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‘To this day, it’s painful:’ Cancer’s toll on children who lose a parent
Mental and emotional anguish felt by family
Published Wednesday, September 5, 2018 7:41 pm
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

Charlotte photographer Alvin C. Jacobs and his mother, Valerie Brown. Brown died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2017.

Sloane Siobohan, Alvin C. Jacobs Jr., and Gerald and Bob Johnson share several similarities.

Siobohan and Jacobs are artists. Each has shown work at the Harvey B. Gantt Center – Siobohan in 2017 with “Sloane Siobhan: Archetypes of the Subconscious,” and Jacobs this summer with “Welcome to Brookhill,” the first in a yearlong residency there. Nearly two decades separate them in age.

Several more decades stand between 26-year-old Siobohan and the Johnson brothers, who are newspaper publishers in their 70s. Yet age does not discriminate regarding the one thing they all have in common—each lost a parent to cancer. Cancer does not care if it leaves a child without a parent in his or her 20s, 30s, even 40s.

“It takes and it takes and it takes,” but enough about the line from “Hamilton.” You were promised an introduction.

An estimated 1.7 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society. An approximate 610,000 will die from the disease. In 2017 those numbers read 1.6 million and 601,000 respectively. In 2016, it was an estimated 1.6 million and 596,000.

Reba Whaley, Siobhan’s mother, died from breast cancer in 2016.  Jacobs’ mother, Valerie Brown, died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2017. Bill Johnson died from leukemia in 1986.   

Reba and Sloane
Whaley’s first diagnosis came the summer before Siobhan enrolled in eighth grade. She beat it. Five years later, the cancer came back. Siobhan was a sophomore at Appalachian State University.
“Her and her friends get drunk, like they are trying to drink the cancer away, and immediately that next morning, hungover as hell, they drive up to Boone to come see me,” Siobhan said. “We’re all talking very awkwardly pretending everything is fine, but the elephant in the room is suffocating us. My mom and I go outside, and I ask the question, ‘how long?’ She says, ‘three years.’ As soon as she said it, I busted out in tears. People walking by, I don’t give a [expletive]. Just ugly crying out here in the open world.”

The strength of the chemotherapy began to make Reba’s liver fail. The tumors did not shrink; they continued to grow.

“Third year comes along, and the tumors are growing, and there more of them,” Siobhan said. “They call TMC, which is too many to count.”

“Three years” remained a silent mantra in Siobhan’s head. Whaley’s liver failure became significantly worse by September 2016.

“When you’re going through liver failure, the toxins in your liver don’t have anywhere to go,” Siobhan said. “Now they’re just going through your body, and they get up to your brain. It starts making you very confused and loopy. She would have these little spells. At first it was only once or twice, and then it started to be like every day. I would take her to the hospital. They would give her fluids, and stuff like that, and she would be fine, for a day.”

By the time Siobhan’s birthday arrived at the end of October, they were near the end.

“My grandma told her it was my birthday, and she was like, ‘oh my God, it’s your birthday today!” said Siobhan of spending her birthday with Reba at the doctor’s office.
While stunned, she was incapable of being mad at her mom for things beyond their control.

“I couldn’t be mad, but usually we go through the whole, ‘this is how I gave birth to you story,’” Siobhan said. “I was like, ‘nope? Not getting that this year?’”
Siobhan’s birthday marked Reba’s final treatment appointment, where a nurse advised them to set up hospice. Not the birthday present Siobhan had in mind.

“They basically set up hospice for us, which was great, because we had no idea what we were doing,” Siobhan said. “They set up the whole thing with my school that allowed my mom to see me graduate. That was amazing, because she definitely wouldn’t have made it to the actual graduation.”

Siobhan initially enrolled in college to pursue medicine, but the Northwest School of the Arts graduate decided to heed her mother’s words: “follow your heart, and follow your passion.”

“If I stop doing art now, then all those years that she’s bred me to do this will have been in vain,” Siobhan said. “This is kind of like her legacy.”
Siobhan turned her grief into fuel to create fairytale-like paintings, which were on display at the Gantt last summer.

“Create something, because if you don’t, you’re going to self-destruct,” Siobhan said of that work.

Alvin and Valerie
“It was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which had an extremely high curable rate,” Jacobs’ said.

Valerie Brown, known as “Pastor Val,” preferred not to pursue traditional Western methods for a cure, but utilized homeopathic remedies.

