‘All done?’ she whispered in my ear. ‘No, sweet baby. This is just the beginning.’: Mom of 8 learns of daughter’s cancer diagnosis day after adoption finalized, husband leaves, ‘How was this my life?!’

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“‘I could never do what you do.’

That’s a phrase I’ve heard countless times. Most of the time people are referring to foster care when they say that to me.  But sometimes it’s the whole parenting 8 kids thing… or being a single parent… or parenting a child with cancer and one with cerebral palsy… or, you know… backing a 12-passenger van into a parking space. There are a lot of hard things I’ve been asked to do in this life.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

My husband and I married early and after the births of our two biological daughters, we decided to open our home for foster care. One of the things you can never really know until your home is open is how significant the need for more foster homes is. I was blissfully unaware until the phone calls for placement started to come in. Sometimes I’d have to say no to multiple children in a day. Or I’d receive calls for the same child multiple times a day because a spot couldn’t be found. We live in a really blessed community so it came as a huge shock to me that there was a foster care crisis even here. I was also surprised at how lonely and isolating foster care was. I didn’t know any other foster homes and none of my friends really got it. I knew there had to be a better way to do foster care so I started researching and found an organization called The CALL. I loved the model of working with the local churches and DCFS to recruit, train, and support foster and adoptive homes in our community so I started to work to launch an affiliate in my area and have been really lucky to turn that into a job I love. To date, my organization has opened over 560 foster and adoptive homes in the last 9 years and the foster care community here is now rich and thriving. I never want anyone to feel alone in that calling.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler
Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

Originally the plan was to take 2 kids around the ages of my daughters, but it was so hard to say no when those calls came in and I knew there was a hurting child just sitting scared in a caseworker’s office across town. Over 25 children and teenagers were in and out of our home over an 8 year period, and very few of them were actually within the parameters of what we planned on taking. Sexually abused kids? Yes. Angry violent teenagers? Did that. Upset the birth order? Almost immediately. And we have exactly zero regrets about any of those placements.

Our first adoption came a year after opening our home for foster care and was a 9-month-old baby boy. Six months later we adopted a 1-year-old boy and then six months after that added a 17 year old girl to our forever family. That brought us to a grand total of 5 kids. We fostered for a little while longer and then decided to close our home for a bit. Our oldest daughter had a teenage brother who was still in care and we wanted to save a spot for him. Also, our son from our first adoption had a sister who had almost come into care a few times and I always felt a weird tug to keep a spot available for her in case she ever did come into care. A year later we added that teenage boy to our permanent lineup and then closed again… at least until we could buy a bigger home.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

For most people, 6 kids would be plenty. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that our family wasn’t complete. Then, in January 2014, I got the call that our son’s biological sister had just come in to foster care… along with her newborn baby sister. The caseworker asked if we’d reopen our home to foster our son’s biological half-sisters. Reunification was still the goal, just like in almost every foster case, but if reunification efforts failed, they wanted the girls to be raised with their brother. I’d been praying for his sister since I knew she existed. It felt surreal that she was moving in. I’d always prayed she was safe and loved. Now, it was my responsibility to keep her safe and love her as my own. She has cerebral palsy and showed up at my door with a lot of intimidating-looking medical machines and equipment for tube feeding…and the most perfect little baby sister I’d ever seen in my entire life.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler
Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

On October 27th, 2015, we finalized the adoption of the girls. 8 kids was enough. Our journey as a foster home was over. We were done living a world filled with unknowns where our day to day life was up in the air and most things were out of our control.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler
Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

I was so excited to move on to a more stable and predictable season. Then, the very next day, on October 28th, our teeny little 21 month old baby girl was diagnosed with leukemia. And we were right back into a world of unknowns with very little control. My memories of that day are a weird mix of nurses and doctors rushing around in a blur trying to find a vein and start blood transfusions, and moments that still seem so clear – like the looks on the faces of the ER staff as we were walked out to be loaded on the helicopter to be flown to the nearest children’s hospital 3 hours away.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

They knew better than I did how close to death my baby was at that moment. I remember watching the terror in my baby’s face as she was strapped down for the flight. She couldn’t see me and didn’t know I was right behind her the whole time. My seat was too far away to hold her hand and let her know I was there.  When we landed the flight, medics unbuckled her immediately so I could wrap her up in my arms. ‘All done?’ she whispered into my ear. ‘No, sweet baby. This is just the beginning…’

