Ball Change: Caitlin McDermott exudes maturity in face of adversity

Caitlin McDermott (left) poses with her mother Jenna McDermott and older sister Aleigh McDermott (right) before East’s 2019 homecoming.

Caitlin walks into the crowded Starbucks, her auburn hair pulled back in a messy bun. Her older sister, East Senior Aleigh McDermott, trails closely behind her as they begin to make their way to the table where I am seated. 

A few tendrils are pulled out to frame her pale face, and her lack of makeup puts her freckles on full display. She smiles to greet me, and as she opens her mouth, her braces reflect the light shining in from the window behind me. Aleigh diverges from Caitlin’s path, choosing a separate table, leaving me and Caitlin at a small table in the middle of the room. 

As we begin, she sits with her shoulders squared towards me, both of us taking occasional sips of the drinks we ordered. When she begins to speak, she omits an aura of sophistication that takes me by surprise. She begins to tell me a little bit about her year and adjustment to high school, which she believes is going well. I ask about her thoughts the heavy workload that comes with freshman year, and she writes it off as busy work, her tone emphasizing it’s insignificance in her eyes. She seems to possess a level of maturity that most people still seek to gain well into their adulthood. 

When her mother was mentioned, her smile faltered slightly, but her composure shifts to exude an even stronger ambiance of maturity. She sits up straighter as she begins to explain her mother’s diagnosis, and her tone holds such poise that it seems as though she is reciting the information from a sheet of paper. 

Caitlin’s mother, Jenna McDermott, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2017, and it has returned numerous times. She is currently part of a clinical trial through the University of Chicago involving experimental drugs.

Caitlin, because of her mother’s diagnosis, has matured well beyond her years. At school, she takes on the responsibility of a rigorous course load and a varsity sport, and at home, the responsibility of helping her family by taking care of things on her own. This has required her to find a balance in her life as a freshman, using her mother’s diagnosis to motivate her to be independent and responsible. 

A turning pointe: Diagnosis

The jump from middle to high school is a hectic time, and it can be difficult to adjust to the social and emotional demands of high school. Being responsible enough to be able to do so requires a high level of maturity. In Caitlin’s case, this level of responsibility was thrust upon her at age 11, when her mother was first diagnosed. 

“She was only 11 when we told her that all of this was happening, and she is very matter-of-fact,” Jenna says with a slight chuckle, a slightly reminiscent tone in her voice. “She was like ‘That’s not good, that you have cancer. But you’re not going to die’, and ‘You’re going to be okay’, and ‘You’re strong, mom, so you’re going to get through it.’”

Caitlin says that the news of her mother’s diagnosis was a shock, but that she didn’t have time to react negatively. In fact, she distracted herself from the news, choosing to focus on a group project. 

“I was actually asleep when my mom found out, so my parents told me the next day after practice,” Caitlin says. “It felt really rushed because I didn’t have time to react, [so I] decided to focus on my group project for school that I had to do later in the day.”

Caitlin sits at lunch, talking and laughing with one of her peers. “I’d say one of the most difficult things is … worrying about your school work, because sometimes it can feel like there’s so much on your plate,” Caitlin says. Photo by Troi Howell.

Jenna’s diagnosis came as a shock to everyone in her family, and the additional costs of treatments put the McDermott family in a tough financial spot. Due to the aggressive nature of her cancer, they had to rule out any local options for her treatment.

They ended up getting two opinions, one from Northshore Hospital in Evanston, and one from the University of Chicago, where she has been receiving treatment since February of 2017. During her treatment, Caitlin and Aleigh would usually stay home, while Jenna and her husband, Dr. Tim McDermott, would travel to and from. The commute to Chicago and back comes with high costs, including gas and parking downtown. 

“Everytime we park at the parking garage at the University of Chicago it’s 20$,” Jenna says, her tone tinged with disbelief at the high price. “You multiply that over the last 31 months.”  

Jenna had always been a working mother, and she was the Assistant Principal at Plank, Caitlin’s junior high school, when she was diagnosed. That year was the first year she hadn’t started a school year in 20 years, and without her working, their household’s income decreased substantially. 

“I was actually asleep when my mom found out, so my parents told me the next day after practice,” Caitlin says. “It felt really rushed because I didn’t have time to react, [so I] decided to focus on my group project for school that I had to do later in the day.”

— freshman Caitlin McDermott

“To many people that might not be a big thing, but … for the girls, [they’re] worried about [their] mom, and is [their mom] going to be okay, and how long will she live, and now all of a sudden, the home that’s supposed to be your safe place is now being sold, out right from underneath you,” Jenna said, a tinge of sadness in her voice.

Caitlin has rolled with life’s punches, using her hardships as motivation instead of as deterrents. When her family’s relocation came up, she spoke with an admirable amount of optimism. 

