Taking the leap alone


information source: publishersweekly.com

Abby Kempf

[button color=”” size=”” type=”round” target=”” link=””]G[/button]o to school. Smile vacantly at friends. Laugh hollowly at dumb jokes. Fail the test she didn’t have time to study for.
Go home. Lug an oxygen tank upstairs and help her mother replace her old, empty canister for the new life-sustaining one. Fix dinner for her family, which usually means popping something barely resembling food in the microwave, and serve it to her mom and brother.
Her dad, however, needs help changing his feeding tube that supplies him with nutrient dense paste while he is unable to eat.
Then sit in the bathroom as her mother showers, just to make sure she has help if she falls or suffers a respiratory attack. Get her parents in bed. Make sure they are OK for the night.
Finally, lay down in her own bed with the inability to sleep, most of the time crying silently until sleep finally takes her over.
This was the daily schedule of now senior Jodie Bappe throughout her freshman year. While her mom had suffered from a life-threatening lung disease — interstitial pulmonary pneumonitis — since before she was even born, her father had been diagnosed with oral cancer. With one brother extremely depressed and her other brothers not at home to help, the responsibility of the household fell squarely on her tiny 15-year-old shoulders.
“I spent most of my time at night just kind of taking care of the two of them, not just physically but emotionally because most of the times both of them were sick so both of them were not very motivated,” Bappe said. “I remember one night that I really wish that I didn’t remember. Literally the entire family was crying except for me because my dad had said something along the lines of, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I want to die. I am too sick. I thought that I could make it and I am not going to,’ in front of us.”
While most 15-year-olds fight with parents about curfew or grades, Bappe spent most of her time combatting her father’s depression and her mother’s deteriorating health. Not only did she have to worry about the mental condition of everyone in her household while allowing her own to worsen, she had to manage finances, her grades and meals — heavy stuff for a freshman.
“My mom was really stressed about finances because we had no money coming in and her disability was not valid yet because it takes forever to do,” Bappe said. “We had basically just been digging a big hole of debt for years and she was worried.”
In seventh grade, Bappe had been part of the Duke TIP talent scout when many EEE students took either the SAT or ACT early. She chose the SAT with her sights set on Stanford University, back in her home state of California. As a perfect 4.0 GPA 13-year-old with deep interests in veterinary science, this seemed plausible. But that all changed when the sickness of her parents began to consume her life.
“I was in ninth grade at this point, so grades mattered. I was trying to focus on keeping my grades up and making sure that I maintained the straight As that I was so used to,” Bappe said. “But that went out the window. I just didn’t have time at home. That’s not what I was spending my time doing.”
Instead of filling out her physics worksheet or reading Fahrenheit 451, Bappe spent her days acting as the leader of her household, the only seam that had not completely torn in two.
“I had to try to keep my family from falling apart, which they were doing quite often. When my dad got sick, that was really hard because before he was like the rock of the family and he kept everything stable,” Bappe said. “So, to see him really down on himself and just giving up like that was really hard because at that point I wanted to give up, too. I didn’t think I was capable of continuing on at that point because both of my parents were dying and I was 15.”

“I had to try to keep my family from falling apart, which they were doing quite often. When my dad got sick, that was really hard because before he was like the rock of the family and he kept everything stable,” Bappe said. “So, to see him really down on himself and just giving up like that was really hard because at that point I wanted to give up, too. I didn’t think I was capable of continuing on at that point because both of my parents were dying and I was 15.”

