Lindsey Cushing couldn't have known she was writing her life story when, as a high school senior, she designed an English project titled "18 Lessons I Have Learned," one for each year she had lived.
A few months later, her parents, Gale and Bill Cushing, were at the apex of their lives, happy with their careers and enjoying Lindsey and her older brother, Robbie.
"Our world changed forever on April 15, 2005," Gale says quietly. Lindsey, then a freshman at the University of South Carolina, was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which had metastasized to lymph nodes around her lungs. Doctors told her she would never return to school. Gale, a school principal, took a leave of absence to care for her daughter.
"One day Lindsey said, ‘You know, I'm going back to school,' " Gale says. "I urged her to tell her professors about the chemo. She said, ‘I'm not playing the cancer card.' "
For the next three years, Lindsey would rally in August and leave their Bon Air home to return to campus, receiving chemotherapy during the school year. "By spring, she would practically crawl to the end of the semester," Gale says. "How she did it, I don't know, but she graduated in December 2008."
The treatments ravaged Lindsey's remaining kidney, forcing dialysis and eventually hospitalization. Then, at 23, on the night of Feb. 27, 2009, she died after a visit with her parents.
"We didn't know she was dying," Gale says. "Bill went home, and Lindsey and I chit-chatted. I lay down on an air mattress beside her. That's my only regret, that I was asleep when she died, but people have said, ‘That was the plan. That's the gift.' "
Her life reeling, Gale sequestered herself and wrote Lessons From Lindsey, a book based on her daughter's high-school project. "I wanted to share how insightful she was at a very young age. For over a month, I disconnected. I just wanted to be alone. Writing the book gave me permission. I sent out e-mails to my friends — ‘Don't call, don't stop by, don't e-mail me.' I didn't even know that I was processing my loss, but afterwards I figured it out."
Once the book was done, the Cushings tried to stabilize their lives. Robbie, a graduate of the College of Charleston and a computer wizard, took a position in Florida. His parents were considering buying a second home there to be near him.
Then the unthinkable happened.
"On Dec. 19, we were having a dinner party," Gale says. "Robbie called twice, saying he had a horrific toothache. I said, ‘Well, you're going to get one of your first fillings.' "
At 28, with no prior health issues, Robbie Cushing suffered a brain aneurysm that eventually took his life. The Cushings donated his organs, and on Dec. 29, 2010, Bill eulogized their son, just 10 months after their daughter's death.
Again, Gale turned to writing to cope with her loss. "How could I do less for Robbie than I'd done for Lindsey?" she asks, holding up a copy of Remembering Robbie. The book, like Lindsey's, is chock-full of school memorabilia and family photos. Once again, Bill was essential. "He was right alongside me when I was writing, helping decide what to include," Gale says.
Word of the self-published books spread. Gale has spoken at churches and for Compassionate Friends, an organization founded to offer support to individuals grieving a child's death.
"What I want to share is that amidst the tragedy there were clear blessings," Gale says."Some people attribute blessings to good luck, but I see God's hand at work in all things, and that truly brings me comfort." She has also found some solace in sharing her children's stories. Gale has sold or given away more than 1,500 books.
"People ask which was harder — to lose Lindsey over four years or Robbie over two days," she says. "They were both incredibly hard, and you can't really compare them. The lesson I learned, though, is that everyone has the right to grieve anywhere, anytime and any way. There is no right or wrong way." ©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.