My name is Kathy Bell. Although I live with my family only about an hour away from here in San Diego, the first time I met Regina Tan was in November 2004, in Memphis, Tennessee at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Five years old at the time, Regina was sitting on a blue sofa in the Target House apartment she shared with her mom Diana and her aunt Sija. She sat coloring, so beautiful, all forehead and eyes, her head smooth and unblemished except for the curved question-mark-shaped scar above her left ear.
My ten-year old son Steven was with me. He took off his baseball cap and showed Regina his own head, covered with a baby-soft layer of newly re-grown hair, except for the bald spot exposing the question mark above his own right ear, Steven’s scar a mirror image of Regina’s.
Regina and Steven were diagnosed with the same rare brain cancer, eight months apart. Regina was recovering from her second stem cell transplant, and Steven was in Memphis for his six month post-treatment checkup.
Discovering that your child has a life-threatening disease is like being dropped along with your child into the midst of a tidal wave, your child can’t swim and the waters are so rough that no matter how strong a swimmer you are, it will never be enough for the maelstrom you find yourself in.
It was in the midst of such turmoil that I was introduced to Regina’s parents Diana and Nick, a few days after emergency surgery to remove the malignant tumor found in Regina’s brain. We had just returned from eight months in Memphis with Steven after aggressive treatment to save his life. After considering their options, Nick and Diana decided to take Regina to Memphis for the same treatment that Steven had just completed.
There is a saying at St. Jude, you arrive with one sick child and you go home with thirty five. It is impossible not to come to love those little bald heads as they battle the devastating diseases they’ve been dealt.
And so we fell in love with Regina. We “adopted” the Tans and we followed Regina from afar, through radiation and four cycles of high-dose chemotherapy, along the same paths that Steven had traveled eight months before. We prayed for smooth sailing and a successful outcome. We prayed for her return to a disease-free childhood.
Regina has been living with cancer and the shadow of cancer for over five years, more than half of her life. Still, cancer was most definitely not what Regina was about and not what I am here to talk about.
So, what was Regina about?
Regina was about birthdays. On the day that Regina turned five, she was in the hospital in Memphis getting her very first dose of chemotherapy. Her sixth birthday was spent in more pleasant surroundings at Disney World in Florida, and when she got home she had a second party with her friends at Chili’s Restaurant. On her seventh birthday, she had a Disney princess party at her house. On her eighth birthday, Regina was at Ronald McDonald House recovering from chemotherapy, but there was cake and when her blood counts recovered, she had a proper celebration with her friends at home. When Regina was nine, her princess party was wedged between cycles of chemotherapy. And Regina’s most recent birthday could only be described as a miracle, it is so clear that she wanted to spend her tenth birthday here with her family, and so she did.
Regina was about traveling. She went to Disney World in Florida courtesy of Make-A-Wish. She went to China and twice to Estonia. She went to Big Bear and Palm Springs and San Francisco.
Regina was about fun activities close to home, Disneyland and Legoland and Sea World and Build-A-Bear and the American Girl Store.
Regina was about Hollywood and show business, backstage passes and meeting celebrities, Hanna Montana and Britney Spears and Miranda Cosgrove and the American Idol contenders. Regina appeared on the big screen in the movie My Sister’s Keeper, and received her first pay check.
Regina was about fun with her friends, even though her illness kept her out of school and away for extended periods of time. Sleepovers and swimming and dress-up parties occupied her time when her health permitted. While Regina was in Memphis she looked forward to returning home and having a sleepover with her best friend Heather. Heather waited a year to start kindergarten while Regina was in Memphis so they could start together when Regina came home.
Regina was about fashion and dressing up in fancy gowns and one of her goals was to be a model. Her clothes expressed her own unique tastes and individuality, princess dresses and elegant gowns put together from whatever she could find. She wore Hanna Montana and Hello Kitty and Sleeping Beauty and Tinkerbell and anything fashionable, feminine and frilly. She had certain favorite items, the pink crocheted cap she started wearing in Memphis that finally wore out and Diana crocheted her another, the pink Sleeping Beauty poncho that I once mistakenly called a cape, the pink Disney princess dress with the cap sleeves and bow and the rows of tulle and glitter.
One of my favorite images of Regina was on her first day of kindergarten. She rocked her first day at school in a plaid skirt with matching shirt and purse, pink tights with white polka dots and appliquéd ladybug, purple Minnie Mouse sunglasses, pink Disney princess rolling backpack and the pink crochet cap, and an I’m-ready-to-take-on-the-world smile.
Regina was about fighting for the simple privilege of being alive. Hidden beneath her petite frame and feminine attire was the heart of a warrior. When she relapsed with over forty new tumors in her brain, the doctors gave her two months but she took twenty seven. Even as her treatments were failing and her tumors were growing, she continued to set goals, she wanted to grow up to be a teenager, she wanted to be a fashion model, she wanted to be a chef and cook meals for Diana.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. We must do that which we think we cannot.”
Regina is a heroine. And even though they don’t believe it, so are her parents Diana and Nick, for the way they have looked fear in the face and done the thing that every parent believes they cannot, loving their child from the womb all the way up to heaven.
My family and I prayed and hoped and visualized a different ending to Regina’s story and along with all of you who loved her, our hearts are broken.
I have no magic words of comfort to offer, only admiration and gratitude and love and faith that the memory of Regina along with the help of all the friends in your lives who love you too, it will somehow be enough to help you face the journey that now lies ahead.
From the bottom of our hearts to the tips of the stars, we love you, Regina Melody Tan. Good night, sweet princess, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.