This weekend was significantly more exciting than expected. Initially I was planning to dog sit for my aunt’s new puppy while she and my cousin went to Philly for a gala my family hosts every year. Last minute, my aunt got sick and needed someone to take my little cousin. So I took her ticket and dress and went to the ball.
Backstory as to why my middle class, not typically gala hosting family puts on a large formal event every year. It’s something very important to me and a lot of people close to me, so this post is less lifestyle and more life.
My cousin Alex, who was two years younger than me, was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood cancer called Neuroblastoma just before her first birthday. As far as we know she was born with it. She was an extremely impressive, tough, smart, funny little girl to say the absolute least. She surpassed pretty much every expectation doctors had for her. When she was four, she had an idea to have a lemonade stand and give the proceeds to her hospital. She made around $2,000 at the first stand, which is REALLY good for a four-year-old hosting a lemonade stand in her front yard.
Over the next four years, with more stands, and increasingly large events held by more and more people, her health went back and forth but was never good. She was always back to being sick, even after promising treatments, persistence and love from really good doctors. But by the time she died in 2004, at eight years old, she had just reached her goal of one million dollars raised. It could’ve ended there (although it never would’ve), but since then my aunt and uncle have grown what my cousin started into a major charitable organization––Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation has raised over $200 million. The money has funded a huge amount of research, but also goes to programs helping individual kids fighting cancer. That’s the very short version of the story. Two decades later, the foundation hosts several formal parties a year, but the biggest (and the only black tie event), is the Lemon Ball, which happens every January. This is the sixteenth year.
So I had actually never been to the Lemon Ball before, because I’ve never been able to afford the ticket price and wouldn’t think to ask for a free one. It’s been something I’ve been meaning to do, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend. Food was amazing, the place itself is absolutely over the top, there’s a huge auction and raffle (big stuff, cars and trips and such). It’s gorgeous, and they give out really great swag bags. It’s also very emotional. First difficult thing––several kids with cancer, many of whom the foundation has helped, are in attendance and some of them get up and speak. As you can imagine, it’s both painful and incredibly inspiring.
I have always been aware and try to be conscious of the fact that people have it so much worse than I do, but hearing from these children (many of them incredibly mature and well-spoken, all of them incredibly positive and resilient) really fired me up. They made me want to be better. I believe that the world is shitty and it’s our literal job while we’re alive to make things easier for each other; so this weekend gave me perspective. It made me want to be as gentle with people as possible. General take away.
On a more personal level, it was a particularly big year because it’s been 20 years since the first lemonade stand and it was on my cousin’s birthday. She would’ve been twenty-four. My aunt and uncle speak every year, mostly about the larger impact of what Alex started, and the projects they’re funding, programs they’ve been working on. But there’s always some discussion of the sense of loss pervasive in their lives. It doesn’t stop them from living or giving, clearly, but anyone who has ever lost a child knows something I can really only guess at; that it rips something very central out of you, and this missing piece often defines the entirety of your life. Even after you learn to function, and maybe even learn to be happy again. Whenever they talk about her at events like this I can hear it in their voices. For the past several years, they usually say the hardest part is being unable to imagine who she would be now, and it gets more difficult as the years pass. With time there are inevitably more and more missed milestones. What Alex started has gotten so big, it’s sometimes jarring when it triggers brief memories of things that happened before and immediately after she died. I had a great night, and the Lemon Ball was primarily a super fun, classy, incredibly planned event. But I kept thinking of Alex the summer she died, barrel chested and emaciated, trying to smile and talk with the numerous family members visiting when she was so clearly so tired. I thought of her older brother, who was almost ten when she died, doing card tricks for people at his sister’s wake as her favorite songs played (she was a big Avril Lavigne fan), and how he wanted to leave but did not, which I thought was very brave even though I was ten too and couldn’t quite understand the whole thing. And I thought of her younger brother, now a Junior in high school (all around very cool kid), who was a baby when Alex died. He’s told me how much he wishes he could just have a conversation with his sister, who he loves but never knew personally, as much as she remains a constant and crucial part of his family’s life.
So it wasn’t a somber event in the least, but it was at times a painful one. My family is one story out of so many; over 15,000 American kids a year are diagnosed with cancer. And that’s just in this country. Obviously there’s the larger (huge) goal of ending cancer, or developing treatments to the point where it ceases to be a deadly or debilitating disease. Still, story by story (one cup at a time, which is the ALSF slogan)—there’s been a lot of success. And seeing the impact one very sick child is capable of making, particularly with help from many, many, many caring individuals, was the best part of the night. Not sure if that sounds sappy, but if I was unsentimental about this I would be a horrible person, so I’ll be sappy. For all the bad apples, there are a lot of really good people out there. And that’s why this has worked.
A brief call for support—go to alexslemonade.org…there a lot of little things you can do. There are also several other annual events in addition to the Ball. Every year, usually in the fall, the Great Chef’s Event is held in the City. There are similar events in Philly, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They’re a little more low-key than the gala, and essentially it’s a bunch of well known chefs and restaurants all contributing a small dish. Great opportunity to walk around eating and drinking all night. Cocktail attire, nothing hugely fancy. Check it out, please, because every little bit really does help, and obviously, fuck cancer.