II. The People you meet along the way
The king rides down the hallway on his big wheel screeching into the room carrying the "contraband." Caitlin explodes into laughter. "Caitie I got it- the pepperoni." Never before had she had anything like it. They formed a fast friendship over food and chemo meds. " I really can't taste anything unless it is salty or spicy," he informs her and she introduces him to chips and dunk (chips and spicy dip) and pickles. They know each other's schedules for receiving inpatient chemo and are happy when they can race each other down the hallway attached to their IV poles to the "playroom" to see Ms. Kim. The playroom is their sanctuary where no harm, no needles, and no docs are allowed. In the playroom, it's just the king, Caitlin, and Ms. Kim having fun. Just kids....
Lakeshia* greets me every morning with the "look." Right away, I know I may not be up to her standards of fashionable attire. The phrase "girl you do not match today" regularly flies out of the mouth of this five- year old. "I saw you in that outfit two straight times," Lakeshia notes, "when are you going to wear something else?" Over time Lakeshia teaches me the importance of looking good, so each time I enter the clinic my eyes dart around the room to find her and get the word for the day Fine. Nasty. Go shopping girlfriend. Honey I need to come to your house and clean out your closet! According to Lakeshia, even when you do not feel good you must do your best to look good.
"Hey momma," Darin* says as he wraps me in a big bear hug early in the morning. Darin is 15 and he comes over to sit next to me and tell me about all his adventures. He is big and lovable. He has Leukemia and Down Syndrome. "Momma not feeling so good today- got any ice pops?" I quickly retrieve one from the kitchen. Again, I sit down next to this lovable kid and he pukes all over me.
Caitlin and Mike* are both teetering close to the edge. Mike is four too and in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Caitlin is hit hard by the effects of the chemo and is barely hanging on. Word trickles down the hallway of the pediatric intensive care unit(PICU). Mike has made a remarkable recovery and the transplant seems to have done its job. Well, at least one of them will survive. Weeks go by and I greet Mike in the clinic. His hair is curly blond and his eyes are big and blue. "Hey stranger," I say, "how's it going?" His father raises his eyes and says, "Mike gave it a good fight but now he is ready to go home." I walk outside of the waiting room and sob. He is only four.
Caitlin is the only one of the five to survive.
We walk into the building we are all too familiar with but now enter a completely different world. Children are resilient, exude joy, and don't think they are sick. Adults are aware of the side effects, the stares, and the diagnosis. The weight of the world rests squarely on their shoulders. They call Paul into the room for vitals and I sit staring out the window. The world looks so serene and beautiful from the tenth floor window. I stare at the workers across the street on the roof seemingly unaware of the scene across the street from them.
A young man sits next to me carrying his mother's purse and walks her into an exam room. He is clearly exhausted. He opens up a bag of cheddar-flavored pretzels. "Oh those are so addictive!" I blurt out. He laughs. "I know! When I picked these off the shelf I thought that whole combination sounded gross, but now I can't stop eating them." We talk. He picks up his mother for her oncology appointments and waits with her. Sadness falls across his face. We agree to meet again and share our love of pretzels.
Across the room, a young girl bounces in. She is bald-clearly a patient. Still, she enters the room dancing with a childlike exuberance. It is clear she will not let any disease dictate how she will live her life. I smile at her friend who tells me she has less than a month to live (or so the doctors think).
This new world unfolds before me and I recognize the patterns. Some will succumb to their disease and some will survive. Who will it be this time around? Will the doctors' predictions for these patients follow the script or will the patients determine their own destiny?
Then the lesson from these two worlds unfolds . Life is a gift. Unwrap it. Savor it. Dance. Eat pepperoni. Humanity at its essence. All of us sit in a waiting room eager to connect with one another even if it means one of us won't be here on the next visit.
* Names have been change to protect the privacy of the families