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Dancing through life

BY REID CHANDLER | FEBRUARY 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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For as long as she can remember, Taya Melendez has loved to dance. At 9 years old, she takes dance classes and, at home, enjoys playing “Just Dance” with her brother Miles on their Wii.

And once a year, she gets to dance in front of a sea of lime green. This weekend will mark the seventh year her family has attended the University of Iowa Dance Marathon’s Big Event.

As a third-grader, Taya is a normal little girl. She goes to school, sleepovers, and her siblings’ soccer games. It might seem typical, but for her parents, it is a miracle. At 13 months old, Taya was diagnosed with leukemia.

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“Everything stops,” said her mother, Tera Melendez. Melendez and her husband, Jose, were pulled out of work that day in 2006 when they received the call from the doctor. Taya had been taken in for her routine checkup, but something was not right.

“We didn’t have a clue, and at that time … we didn’t even have a cell phone. Now at the touch of a button you can figure out an idea of what you’re getting yourself into … we didn’t know, and we didn’t have the time,” Jose Melendez said.

What followed was two-and-a-half years of treatment, including chemotherapy. Just as Taya’s hair had started growing in, it began falling out.

Jose and Tera Melendez’s lives were turned upside down. When they first bought their house, they had year-by-year plans to turn it into a home. The leukemia diagnosis changed everything, they said.

“You kind of have your hopes and dreams, of things you want to do,” Tera Melendez said.

“And then you have something like this happen, and it puts everything on hold,” her husband said.

The Melendez family had to juggle providing for four children, hospital bills, and additional costs such as gas to and from Iowa City from their Muscatine home, as well as parking fees. But the family was forced to make ends meet with few resources.

Tera was forced to leave her job with the Muscatine School District in order to stay home with Taya. At such a young age, Taya’s immune system was too weak to put her in daycare — something as simple as a fever could jerk their entire life in the opposite direction. If Taya’s fever spiked above 99 degrees Fahrenheit twice in one hour, it meant at least a three-day hospital stay. Her record was 14 days.

Just as Jose and Tera Melendez knew little about the disease attacking their child, they also knew almost nothing about the support system provided by the UI Dance Marathon.

Dance Marathon provided little things, like toys, books, and brief periods of playtime where the parents could take a shower without worrying Taya would be alone.

“Sometimes just getting in the shower, it was like ‘Oh, thank you so much,’ ” Tera Melendez said.

For the rest of the Melendez family, their second Dance Marathon liaison, a college student named Lily, made the biggest impact.

“We spoke to her the most, communicated with her the most,” Taya’s older sister, Reyna said. She’s currently a junior at Muscatine High and the oldest sibling.

“I remember [the first time] they brought us in … they said ‘Your sister is sick.’ We always referred to it as her being sick,” Reyna said.

But while Jose and Tera Melendez remember every round of chemotherapy, every at-home injection, and every fever spike, their kids, and especially Taya, have mostly positive memories.

She recalled her dad saying, “Let’s go explore like Dora the Explorer,” as he would take her on adventures through the hospital at night. One time, she laughed as she recalled, Jose and Taya found themselves locked in a hospital stairwell during their exploration.

As the support of Dance Marathon made life in the hospital more comfortable, support from their local community in Muscatine followed suit.

“It took awhile before we really told anyone,” Jose said.

But Taya’s hometown stopped in to help the family two years into the diagnosis. First, a donation from their neighborhood around Christmas showed them the compassion of their community. Then, Jose Melendez’s co-workers at the HON Company pulled together a gift. A city-wide benefit followed.

“It was almost as overwhelming as her diagnosis,” Tera Melendez said.

Jose Melendez said their roots to Muscatine ran deep, as both he and his wife grew up there. But the support they received from friends and total strangers encouraged them to give back to their community as well.

“It made us want to be better parents, be better neighbors, be better citizens,” he said.

Five years after therapy, Taya is considered to be in remission. In Dance Marathon terminology, she has “graduated.” But it is not easy for her mother to accept it that way.

“It’s a good feeling, it is,” she said. “But it’s always in the back of my mind, to be honest, it just kind of lingers … I don’t think you’re ever the same. Ever.”

But the Melendez family says they’ve made it far, and they can finally begin to feel like a normal family.

“You know, looking back, it does feel like we can breathe a little deeper. You do worry less,” Jose Melendez said. He remembers telling his wife in the car eight years ago, on their initial drive to Iowa City that everything would be okay, and he’s glad he kept his promise.

And for Taya and her siblings, life continues. Her older sister Reyna will start making choices about college next year, and the Dance Marathon effort at the UI is certainly an attraction.

“Just to think that in two years, that could be me, raising that money,” she said.

Dancing has always been, and continues to be, a favorite activity for Taya. She’s got a full head of hair and a loving family. In return, her family has a lot of perspective.

“You held on a little tighter the next time you hugged, or thought a little longer about your friends and family,” Jose Melendez said.

And tonight, when the 20th 24-hour cycle begins, Taya and her family will be there, like they have the past six years, dancing.

Jose Melendez looks forward to watching Taya dance for years to come.

“I’m excited for her, she’s going to be okay,” he said. “She’s going to be OK.”


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