“This went on for a year of her receiving absolutely no treatment, just praying and trying to eat better,” Jacobs said. “It was killing her, slowly.”
Jacobs and his younger brother and sister, LaKishia Crump and John Jacobs, continued to advise her to seek treatment.

“We wanted her to go see a doctor and undergo treatment, but she’s a pastor, and she said she was going to be fine, she was already healed,” Jacobs said.
After nearly nine months without treatment, and a move from Texas to California, Valerie went to a specialist.

“We finally got her to go see a specialist, and it just progressed quickly, rapidly,” Jacobs said. “It didn’t take long at all. It’s something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. It has a lot to being in tune with your own body, and the resources that are available. You have to kind of keep an eye on things, but at the same time, there are limitations to everything.”

Valerie’s faith remained limitless throughout her journey.

“There was so much peace involved,” Jacobs said. “She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t cursing God. She didn’t leave us with any debt, and that’s historically a black people thing. You get saddled with everything. She didn’t leave us everything, but she didn’t saddle us with any debt. That was just amazing.”

Death does not occur often in their family.

“We don’t have a lot of deaths in our family anyway,” Jacobs said. “There have only about three since I’ve been alive, maybe four, and I’m 44. People hold on. Maybe every 15-20 years there’s one.”

Valerie’s path, as Jacobs describes, was “God.”

“Just imagine someone who lived a perfect life,” he said. “Everything morally correct to spiritually to physically. She was a saint. People say that sometimes, but my mom didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, always worked, took care of her family—just that person that you’re like, ‘wow. That’s what a Christian is. That’s what you do.’ Never had anything bad to say to about anybody. She made, I don’t know how many pilgrimages. She’s been to Israel like 10 times. She’s been to Africa, Europe. She just traveled. She wasn’t rich, but was like, ‘I’m going.’”

Valerie requested her children to remain close.

“My sister does everything right,” Jacobs said. “My brother, no drama. I’m the one who was kicking stuff up. She really had to pray more for me, because of everything I had going on, but she never gave up, and spoke so highly of me—spoke a lot of things into existence. A lot of her friends are seeing what she prayed for come to fruition now, and are like, ‘your Mom would really be proud.’ That’s really why a lot of things are happening now, because she must be sitting, literally, right next to God. You have access like that, you can’t lose.”

The Johnsons
How does one come to terms with the mortality of a parent?

“I used to believe that my dad was never going to die,” Bob Johnson says. “I just had that thought in my head. Even with everybody dying around us, I thought, ‘my dad is not going to die.’”

Even when Bill, who was at the time in his late 60s, told his son about the diagnosis, Bob still believed he would not go anywhere any time soon.

“I was at his house one night, and he said, ‘I have something to tell you,’” the younger Johnson said. “He said, ‘the doctor said I have leukemia.’ He didn’t say that the doctor said I have four-five months to live.”

Bill had stage four acute leukemia.

“I used to mess with him a lot, because his hands would be so yellow,” Bob said. “At first when I asked him the question he would say, ‘I don’t know why my hands are so yellow,’ but then it came out, that was part of it.”

Three months later Bill died.

“We would play golf a lot, and I would ask him about certain things, and he would say, ‘just keep living,’” Bob said. “His death didn’t change me necessarily, but I think about it a lot.”

Five years after Bill’s death, Bob joined The Charlotte Post. Bill had asked youngest son Gerald to step in as interim publisher during his initial diagnosis, but did not tell him that he had cancer, nor did he indicate the severity of his illness.

“He didn’t let me know, because he wanted me to take over this business,” Gerald said. “When I found out that he had cancer, it was after he died. Even though I knew he was sick, I didn’t know he had cancer. I was giving his doctor hell about him dying, and he started laughing at me, which ticked me off. I said, ‘why are you laughing?’ He said, ‘your father had acute leukemia, and he knew he was going to die. He didn’t tell you, because he knew you wouldn’t have taken over the business.’”

Bill told Gerald he would be back in a couple of months. Rather than leave his job as a manager of a systems operation department at Bank of America, Gerald added the duties of publisher to his workload.

“He felt like I wouldn’t step into the position otherwise, but after I got into it, he had the strong feeling that I would love it, and I would stay,” Gerald said. “He was right, and here I am.”

Gerald was 39 when his father died, but pain doesn’t pay attention to age.

“Even to this day it’s painful,” Gerald says. “It’s just a painful thing for anybody to go through with a parent. Each day, I’m living through it, because I never will get over it. He died in 1986—you know how long ago that was? And I’m still not over it.”

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