Cristy Clavijo-Kish never expected to have identical twins – or any children. She never expected to grow up and get married, much less reach her 40s. Indeed, things have turned out pretty well for Cristy. And birthdays, shunned by so many as a measure of decline, mean everything to her.
Cristy, 41, is co-founder of the Los Tweens online community for multicultural families with children ages 7-12. She’s of Cuban descent and lives in Miami. Her girls, Sophia and Olivia, are 10 and create videos and foster many ideas for the website.
When Cristy was a teenager, a few years older than the twins, she was healthy, active, social, a stellar student, and enjoying being in her high school’s color guard. When she tried out for track, the high-energy girl hit a wall. She came home wheezing though she’d never had asthma. Then she had a string of colds. After a few false diagnoses, a chest X-ray revealed a huge mass in her chest. She had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer.
Cancer? she asked her mom. What does that mean? “ I didn’t get the reality of the situation until I had to leave school,” recalls Cristy. “For me, that was really hard. I was always the healthy one in my family, and I loved school.”
During nearly 2 years of home schooling, she lost most of her hair, gained weight, endured 8 months of chemo and 3 months of radiation. The symptoms gradually disappeared, but were hardly forgotten. “When you’re a teenager and you go through a shock in your life, it’s scary and at the same time strangely liberating.”
Liberating? Yes, thanks in large part to the wisdom of her abuelo (grandfather), who told her not to be afraid. “You can do this,” he told her. “We’re all going to suffer at some point of our lives, physically, emotionally or financially. Better to get it out of the way when you’re young and learn from it than learn to suffer as you approach your 80s like me.”
Cristy took her abuelo’s advice to heart.
“I learned early on what a real hardship is,” she says. “If you don’t let it make you miserable, you can turn it around and apply what you’ve learned to the years you do have left. It’s a choice.”
Marriage and … kids?
Cristy married her college sweetheart, Chris Kish, at age 23. They enjoyed the fruits of their careers, working hard and traveling the world until she was 30. That’s when Chris suddenly asked his wife, “Are we having kids?”
“I don’t think we can,” she said. At least, that’s what the doctors had told her. Cancer treatment can be hard on the reproductive system.
“Sure we can,” he said.
So they left it in God’s hands, Cristy says, and were blessed right away. A few months into the pregnancy, she learned she was “extra pregnant” with identical twins – twins that were and are perfectly healthy. “They are literally a miracle,” says Cristy. “I’d never imagined myself living past 30. When I had the girls, it was like, ‘Okay, I’m here and apparently I’m not going away. I guess there’s something else in the cards for me.’ “
Oh yes there was: in addition to the family, she started, grew and sold a business; created the Los Tweens website (two spinoffs to come) and other ventures; got the all-clear from her oncologist, Dr. Grace Wang; and celebrated birthdays she never expected to have.
“I saw a More Birthdays video at a bloggers’ conference, and it really struck me,” Cristy says. “It helped me realize why I make such a big deal out of birthdays, especially for my girls. What’s so special for me is that I even still have birthdays,” she says. “Other people take them as a given, but I don’t. When you have the unexpected opportunity to enjoy another year, you value it.”
It should be obvious by now that Cristy is relentlessly upbeat. She does have a tough side, though. Cancer was a fight for her, as it is for all of us. And she lost her dear cousin Marcos to leukemia as well.
“You fight when you have cancer,” she says. “You fight, for example, when you go to the oncologist. It’s a humbling experience going to the office, then going home and doing what you have to do, and then coming back to the oncologist office the next time. That’s a fight. That is a moment when you have to fight to stay alive, fight to stay positive, fight to keep strong. Sometimes you want to give up, but you have to fight. I may smile a lot, but underneath I’m a fighter.”
…and also a lover…
“I’ve always valued the power of a strong love to get you through things,” she says. “Sometimes people living with cancer shut people out, but they should try not to. What I learned early on is that allowing the right people into your life and embracing that and being committed to them gives you a certain strength you don’t even realize. My mother also was, and is, my rock. I had to let her and my father help me.
“People who go through a struggle like cancer definitely have to learn to love and allow people to help you,” she says. “And I’ve always been very blessed with that. I’ve had phenomenal parents and a strong family who always pushed me and gave me a lot of love, and I’ve had the blessing of the right person, my husband, to share a life with, and, of course, the love of my children. When you allow all that in your life it changes you and allows you to fight on more strongly. It might not be a spouse. It might be a friend, it might be a cousin, or it might be a grandparent, but allow yourself to be helped, allow yourself to be loved, and that will get you through so many things.”
Including birthdays you never planned on.