February 7, 2015: Saturday morning rolled around and I woke to remember that I have cancer: a really bad, dangerous cancer that kills thousands of women. But I also remembered that it was going to be a big day for our daughter and that I would need to pull myself together and be present for her.
R and I met up in the kitchen and we hugged and cried for a little bit. In our family we do express our feelings openly but we don’t wallow around in them, so we dried our tears and talked about the day. She had to go to her judges’ interview and then prepare for the pageant. Her two best friends would be there for support and her boyfriend and one of his friends would meet us at the pageant that evening. A big group of her sorority sisters were also planning to come.
Before we had to go to the pageant I needed to notify my piano students’ parents and my Facebook friends about my situation. All of my closest friends were already in the know (MC, God bless her, offered to come down on the very next plane) and my family was informed.
I teach piano in my home. I get to know my students very well because it’s just me and them for thirty to forty-five minutes a week. They confide in me and they get to see me in my home. They know my husband and they play with my pets. It’s a wonderful job. They range in age from six to sixteen. I knew that this news would be hard on them and that my upcoming hair loss might be difficult for them even though I plan to wear scarves, hats or wigs. I hated writing an email that I knew would be upsetting to people I care about and who care about me.
I crafted a Facebook status and posted it and then went upstairs to get a shower. R said that my laptop started blowing up with comments. She came to me and said, “Mom, you have so much support. You should hear your laptop!” I read so many kind and loving comments and received multiple offers of help with food, cleaning, rides and more. I was overwhelmed by the words I read and very, very grateful that so many people cared about what was happening to me. I also began receiving messages from the parents of my students in the same vein.
We headed to the pageant and I was so happy to see all the sorority sisters and friends. The crowd was big and enthusiastic. Many local preliminaries hand out multiple crowns in one evening and that was the case here. There would be two Miss (over 18) winners and two Teen (under 18 winners). Those winners would be sister queens but also rivals to one another: the two Misses will compete in the Miss North Carolina pageant and the two teens will compete in the Miss North Carolina Outstanding Teen pageant. But there is real camaraderie and sisterhood there.
The Miss contestants compete in the evening gown, talent, interview and fitness (i.e., swimsuit) categories. They also have to answer an onstage question. That’s the area in which most of them don’t do a spectacular job. It can be really difficult to think on your feet in a pressure-packed situation and YouTube is full of examples of beauty pageant contestants totally blowing their onstage questions. A great onstage question response can make an enormous impact. That part always makes me very nervous. R did a good job and we relaxed a little. The fitness aspect always makes me a little uncomfortable. Those swimsuits are pretty tiny and there are all these people staring at my baby! Of course they are staring at other people’s babies too and we are staring at them. I wish there was less emphasis on this.
It seemed that R was the second best in her swimsuit competition. Another girl was in slightly better shape. But we still had talent and evening wear and we knew how spectacular both would be.
R is a singer. That night she sang “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” Her microphone had been too loud at rehearsal and they had lowered the volume for that night, but her backing orchestral track was really, really loud. I was so worried that the judges weren’t getting to hear what she could do with the song. Her dad and I, who know her voice so very well and are both musicians, were listening intently and were really, really impressed. She clearly had that category sewn up (yes, we’re biased, but we also can see and hear).
The evening wear competition is one of my favorites. I just love looking at beautiful dresses (and, if the truth be told, making some snarky comments about the ones I don’t like). R’s dress was a high-necked, low back stunning red with sparkly cuffs. You can just about see her internal organs when she’s wearing it. It takes tremendous confidence to carry it off. She looks gorgeous in red. She came onstage with her hair in a low bun and her beautiful smile, some sparkly drop earrings and that beautiful dress and people began murmuring. The murmurs continued until she left the stage. We were ecstatic knowing that she had wowed the crowd and no doubt the judges too.
It was a long evening. I won’t deny that the words “I have cancer I have cancer I have cancer” were running through my mind. But the pageant was a wonderful distraction. Seeing your child’s dreams come true is one of the best parts of being a parent. R began competing in pageants as an 18 year old. We never entered her in baby beauty pageants or allowed her to model. We wanted her to focus on God, school, sports and music, not her appearance. We worked hard to develop a woman who is beautiful on the inside, with a kind and compassionate heart. We never hesitated to tell her she is lovely but we emphasized everything else just a bit more. When she began competing in beauty pageants we were in her corner all the way, just as we’ve been with church and softball and singing and school. W is really good at selecting beauty pageant winners and he was sure R would be the winner and that the young woman who looked so good in the swimsuit competition would be first runner up.
As they began to hand out awards the other young woman did indeed get an award for swimsuit. The next two awards, for evening wear and talent, went to Rachel. All that was left was to crown the winner. W called it right again. The other young woman (who is very pretty and in very good shape) was first runner up and R was crowned. It was absolutely thrilling. All the sorority girls were on their feet and we were all cheering and yellling. At that moment all I could think about was how happy my daughter was and how wonderful it all was.
We were invited to attend a breakfast the next morning with all the newly crowned queens, their families and the pageant committee. The committee consists of dedicated volunteers who run the pageant and provide support to the queens as they enter state competition. This particular committee has a wonderful reputation in North Carolina and we soon saw why: they had plenty of information for us about the expectations of the queens, potential appearances and offers of support with wardrobe and talent selection and mock interviews (the interview is a really crucial piece of the state competition). Everyone was so kind and I decided to tell them what was happening to us. I was so proud of R for doing an amazing job at the pageant with all the stress she was experiencing and I wanted to share that as well as ask them to stand in for W and me if we couldn’t be there for her. Most of the women were in tears and there were so many words of kindness. We were told “We’re not here just for Rachel, we’re here for you too.” It meant so much to us. I recently received a beautifully crafted quilt from the committee and I can’t wait to see them all again in the next few weeks. They’ve helped Rachel get her swimsuit and her talent dress and encouraged her as she moves forward to the state pageant.
That was the first weekend of our lives after my cancer diagnosis. I was utterly exhausted, still shell-shocked and terrified, but beginning to find at least a semblance of peace.