Story by Julia O'Malley | Photos by Marc Lester
Steve Vue sat in a chair in the pediatric intensive care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center, tapping out a text message, puffy-faced and stubble-headed. Being on a breathing tube during surgery had damaged his vocal cords.
"I'm cancer free!" he squeaked when he saw me.
It was March of last year. Steve had been through four rounds of chemo over five months to shrink his tumor. The surgery to remove the cancerous tumor in his chest was the last step. Later he showed me a picture of it on his iPod Touch. It looked like a grapefruit-sized wad of bloody chewing gum.
Now would come years of monitoring to make sure no cancer returned. He'd been living in and out of the hospital for months, but it all still seemed unreal to him, he said. He never asked the doctors about his chances of surviving. He didn't want to know. As far as he was concerned, now that the tumor was out, cancer was over. He just wanted to go back to school.
"My motto is: When you have cancer, don't think about it," he said.
His main concern now, outside of his grades and his parents being overwhelmed without his help at home, was that he couldn't break dance for six months. The bones in his chest had to heal. I asked what it was like when he found out his friend Mitchell had cancer. He barely believed it, he said. At first, it was a little uncomfortable, like showing up at school to find your best friend wearing the same shirt.
"I said, 'You're trying to copy me,' " he said.
As they spent time together in the hospital, though, nothing was more comforting than seeing Mitchell around, he said. Sometimes he didn't want to see anybody else.
I noticed a couple pieces of yarn tied around his wrist and asked about them. Before the surgery, his parents prayed to his dead grandparents, asking them to keep him safe, he said. The yarn kept their blessings with him when he went into the operating room. Now that the surgery was over, and had been successful, the yarn was a reminder: His parents had to repay his grandparents' spirits for Steve's good health.
"They will do something for them," he said. "Like make them a chicken or pig or cow."
I'd written before about Hmong families in Anchorage and knew that "make them a chicken or pig or cow" meant the ritual killing of an animal. They are animists. They believe unhappy spirits can make trouble for the living. Sacrificing animals as offerings to their ancestors is part of their religious practice.
Once, years before, I'd been invited to a Hmong New Year celebration in a four-plex in Mountain View. After an elaborate ceremony, maybe 30 live chickens had been dispatched on a narrow patio. When held upside down, the chickens went calm and limp; then the men slit their throats with a very sharp knife, bleeding them into a mixing bowl. The scene in the tiny kitchen was still vivid: women standing ankle-deep in feathers, talking and laughing as they plucked the birds.
I went to Steve's house to talk with his parents a few weeks after I saw him in the hospital. His father, Koua Vue, a compact, quiet man, is 47, 11 years older than his mother, Ia Yang. Both of them were born in refugee camps in Thailand but had spent most of their lives in the U.S. Steve's brothers and sisters, in order, are Karen, 16, Sarah, 14, Honey, 13, Debbie, 11, Sunshine, 9, Andy, 7, and Eric, 2.
The trailer was sparse, with a couple of worn couches and a big-screen TV. A small shrine sat on a shelf in a corner, decorated with ribbons of metallic spirit paper. A formal portrait of Steve's grandmother, Sei, hung on the wall. She stood in front of a lush garden in traditional Hmong clothing, a blue turban and a dress decorated with strings of silver coins.
Ia told me Steve's illness began like any other child's cold, but kept lingering, stealing his energy. The cancer diagnosis stunned them. They believed misfortune came for a reason, she said, but they couldn't understand why their oldest son's life had taken such a bad turn. He had always been a helpful boy, cooking and caring for his younger siblings. Then, Koua told me, Steve's sister Debbie described waking one night to see a spirit jumping on the bed.
"She wake up. She can see a shadow dancing," Koua said.
That is how they began to understand the source of Steve's illness, he said. Debbie's vision, they suspected, was a spirit message. Koua and Ia drove to a trailer court in Muldoon to visit a shaman. They told him what their daughter had seen.
The shaman lit incense and considered the trail of smoke. He told them the spirit Debbie saw was Sei, Steve's grandmother, who died in 2006. She felt neglected and hungry in the spirit world, and that is why she made Steve sick. She needed to be fed. And not just a chicken or a pig, which was the customary offering. She also needed a cow.
The shaman told them that in exchange for the animals, Sei would guide the surgeon who was going to remove Steve's tumor, and help cure him. Once the surgery was over, the family would need to bring the meat to her. If they didn't, Steve's illness might return.
"He is well," Koua told me. "So we have to do it."
Steve was always quiet around his parents. I asked him later if he believed what they said about how he got sick.
"Yeah," he said. "I think so."
He did not have a better explanation, he told me. I asked why he thought Mitchell got sick too. Steve said he didn't know.
Two months after my visit, on a bright June day, my cellphone rang. It was Steve. He told me to be at his house the next day at 6 p.m. It was time for his grandmother to be fed.
Our series about two high school boys with cancer has readers talking about cancer and faith. Have you had cancer or has someone close to you had cancer? Did the experience change your spiritual outlook? Discuss with other readers on Julia's Facebook page.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at twitter.com/adn_jomalley. Reach staff photographer Marc Lester at email@example.com and follow his Twitter updates at twitter.com/marclesterphoto.