Dr. Richard Weissbourd, the faculty director of the Human Development and Psychology Program at Harvard University, said that battling situations like Bappe’s where a young child is lacking a parent in some sort of capacity can have many different effects on the child.
“In terms of having a parent who’s not there, it depends a lot on why they aren’t there, too. It affects kids differently if they aren’t there because their parents are going through a difficult divorce or a death or because a parent has become extremely depressed or withdrawn and is unavailable emotionally,” Dr. Weissbourd said. “The meaning that a child makes of that [absence] and how they understand it [matters]. Whether it creates a conflict in their relationship with the parent, whether the child understands the situation in a way that is manageable and meaningful and that doesn’t cause the child to blame her or himself [is important]. One of the things that happens to young kids, especially, is that if something goes wrong with their parents, they think it’s their fault. That can be very damaging.”
Bappe knows of this damage firsthand. Her life began slowly crumbling as her parents’ conditions worsened. She suffered mental trauma. Her depression grew and her relationships hollowed.
“I lost interest in everything because taking care of my parents was the only thing that I knew how to do; what I had dedicated my life to. I felt like I was being unfair to [my friends] because I was never really around and when I was around, I wasn’t mentally there. I was tired all the time. I couldn’t pay attention in class. I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “At this point my depression was new enough that I wasn’t on any medication, wasn’t seeing a counselor, wasn’t doing anything about that. I was pretty suicidal most of the time. Literally the only thing that was keeping me around was the thought that if I killed myself, my parents would definitely die. They would just give up entirely, as if they hadn’t already. I couldn’t do that to my brother. He would be the only one left in the house.”
So instead of succumbing to the sadness, Bappe became the rock of her family on the outside and kept the tears to herself.
“There were a lot of times where I felt like I had no choice but to be strong for everyone, even though inside I was completely falling apart and not able to be strong for myself at all. I would go in my room and cry myself to sleep, thinking about killing myself,” Bappe said. “I would just completely beat myself up after I was done making sure that my parents were in bed happy, knowing that I was OK with taking care of them.”
This kind of closed communication and stress is often associated with the children of cancer and other long term illness patients, according to the University of California-Los Angeles Simms/Mann Center for Integrative Oncology.An article on their website written by Dr. Anne Coscarelli, a member of the Wallis Annenberg Director’s Initiative in Psychosocial Oncology, points to a study that shows children of cancer patients self-reported significantly higher levels of emotional distress and anxiety than their parents reported the children had.
“The other issue is some kids have caretaking responsibilities at a young age,” Dr. Weissbourd said. “There can be great things about having caretaking responsibilities in terms of becoming other-focused and responsible and developing a reflex to help other people out and learning how to do that effectively, but it also can deprive kids of childhood if it is too much. They might not be able to be playful and curious and relaxed.”
Additionally, another study Dr. Coscarelli cited showed the children of cancer patients lose interest in age-appropriate activities and peers and spend more time worrying about their parent’s illness, just as Dr. Weissbourd suggested. Bappe knows this to be true, especially after her mother died on Jan. 14, halfway through her freshman year.
Dr. Markus Schafer, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said that tragic events such as this cause a person to instantly mature.
“A wide number of events can influence people’s age identity. In research I’ve done, I’ve found that stressful life events such as illness or financial difficulties in one’s family tend to make people feel older. Events that happen early in life — such as losing a parent prematurely — also seem to have an impact on age identity, essentially ‘speeding up’ the subjective process of aging and making people feel older than they actually are,” Dr. Schafer said. “Research consistently shows that health problems tend to make people feel older. Some research on adolescents shows that kids growing up in poor neighborhoods tend to feel ‘old for their age’ as well, probably because they are confronted with a lot of challenges that take away from their sense of childhood.”
[quote cite=”Jodie Bappe, senior”]There were a lot of times where I felt like I had no choice but to be strong for everyone, even though inside I was completely falling apart and not able to be strong for myself at all.[/quote] Bappe felt her age identity skyrocket when her mother died. She said she essentially had to take on the role of mother for the rest of her family, especially for her older brother, Andre Bappe, who is 23 years old. He lived out-of-state at the time and would regularly call their mother and talk through his issues and tell her about his triumphs. After their mother’s death, Andre began calling Bappe, asking for her advice.
She said caring for her older brother, among many other things that occurred when her mother died, launched her into adulthood.
“When I was 12, I felt like [an adult]. I hated other 12-year -olds because I was so much more mature than them because I had to be. It definitely felt like I got along better with older people because at that age I had experienced things that those older people had experienced; nothing that people my age had,” Bappe said. “If I didn’t have to feel adulthood before, when my mom died was when I had to. Seeing my brother crumple down to the floor, making a noise that I don’t ever want to hear him make again, I realized that I was the only girl in the family and I had to become the nurturer and it has become that way.”
The death of a parent comes at no small cost. Dr. Weissbourd said, depending on the child and their circumstances, a parental death can destroy the psychological well-being of a child.
“It is traumatic in any case, but it does depend on the relationship a kid has with their parents too, whether it was a close one or a conflicted one, whether there is a surviving parent or other surviving adults who can help a child weather the experience and get through the experience intact,” Dr. Weissbourd said. “The circumstances of the death matter. It really makes a difference if it is suicide or if it is a disease and whether the child has time to grieve with the parent as opposed to sudden death. For some kids, it can be very helpful to talk to their parents about dying and say goodbye. The time can help, but it can also be extraordinarily painful.”
These psychological problems are not the only possible effects that this rapid maturation process can have on someone, Dr. Schafer said.
“Some people claim that feeling older can lead people to withdraw, to decrease their physical and social activity and to suffer the cognitive and physical problems that come from this type of withdrawal,” Dr. Schafer said.

infographic by Abby Kempf; information source: AceStudy.org
Bappe treasures the time she spent with her mom “laughing until she had to turn her oxygen up.” But she also had to endure countless moments of panic as her family prepared for her mother to die. Once, her mother was placed on a ventilator and in a medically-induced coma at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors told Bappe and her family that it was very likely Nikki, her mom, wouldn’t wake up.
While she did wake up, this wrenching event was one of many that left the Bappe family emotionally stressed, traumatized and drained.
“There is this quote from Jodi Picoult…that says, ‘It was possible to grow up in an instant, that you could look down and see the line in the sand dividing your life now from what it used to be.’ I didn’t find that quote until later, but that was really how I felt,” Bappe said. “Childhood ended at 11 and adulthood was just right around the corner, whereas I really shouldn’t have had to start thinking about that for another six years.”
When others told Bappe that she was ‘just a kid’ and that she didn’t have to carry the weight of her family, her frustration with her situation only grew because she knew this wasn’t true.
“I used to get so mad because everyone tells you, ‘It’s not your job.’ I would come to school all the time and feel so guilty, like I don’t have the strength to be the caretaker for my entire family,” Bappe said. “People told me, ‘Their happiness is not your problem. You need to worry about you and take care of you.’ I would just want to punch them and be like ‘You don’t understand. I do.’”
But despite all the pain, all the years of silent suffering, Bappe said she would do it all again because at the end of it all, her family is worth every sleepless night, every unfinished assignment and every tear.
“Every book that you read that is dealing with death will tell you that the only thing you can do is take care of yourself. I don’t know if I am a rare case or if those books are just b——t, which is what I expect, but that’s not true. All you can do is take care of your family,” Bappe said. “If you spend all the time taking care of yourself, and everybody else falls apart around you, how are you going to feel when you’re the only one standing up and everybody else has fallen down? You have to distribute it, but I didn’t have enough to distribute to myself. I just had to get everybody else taken care of.”