports together. I was the king of bowling, and Dawn was the queen of tennis. I don’t remember a single time that they argued about the games. Afterward, we would gather in the living room and Danielle would play the piano while the rest of us sang hymns.

Show 5: "and the Dirksen family taught me the importance of appreciating one another’s different qualities."

Of course, those 28 months were too short to fully understand all five families, but I learned from and was shaped by each of them. By teaching me English, nine year-old Cody taught me the importance of being able to learn from anyone; the Martinez family showed me the value of spending time together as a family; the Struiksma family taught me to reserve judgment about divorced women and adopted children; Mrs. Ortiz taught me the value of discipline and the Dirksen family taught me the importance of appreciating one another’s different qualities.

The "Tell" / "So What"

Getting along with other people is necessary for anyone and living with five families has made me more sensitive to others’ needs: I have learned how to recognize when someone needs to talk, when I should give advice and when to simply listen, and when someone needs to be left alone; in the process, I have become much more adaptable. I’m ready to change, learn, and be shaped by my future families.

I remember the day my mom brought home Sharie and Jillian. They were new members of our family, and we were skeptical at first. But we figured they deserved a chance. We could try them on for a while and see what we thought. They both seemed quiet and a little air-headed, but you could tell from their hair that they had completely different personalities.

As soon as I saw their pale, lifeless faces, I decided that they needed a makeover . Not yet old enough to own makeup, I dove into my mom's drawer. Sharie’s curly locks called for some serious glamour: red lipstick, a bit of blush, some funky colored eye shadow, and an obscure pair of diamond-studded fake eyelashes. Jillian got a more understated look to match her short, straight ‘do. In the end, they both looked fabulous, worthy of being put on display. Which they were—for the next year and a half, Sharie and Jillian sat on my mom's dresser, their newly decorated Styrofoam heads holding my mother’s wigs.

This is my most vivid memory from the time my mom had breast cancer. Sure, there are the memories of the days after she had undergone a particularly bad treatment, when we would tiptoe around the creaky wood floors upstairs whispering, "Shhh, Mom's sleeping." There are recollections of watching my mom's hair slowly fall out, and then finally riding in the car with her to get her head shaved. Early on, we had a family meeting so my parents could announce, “ Your mom has cancer ,” and then another one later to tell us, “The radiation didn’t work, so we’re going to try chemo.” I'm not even sure now if all of these memories are real or if they are just made up from what I believe cancer memories should involve.

Whatever the case may be, they are weak memories compared to those of the wigs, the hats, and the scarves—the things my mom used to cover her hairless head. She didn't really like any of them, but I loved them all. Whenever I would hear her complain about wearing a hat, I would snatch it off her head and put it on mine, observing myself in the mirror:

“I don’t see why you don’t like them, they’re so cute!”

“Well you’re a hat person, Erin,” she would reply, smiling at me.

I didn’t know what made someone a “hat person ,” but apparently she wasn’t one. Even so, she always wore something when she went out. At home she didn’t care as much. We all knew what was going on, so it didn’t matter if she left her head bare around us. But even with the effects of her disease so apparent, what was hurting my mom never bothered me.

For the most part, my daily routine went unchanged. I would spend the day at school, then come home to find my mom on the couch—“resting,” as she called it. Sometimes that meant sleeping, but more often she was awake and ready to hear about my day. When my dad came home we all had dinner together, then had family time—me reading Harry Potter out loud or us all watching Nick at Night—before going to bed. No chronically absent parents. No extra burden placed on me and my siblings.

Granted, my brother and sister were probably too young to do much. At only four and six years old, they didn’t even know what cancer was and certainly couldn’t be expected to pick up too much slack for my mom. But I was 12, and a mature 12 at that. I should have grasped what was going on and been more helpful to my parents. All the things I could have done—taken care of my siblings, gotten myself ready for school, made dinners for the family—I didn’t. I just continued living as I had before cancer entered our lives.

At times I’ve been tempted to blame my parents for my lack of inclusion in my mom’s struggle. It was almost like they were hiding it from me, like they didn’t think I could handle the difficulties they were facing.

Other times I’ve wonder if my lack of concern during this struggle was my fault. I was a middle school girl wrapped up in my own world. During the year and a half that my mom was undergoing treatment, I became a teenager, started shaving my legs, found my first boyfriend, and mapped out my future as an interior designer. I was very focused on me. It didn't bother me that mom was going to the hospital—as long as there was someone around to drive me to my friend's house. I wasn't concerned when my dad took us on vacation while she stayed home—I was excited to go to camp!

But I think this is what my parents wanted.

They wanted a normal childhood for me and my siblings. They didn’t feel like we should have to worry about our mom not being around in a year or think about the crazy chemicals being pumped into her body. They preferred that we decorate mannequin heads and parade our brother through the house wearing a woman's wig. They wanted us to laugh, and they wanted to laugh right along with us. I don't think they wanted cancer to infect our lives, too.

It wasn’t until I was completing my college applications that I realized what little effect my mom’s stint with cancer had on me. At the time, I wished that it had. I thought that if it had been more traumatic I could have gained something from it . Maybe a better understanding of the bad things in the world would help me really appreciate the good. Or maybe the idea of not having one of my loved ones around would help me treasure all the time I have with them. And if I had learned all these things through a traumatic experience with cancer, I could write a damned good application essay about it.

But I made it through my college applications with less cliché, and more meaningful, experiences. And I realized that I never needed a dramatic story with a moral at the ending. I learned and grew, not because of my mother's disease, but in spite of it. My bond with my family grew more by laughing together than by worrying together. I learned to appreciate how great my life was because my parents let me live a wonderful one, not because some destructive little cells made me realize how bad things could be. For my family, cancer was the bump in the road that we drove right over, laughing and singing all along, and then forgot about a couple miles further. And while I’m sure the road was more than a little bumpier for my mom, she never faltered in keeping on down the road.

One thing did come out of my mom’s time with cancer. With all her extra time at home, my mom started her own business . Its goal was to help women who were dissatisfied with their lives to figure out what would make them happy. Its name: Emergo, which means “to emerge.” I remember taking her picture for the brochure. Standing next to a tree in our backyard, wearing Jillian and a big smile, my mom didn’t look like a woman suffering from cancer. She didn’t look like a woman suffering from anything. She had taken on cancer and emerged no worse for the wear, only wiser.

And I guess now that I’ve emerged, too—through the stages of self-centered pre-teen and self-interested college applicant to become the young woman I am today. And I am ready to write my “cancer story.” Not one full of strife or drama, blame or vanity—the types of accounts that would have come if I had tried to write this at an earlier time in my life. I am able to write the true story of how my parents did hide cancer from me, not because they didn’t think I could handle it, but because they didn’t think I should have to.

For all this and more, I thank them.

Photo of mom and daughter courtesy of Shutterstock .

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