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

A few months after her diagnosis, just as chemo and all the trips to the hospital were starting to feel normal, another major bomb hit our family. My marriage fell apart and I was left single parenting through the hardest rounds of chemo. Shepherding my children’s hurting hearts, dealing with them processing the fear of losing their baby sister to cancer, all while working through the hurt in my own heart wasn’t easy. There were a lot of nights when I’d get the kids to bed, housework done, work emails returned, and I’d just sit on my bathroom floor and cry.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler
Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

People say they could never do what I do, but I didn’t have a choice. And most people walking through impossible situations are just doing what they have to do to get through. You’d do the same. Everyone would.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler
Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

During one particularly brutal round of chemo, we’d leave the house around 4:00 a.m. for our 8:00 a.m. appointments. We’d be in the clinic for several hours so she could get her IV chemo and sedation for spinal chemo. One of the medicines in that round made her violently ill so the nurses would double her up with extra anti-nausea medications and most of the time, if I timed it just right, we’d make it back home before they wore off and she started vomiting everywhere. One day we were delayed leaving clinic and there was a torrential downpour which slowed the driving time down considerably. We didn’t even make it halfway home before the vomiting started. It was still pouring rain when we pulled into a dirty rural gas station so I could clean her up and change out the vomit covered car seat for the clean spare I’d learned to travel with. The snapshot of that moment will forever be seared into my mind. I looked around to see who was watching. I was hoping nobody else was seeing this, because it was just so private and so hard and so awful. I finished cleaning up my frail, thin, bald baby so we could make the rest of the trip home just in time to pick up the rest of the kids from all the various friends’ houses who had watched them for the day for me. We went home completely exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally. How was this my life?!

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

I had (and still have) and AMAZING group of friends who love me and support me better than I could ever imagine or deserve. But even with a great group of friends so much of that season left me feeling very alone. This wasn’t what my life was supposed to look like. There were so many nights that I felt utterly alone in all of this mess. At the end of the day my friends were all home cuddled up in bed with their husbands watching Netflix and debriefing about their days – all the good and the bad. They all had someone to share life with. And I was home walking laps around the fireplaces with my sick baby. Everything was just so hard.

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

On one of those early morning road trips for chemo, much further in to treatment when everything felt normal and routine, I watched the sunrise as the sky changed from black to purple to blue to orange and yellow. I had thought a lot about missing when my life was all bright and carefree like the yellows and oranges. My life felt heavy and more like those purples and blues, and I had this moment where I realized I was actually grateful for the heaviness and the depth of color this season had brought to my life. I’ll never again take those happy sunshiny yellow-orange days for granted. I’ve earned every one of my happy days.

Jessica Forst of Fringe Photography

My ex-husband and I work to make sure we’re co-parenting well. We’re both getting better at putting past hurts aside, apologizing, and asking for do-overs when we mess up. It’s not always easy, but it’s totally worth it. Our kids are worth it. We still do a family dinner all together for each of their birthdays. The kids really look forward to that! And we both got to walk our baby in on her first day of Kindergarten a few months ago. After all she’s been through and all we’ve been through, that moment felt a little bit holy.

Now, we’re quickly approaching the 4th anniversary of that cancer diagnosis and it’s been over 18 months since treatment ended. That sweet baby girl is now rocking it in kindergarten and is healthy and happy. I love that she knows how brave and strong she is. Really, we ALL know how brave and strong we are. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.”

Courtesy of Ann Meythaler

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ann Meythaler of Bentonville, Arkansas. You can follow her journey on Instagram. A version of Ann’s story originally appeared on this adoption podcastDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more inspiring stories like this:

‘We had FIVE kids in diapers! My wife tried to get me on board. ‘There’s no way. Are you trying to kill me? A sibling group of 4. FOUR?! REALLY?!’: Couple has 11 kids, 2 biological and 9 adopted

‘I felt trapped. I got pregnant at 17. She gently rubbed my hand. ‘Everything will be alright.’: Mother of 10 overcomes suicide attempt, PTSD, trauma to learn to ‘conquer love’ for her children

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