Last week, I sat in a stuffy assembly hall and watched 150 students cross the stage and receive Year 10 Certificates. Applause was held ’til the end, but that policy came undone when my daughter’s best friend Neala was announced and the audience couldn’t contain itself.
Rewind seven months, and Neala’s dad and her older sister came to our door and said: ‘Neala was diagnosed today with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.’
I looked at him.
I looked at his elder daughter.
I looked at my baby. (In my mind, in that moment, she became that tiny bundle in a quadruple zero onesie, who I hadn’t pictured dealing with this kind of news fifteen years ago in the maternity ward.)
Inwardly I crumbled for them all, but attempted to maintain some semblance of ‘adult’.
This can’t be happening.
All three of them appeared remarkably ‘together’ under the circumstances. We hugged, and said goodnight. I shut the door, and turned to my daughter, in a way that I’d never had to turn to her before, except when she was six, and her dad and I sat her down and told her we were separating.
‘Darling, I’m so sorry…’
That’s the last night I saw her as a child.
She (and all of them) stepped over a threshold. Within days she was a full bottle on blood levels and treatment options and was relating conversations she’d had with the oncologist and the nurses about Neala’s levels and chemo and prognosis. We later found out that, without treatment, Neala had been given one week.
I scrambled to keep up. I was racing back and forth from the hospital with car loads of kids and gifts and novelty bed socks and hand-knitted beanies, but should I cook a lasagne?
‘Everyone’s given them food. Their freezer is over-full. And, no offence, Mum—your cooking?’
Yes, all right. Definitely not what you’d want to zap in the microwave after fourteen hours battling this on the ward. So, something else then…
Bec Sparrow suggested I write Neala in as a character in my teen novel about a boy band, so I did that, but publication was months off. I wanted to do something tangible.
Neala made a home out of the stark hospital room where she spent the first eight weeks of a three-year treatment plan. One day she was worrying about quadratic equations and Shakespeare, the next she was in the deep end of countless blood transfusions, lumbar punctures, tests, scans, steroids, brutal rounds of chemotherapy and—perhaps the worst for a social teenager—the loneliness.
Her visitors brought soft toys and balloons and drew rainbows in fluro markers all over the windows. They plastered the walls with posters of her favourite band, and her favourite within that band:
Harry Styles. Wearer of many bandanas.
Hmm. And here was his biggest fan, about to lose her hair…
‘How hard could it be to convince the most popular boy in the world to mail us a bandana, preferably unwashed and reeking of pop star?’ I said to my daughters.
They stared at me like I’d lost it.
‘Mum,’ (eyes rolled). ‘One of his actual bandanas? He has twenty-three million followers on Twitter. Niall Horan’s half-eaten piece of toast was auctioned for one hundred thousand dollars!’
So it was either ask Harry Styles for a bandana or cook something edible, and I always take the easy way out.
‘Does anyone know Harry Styles?’ I posted on Facebook.
Within minutes, a friend replied that her husband knows someone who works in the entertainment industry, who had interviewed the band a few times.
The email I wrote began weaving its way through six degrees of separation: ‘Our mutual friends suggested I contact you… looking for advice on how to catch the attention of Harry Styles… entire Tumblr blogs are dedicated to his headband collection…She’s about to lose her hair…’
Meanwhile, the Starlight Foundation threw a party at the hospital during the pre-chemo chop, taking Neala’s thick, nearly waist-length curly hair to something more Shailene Woodley in Fault in our Stars. I was running out of time.
The rest of her hair fell out.
The formal came around. She showed up to it late, having collapsed on the way, with a wig in her bag and no time to put it on. She was absolutely stunning. She owned baldness at formals.
Finally, late in the year, when we’d nearly forgotten all about it, I had a phone call.
‘It’s Bronwyn from Sony Music. I have Harry’s headscarf here for you.’
Who’s Harry? I thought, vaguely. Then, Oh! Neala’s Harry!
It’s amazing how an insignificant gesture to one person can mean an enormous thing to another; how something like this can provide an enormous boost at just the right moment. Her smile lasted so long her mouth ached and she had to sit down from all the shaking and squealing.
It’s just a bandana. They’re just a band.
One day she’ll be thirty-six and clearing out her wardrobe and she’ll find a blue scarf tucked up the back and think, ‘What is this?’
I like to think she’ll hug it to her chest the way she hugged it close the night we gave it to her, inhaling ‘pop star’.
Maybe she’ll remember a time when teen passion ran deep. A time when a simple bandana gave her something to grip onto as the tide washed her out from the shore for a while.
Maybe she’ll store it away with her Year 10 Certificate and remember when five hundred people applauded her courage.
Never underestimate the power of little things.
Good lasagnes. Bandanas. Clapping when we’re not supposed to. The willingness of busy strangers to get involved and make a dream unfold.
These are the tiny fairytales amidst our horror stories. They’re what makes life beautiful.