By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON - With a dark blue shawl gently covering her shoulders, her eyes peered out from beneath a Belton-red ball cap that attempted to hide the visible toll cancer has taken on them all.
Once a vibrant and active person, often bounding about her classroom, Paula Jordan sat still in her wheelchair Thursday and listened intently as her twin sons, Austin and Dallas, partook in a rite of passage reserved for the best and brightest.
Positioned behind the podium on the main stage in the standing room-only Bell County Expo Center, the 18-year-old identical twins each spoke to the nearly 600 Belton High School graduates about his own reality.
For Dallas, the younger by two minutes, his light-hearted salutatorian speech revolved around being known as twin No. 2.
For Austin, his vale dicere harkened back to a watershed day two weeks ago inside a Scott & White Hospital room with his mother.
"While reflecting in the hospital, it put everything in perspective - this is life, it starts and ends here," Austin said. "The only thing you really have in life is time, and how you spend it is the most important thing you can do in your life."
'Don't give up'
From the time their mother was diagnosed with cancer in August 2011, the twins' senior year proved to be one of the most arduous years of their lives.
Yet through it all, Austin and Dallas never lost focus of the goal - graduating at the top of their class with plans to attend Cornell University just as Paula and her parents did.
"It was hard to stay motivated on schoolwork throughout the year, but I guess what really kept us going was we wanted to finish strong," Austin said. "Our parents have always advocated that you need to do well in school. So it was kind of for them and it was kind of for us."
Dallas said: "We've always been raised with this drive of don't give up. If you want to get it done, you can get it done."
Doctors believed Paula had a 90 percent chance of beating uterine clear cell carcinoma, which was later reclassified as ovarian clear cell carcinoma, after the first round of treatments. But that sliver of chance metastasized when the cancer re-emerged in March, moving into her abdomen.
"You just don't know which way it's going to turn. I basically started the year and went back to school. Everything seemed to be going just fine, and then it turns around and does a twist on you. I'm not sure which way this thing is going," said Paula, Killeen Independent School District's lone Latin teacher.
Scott Jordan, the twins' father, said that because of its rarity - it's only found in 6 percent of women with ovarian cancer - doctors aren't familiar with treating the disease. And so within 48 hours of learning the cancer returned, Paula underwent chemotherapy treatments and is currently in her third round.
"It was literally like one day we were perfectly fine, everything was OK. We thought she was over it and two days later, she was all of the sudden getting chemo and everyone was worried," Dallas said.
"That was really high stress," added Austin.
Hard to balance
Compounding the stress was the twins' workload.
Somehow they had to find the time to complete college scholarship applications and study for what was arguably the toughest year of their high school careers with seven advanced placement classes.
Although both parents tried to shield Austin and Dallas from the worst parts of Paula's cancer, it didn't make hospital visits any easier. "Hospitals have always upset me. … You see so many movies and it's someone else in that bed … so (when) you finally walk in and see your mom in that bed, it's a lot more hurtful and it's a lot harder to bear," Dallas said.
With end-of-year projects and graduation speeches due and finals to study for, the stress of the final two weeks of high school were magnified for the Belton valedictorian and salutatorian.
On May 19, Austin and Dallas stood in the Scott & White Hospital emergency room worried about their mother, who'd woken up with breathing problems.
Doctors discovered blood clots in Paula's legs - the result of her platinum-based treatments - had broken up and spread to her lungs, making it hard for her to breathe.
It was there by Paula's bedside, surrounded by the faux warmth of a sterilized hotel room, that the twins remained within arm's length of their mom.
"It was really nice, you know, because we've been so busy that we haven't really had time to just sit down and talk (with her)," Austin said.
Intelligent and mature beyond their years - earning entrance into the gifted program at Belton by the third grade - the twins nevertheless struggled to come to terms with their mother's condition.
"That whole weekend (in the hospital) was kind of surreal. It's like, OK, this is happening, but I don't really have any emotion toward it," Austin said. "It wasn't a sadness that I felt when I walked in but more of a realization that this was serious."
A little hesitation
Before receiving the highly selective early admittance to Cornell in November, Austin and Dallas applied everywhere from Oxford University in England to the University of Texas.
Ultimately, the value of an Ivy League education won out.
"They've chosen that goal and I don't think (cancer) changed it one bit, they just stuck to it," said Paula, who studied Chinese Art History and Language at Cornell in the early 1970s.
Born in Hong Kong, the twins have spent time all around the globe, so the idea of moving cross-country isn't daunting.
"Our parents have done everything they possibly can to prepare us (for moving on), so I'm not worried about leaving," Austin said. "I'm more worried about what I'm missing out here."
But when they finally make their first 1,600-mile trip from Belton to Ithaca, N.Y., for the start of their freshman year at Cornell in late July, it won't be without some hesitation.
"I used to not be so anxious about leaving, but as we get closer to it, I am finding that I don't want to leave. I want to stay here and take care of her," said Austin.
Dallas added: "But, every time we bring it up, she says 'No, you are going to go.' And there isn't much arguing with her."
Nick Talbot contributed to this report.
Contact Alex Byington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7566.