“I [was] okay with it because it was a new experience, and I got to redo my room,” Caitlin says, letting out a cheerful laugh. “But I definitely miss my old house.”

On cue: Balancing what makes her happy 

When Jenna was diagnosed, herself and her husband, Dr. Tim McDermott, were adamant about making provisions to provide the girls with a sense of normalcy, not wanting Jenna’s condition to force the girls to withdraw from any school activities. To compensate for the lack of a second income, Dr. Mcdermott started teaching graduate classes on top of being a full time principal in Batavia. The additional money earned from teaching these graduate classes goes in part to paying for the girls’ activities. 

Jenna goes on to say that her and her husband would rather go without things than force the girls to give up things they love to do, one of those being dance, which both girls are passionate about. Caitlin has been dancing from a very young age, and is currently one of only three freshmen on the OE Varsity Dance team.

“I started dancing when I was 3 or 4 years old,” Caitlin says, a beaming smile on her face. “I started after my sister, and then I had [continued] until about 2nd grade. From 3rd to 6th, I did cheer instead, then I switched back to dance. Now, obviously, I dance in high school.”

Being a freshman on the varsity dance team is a new experience, but Caitlin relies on the older girls and the other freshman to help her.

“It’s sometimes a lot, since it’s a new experience and [there’s] a lot of older girls on the team,” Caitlin says. “But, there’s two other freshman with me on [the team], so we all kind of get to experience it by ourselves. [The older girls] are helpful because they can guide you through classes, or how to do certain things.”

Caitlin’s older sister, Aleigh McDermott, is a captain of the OE Varsity Dance team, which means that their parents have to pay the $300 cost to participate in sports at East two times. This doesn’t take the various costs associated with dance, like costumes, warmups, and other items that all dance athletes are expected to purchase. 

According to Caitlin, her dance fees alone are around $1,000, while Aleigh’s are about $800. Jenna says that the fees are high, but manageable, as long as dancing and being involved in activities makes the girls happy. 

Jenna also spoke to how helpful Caitlin’s maturity was in keeping the house in order, and how her responsibility relieved her of a lot of stress. 

“She’s super helpful, especially at home, helping out with little things here and there,” Jenna says, audibly proud. “She’s done a really good job trying to keep herself organized as a student, so, taking care of things, like emailing her teachers if she has questions.”

Caitlin says that she feels as though being more independent motivates her to get things done.

“Since you have so much stuff, in order to be able to spend time with someone or hang out with them, you have to get [things] done,” she says, sitting up straighter in her chair.

Full out: Staying positive 

Caitlin expressed the difficulty that comes with balancing her home and school life, like maintaining her grades and friendships while being worried about her mom’s condition. 

“I’d say one of the most difficult things is kind of just being able to go to school and having to worry about that,” Caitlin says, her fingers fidgeting. “Like, [I] have stuff going on at home, worrying how my mom’s gonna feel, and then also being able to keep up with your grades and things like that.”

Despite being in a difficult situation, Caitlin and her family find ways to look on the brighter side of things. Jenna touched on the subject, saying that she believes that some positives have come from this harrowing situation. 

“We definitely find value in spending time together, and hanging out as a family, and doing our best to make memories, and different things like that,” Jenna says. “We focus on today instead of what’s going to happen down the road, like looking at what can we control and celebrate now instead of thinking ‘What are we gonna do 5 years from now?’”

Caitlin’s family members spoke to her positivity, calling her a source of light in the dark points of their situation. Due to their parents’ busy schedules, Aleigh and Caitlin are left with each other a lot of the time, which has strengthened their bond. Jenna spoke to this as well, saying that they both play large roles in the maintenance of the house, and help each other whenever possible. 

Aleigh spoke to Caitlin’s responsibility and role of maintaining positivity during tough times. 

“She is an outgoing, generous, and loving person,” Aleigh says. “She loves to put others first and also loves to help [people] when [they] need it.”

Jenna recalls notes of encouragement she would find around the house from Caitlin, reminding her of her strength and to keep her spirits up. As for her maturity, Jenna says that she has always had a very mature personality, and that this situation simply sped up the process.

“She really developed that responsibility on her own. So she’s been a pretty mature kid,” Jenna says. “She doesn’t talk a lot about it, though, to people. I bet people would be surprised to even know she’s going through anything, because she … I think she’s a good actress,” she says, letting out a chuckle. 

Caitlin handles her problems with a level of poise and maturity that precedes her years. Her maturity and drive partners with her positivity and kindness, which helps her be successful in her every day life without allowing things to bring her down. As for her mother’s situation, she believes that it has impacted her in many ways, and changed her for the better.

“It kind of gives you a piece of motivation to do well, since you have so much stuff,” Caitlin says. “So it’s pushed me to mature in a good way, I would say, and motivate[s] me to just keep going.”

Troi Howell is a Co-News Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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