Cancer's gone, so Gibbs pays it forward
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Taylor Gibbs sits quietly in a director's chair between his parents, J.D. and Melissa, at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop. His feet dangle. He fidgets a bit. His head -- full of spiky blond hair -- is tilted back as he stares at the ceiling. He grins to himself on occasion. He looks like many other sweet 5-year-old boys.
But he's not just any 5-year-old boy.
Taylor has endured more in the past three years than most folks endure in 30.
In January 2007, when he was 2, Taylor was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the time since, he's had bone-marrow surgeries and spinal taps and enough steroids to puff up like a blowfish.
He spent part of that time completely isolated from the outside world, as his compromised immune system made him more susceptible to illness. For three years, he's undergone chemotherapy, both intravenously through a port in his chest and through bitter horse pills.
No more. April 11 marked the last of those chemo treatments.
And now here he sits, cancer-free. Carefree.
"He was such a trooper about all of it, and it was a little blessing, as tragic as it sounds to hear of a 2-year-old diagnosed with cancer, and it was certainly pitiful to look at, a little bald tike like that," Melissa said. "But it was kind of a blessing. He just rolled with the punches.
"He was 2 [at diagnosis]. He didn't know anything but what was presented to him, as what life should be for a 2-year-old. So as far as he knew, everybody his age was living in their basement, socially isolated and having no hair. He just taught us it was no big deal."
At 2 years old there is no vanity. Kids run around the neighborhood naked and nobody bats an eye. Therefore the Gibbs family wasn't forced to address Taylor's swollen appearance or bald little head. Those weren't issues for him like they would be for adults or older children.
"We didn't have to dwell on those things, didn't have to address them," Melissa continued. "That was nice. Early on it was a tremendous shift in our family dynamic, because we had to really socially isolate ourselves to a large degree, because of his immune system.
"But over time, it becomes just a part of your family and you get used to it, and it's normal, it's not scary anymore and doesn't even seem inconvenient."
But it does rewrite the priority scale. Immediately.
"For our family, you major on the major and you minor on the minor," said J.D., president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "For us, that meant that the things that are normally important in life kind of faded away.
"What became more important was the family and the relationships and being there for each other, my boys, my wife, stuff you kind of look back at, almost kind of miss that in a way, because it's such a tight-knit [relationship] with our friends and our families.
"It gave us good perspective that even if you live to be 80 years old, you're not here forever."
As a result, the Gibbs family has a new mission: Pay it forward.
Their blessings created a new sense of responsibility to help those who helped them, like the Levine Children's Hospital, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the NASCAR community.
He was such a trooper about all of it, and it was a little blessing, as tragic as it sounds to hear of a 2-year-old diagnosed with cancer, and it was certainly pitiful to look at, a little bald tike like that. But it was kind of a blessing. He just rolled with the punches.” -- Melissa Gibbs
"When you're down there at the hospital with all those families, the reality is, all those kids don't make it," J.D. said. "So how do you encourage others that have been through this?
"We know what it's like to be almost there. So I think it really helps you to realize, again, perspective on life, and if we can help some other families in the future -- great. That's what we're here for."
This Sunday is the first step, by way of Taylor's Finish Line Festival, an event at zMax Dragway (just down the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway) to celebrate Taylor's remission.
All proceeds go directly to Make-A-Wish and Levine.
"The Lord's given us a lot of blessings that we need to be good stewards of," Melissa added. "And because we have this situation to work with, and we have the connections we have by virtue of J.D. and Joe being who they are, I do think we have a responsibility to really make use of this and do something good with it."
As Melissa says this, Taylor looks quizzically at her. He is asked how he feels today, right now.
J.D. asks him to show his muscles, and he pulls up an oversized sleeve, flexes and grins. He looks like the kid from Jerry McGuire, so cute you just want to squeeze him. He is giddy at the prospect of riding the festival rides.
"His first question was, 'Can I ride all the rides for free?'" J.D. laughs. "That's all he wanted to know."
J.D. Gibbs is a man accustomed to controlling chaos. He has hundreds of people on his watch every day. But in this instance, he had no control. This decision was God's, with the help of some doctors. He took his lead from his father.
"Growing up in the NFL, a pretty hard-core sporting environment which is much like NASCAR, at the end of the day what matters is your wins," J.D. said. "But what really matters -- and I think we've been able to see it -- NASCAR is a family. It might be a dysfunctional family, but it's still a family. So when something happens that's a big deal to somebody, you care for them, you worry about them, you love on them.
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"We have a lot of sharp guys here at the race shop. The racing was going to go on fine. It gave us another depth of realizing that if someone's going through a hard time, how much it means to come alongside of them, encourage them, pray for them. That's what my dad did a good job of. And watching him, at the end of the day, that's what people remember about you."
The Gibbs family -- J.D. and Melissa have four sons total -- never wondered, "Why us?" It was the path chosen for them, so they walked it. They are closer and more unified as a result.
"The reality is, life's not easy," J.D. said. "If you're looking for an easy ride, no matter who you are, there are hard things that happen to everybody. This helped us realize that early on. It's fun to watch him grow."
When Taylor was diagnosed, one of Melissa's friends wrote Taylor's name on a small scrap of paper, folded it and placed it in a prayer box necklace. She wore that necklace every day as a reminder to pray for Taylor.
Last week, that friend bought Melissa a similar necklace and put that same piece of paper inside and said, "I'm giving him back to you."
"The thought that somebody had been praying for my child for three-plus years was really humbling to me," Melissa said.
"That has been one of the biggest blessings in all of this. We've gotten to see people who don't know us, who don't know him, who you think couldn't possibly care about our situation, be genuinely broken over it. That was very moving."
J.D.'s eyes filled with tears as she said it.
And little Taylor?
He just grinned. Like any other 5-year-old boy would.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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