On November 3, I was driving home from a ministry conference when my wife Melanie called, crying uncontrollably. Before she was able to speak coherently, I knew exactly why she was upset. About a week before, her dermatologist had biopsied one of five lumps on her head. “They have some really good treatments for metastatic melanoma these days,” he had said while suturing. It was ominous foreshadowing. As we had feared, the lumps on her scalp were malignant.
We traveled to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston the week before Thanksgiving for a barrage of tests and scans. The uncertainty of pending results overshadowed the holiday, and Melanie’s condition continued to deteriorate. We returned to Houston the week after Thanksgiving and had our worst fears confirmed: it wasn’t just bad. It was just about as bad as it could get; she was late stage four.
Melanie had a small melanoma removed from her back in 2010. Afterward, she had followed the protocols, including numerous biopsies. She cleared the five year point of being cancer-free, and we thought she was all good. She was not. In the summer of 2017, she began having severe pain and numbness in her right arm. A lump appeared on her upper back, and then several on her head. Her cancer had returned with a vengeance, and by the time we found it, it was almost too late.
Melanie spent 10 days in M.D. Anderson, dealing with multiple symptoms of her aggressive cancer, which had spread to her bones, her brain, and almost every other organ. She started immunotherapy, but her prognosis was grim. We returned home in mid-December with challenges ahead. Home health nurses came daily. Friends cooked, cleaned, and shuttled our daughters to and from school and dance. Our house was full of casseroles, people and medical equipment. Melanie continued to decline. She was on constant oxygen and massive amounts of morphine. She was only awake a few hours a day.
A few days before Christmas our younger daughter Mia Beth, age nine, turned from watching TV and dejectedly asked, “Are we even going to have Christmas pajamas this year?” It’s always been one of their favorite traditions, maybe because it’s the only gift they get to open early (on Christmas Eve). I told her was working on it, and then I started to panic. Specifically, she and her sister Riley Cate, age eleven, wanted Matilda Jane pajamas.
If you’re not familiar with the brand, the Matilda Jane Company markets all manner of frilly clothes for girls. It’s a thing. About a year before, Melanie had hosted a Matilda Jane party for our friend Beth Shelton. Hoping that I hadn’t missed the deadline to get their pajamas by Christmas Eve, I messaged Beth about our pajama crisis. She said that some things were sold out, but she would call the home office and see what they could do.
The next day, Beth messaged to say that the company had taken care of everything: they were overnighting the pajamas, and had included robes. Everything fit perfectly, and arrived just in time. The tradition was saved.
I contacted Beth to thank her for the extraordinary service during our upside-down Christmas, and that’s when I learned about the company’s history. The Matilda Jane Company’s founder, Denise DeMarchis, had passed away from cancer in the summer of 2015.
When I read some background ahead of writing this blog, I came across Denise’s own blog. She posted often during the summer of 2013 when she was originally diagnosed. I was stunned by the images Denise had posted from her own time at M.D. Anderson Hospital, because they were so eerily similar to the ones I had taken during my wife’s stay four years later. The dominant vocabulary was the same: abdominal swelling, chemo, scans.
A long-term Matilda Jane employee said, “We just happened to sell clothes, but our true purpose was to give back.”
The same year that Denise DeMarchis was diagnosed with cancer, she and her husband started The Mighty Acorn Foundation, to help children in Africa. Among many other things, they funded the construction of an orphanage there.
Denise DeMarchis founded the Matilda Jane Company in 2005. Sadly, she only got to see it through its first 10 years. Denise passed away at age 41, leaving behind a loving husband and two boys, age nine and 13. She also left an impressive and lasting legacy. Cancer may have taken Denise’s physical life, but there’s an orphanage in Africa that serves as constant proof that cancer couldn’t conquer her true purpose: to give back. There’s also the company that continues her intended purpose: to give back.
Melanie turned 41 last month, and our daughters are nine and 11. Her treatments are going well. The medical equipment is stored away for now, as are the pain medicines. The home nurses are caring for other people who need them more than we do now. The future is still sketchy, but we have every confidence that we can face what lies ahead because we know we aren’t alone.
As scary and as powerful as cancer is, there’s a limit to what it can take from us. During this reprieve, I’m trying to take time to thank those who’ve been so incredibly generous to us during our darkest hours, those who brought joy and light into our darkness. Thanks to Beth Shelton and the company she represents so well, fulfilling the Denise DeMarchis legacy of giving back.