I read a post this morning that reminded me of a particular experience in my life.
For just over a year in my mid teens, I volunteered on the oncology floor of a children’s hospital.
Upon arrival each Sunday, my job was to open the playroom to the kids on the floor that were able to make the walk down the hall. Usually three or four of them would make it, pulling IV stands behind them and adjusting the masks strapped across their pudgy faces, swollen from steroids. All of the toys in the room were made of hard plastic to withstand the constant washing in bleach solutions in order to prevent the spread of infection. I had to watch carefully to make sure that after any toy was handled, it was carefully sanitized and dried before being returned to the bins or into another child’s waiting hands. You realize how much toddlers change their mind when each decision requires a two-stage sanitization process!
After the playroom was closed for the afternoon, I would pack up a cart with toys, games and puzzles and make my way down the hall to visit with the kids who were too ill to make the trek to the playroom. I would sit beside them on the beds and assist with puzzles or challenge them to a Nintendo game on their TV. With the kids undergoing bone marrow transplants, our visits had to occur through glass panes, the toys left outside for the nurses to carry in.
Although some faces were familiar from week to week, the oncology floor was a revolving door. Some kids were only there periodically for treatment. Others traveled to San Antonio for special care and then went back to their home hospitals. On the good days, the kids would be released with the hope of remission.
And, of course, many never made it out at all.
Those kids, with their scarf-wrapped heads, bloated or emaciated bodies and blistered lips, were powerful. Their bodies may have been broken and frail, but their spirits were stronger than any I’ve ever seen. I would watch them walk down the hall with only the slightest sharp intake of breath to indicate their pain before breaking out in a huge grin at the sign of the playroom.
Many of these kids had never known life without cancer. All they knew was days of pain, some more and some less. They grew skilled at navigating the endless cycle of hope and bad news.
And through it all, they accepted.
The first one shocked me.
“Miss Lisa. I’m not gonna see you next week.”
“Oh, why’s that?”
“I’m gonna get to fly with the angels!” exclaimed the three-year-old girl, her face lighting up and her hands clasped beneath her chin.
I was taken aback. My initial reaction was to deny. Or to become sad. Or to distract her with something else.
But then I looked at her. And decided that I would let her tell me what to do.
“Flying with the angels sounds lovely. What do you think it will be like?”
We chatted for a few more minutes, the girl telling me all about her angels, until her mom came back towards the room. The girl leaned in and whispered, “I can’t talk about the angels when my mom is here. It makes her sad.”
I gave her a hug and left the room. I wasn’t surprised to see her picture on the memory wall the following week.
She was the first, but by no means the last.
“I need to give you an extra-big goodbye today cause this one’s for real.”
“Do you want me to tell the angels ‘hi’ for you?”
“Take care of the other kids for me.”
They were always right.
Each one came from a child between the ages of 2 and about 8. After that, and they reacted more like adults.
I watched those adults too. Often when I entered a room, the parents used that time to take a little break. I would see their posture fall as soon as they passed the threshold of the room’s door as though the strings on their puppet had been suddenly cut. They would sob, letting it out after holding it in for their kid. They would talk with each other and with the doctors, desperately looking for a way to make their kid okay.
But the kid usually was okay. Not physically, but in spirit. They knew when to fight and when it was time to let go. Much like my first experience, many of them would volunteer that they felt they needed to protect their parents and siblings.
“Tell my mommy I’m going to be okay.”
“I’ll have the angels. My mommy won’t have them.”
“Will you give my brother my teddy bear when I’m gone?”
What the kids sensed but had no words for was that they had acceptance. They were not fighting against what could be. What should be. All they knew was what was.
What the kids sensed but had no words for was that their parents were trying to find acceptance. To try to understand why their baby was being taken away so soon. They were fighting against the unfairness of it all. They were mourning the loss of their child and of the person he or she would become.
It was tragic to witness the adults.
So I focused on the kids.
And, in so many ways, their lives were terrible. All too brief and filled with so much hurt.
But they didn’t dwell on that. Didn’t waste energy on saying that it was unfair. They didn’t hold back their giggles or their grins.
Instead, they shared their spirit with each and every person they met. They became the angels here on earth.
During periods of loss and struggle in my own life, I have thought back to those little angels and tried to remember their lessons of peace and acceptance.
To all the families who have lost children due to cancer, my heart goes out to you. I saw your pain but I cannot imagine its depths. I hope you have received the gift of an angel from your child, watching over you to make sure that you’re okay too.