There isn’t a day that goes by where I do not think of All Those Kids. And I see it like that in my head- All Those Kids. I wonder if it’s fair to write this story. It is so hard. I want to protect you from how hard it is. I’ve had the benefit of therapy. And I was there. I know how real the times around life’s edges can be. sacred. Sometimes I wonder – well I don’t wonder, I know- that I am the most comfortable in those edge-y moments, in a crisis or feeling how precious life is when death is so near. But I am happiest when all of my people are content and upright on their own path, when I can just function like the bumpers at a bowling alley, keeping my peeps out of the gutter.
All Those Kids. You have heard about Billy and Rosa. What I may not have made clear is that I was treated at a very small children’s unit- with just two pediatric oncologists. Everyone pretty much knew everyone. In the mid 1970’s there were kids being treated for cancer “inpatient” like Billy and I, and those on an “outpatient” regime.
On my first few admissions I made friends with a couple of little girls, K. and K. We would talk during the day, and then barf during the night. It was a bonding experience. But after a few months K. and then K. disappeared. I didn’t see them inpatient or during my weekly outpatient visits. In fact, a lot of the kids disappeared. The cute baby, G. with the IV in her head disappeared. Sometimes the doors on the ward would be shut, and the charts turned a special way. It took me awhile to figure out these kids were dying. And when I did, I stopped speaking to any kid in the hospital, ever, not the kids treated outpatient, and later not the kids treated for diabetes or sickle cell. To this day, I am still not sure if anyone noticed.
Years later I asked my doctors in the survivorship clinic at that same hospital if there are any kids who were treated on an inpatient protocol from those first years that had survived, and none came to their minds. By my second round of chemo, the odds were getting a bit better and more kids were treated outpatient. I am positive some did survive, as positive as I am I had stopped speaking to hospital kids.
Flash forward from 1981 to about 1997– third year of my doctoral program. Yep, I went back to the very same hospital for my third year internship. The first doctor I had was still there! I loved that man. He referred to me as his “baby” and beamed whenever I walked into the room. Oh the difference a decade and a half made!
As part of my duties, I got to run a therapy group with school aged kids with cancer. Right? Other interns got teenagers, siblings, and parents. I got an opportunity for a corrective emotional experience! Oh how I loved those kids. The group was at night, so mostly inpatient kids. We talked and jabbered and talked. We talked about me, and them, and their families, their fears, and everything. And then the wishes started. D got a wish. He’d had a bone marrow transplant, but was nearing the 100 days that marks the first milestone of success. He wished for a trip to Disneyland and a computer. He shared that he didn’t like computers much but it would be something for his family if something happened to him. And another child talked about their wish and how happy they were for their family to have those memories. The group deepened in those moments.
By the next group D had relapsed, and another child had been granted a wish. The group after that, D had died. And it just kept happening. 6 precious kids, and 6 wishes later, my regular group members had all died. But we had talked. Talked about death and dying and families and those wishes that seemed a precursor to death and all the stupid stuff people say to you when you are a kid with cancer. I had talked, and more importantly listened to these kiddos. I loved, them. I still do.
Flash forward 2005-2007. My husband and I move to a new town, and shortly thereafter three little girls ages 7-9 in our small city get diagnosed with the kind of cancer I did. What are the odds? (No seriously, what are the odds?) I write to them, visit with them, pray for them, go back to my own therapy….
Both of the little girls who relapse do not survive. One of the parents says her little angel got her wings… a term I’ve heard now way too often. One little girl makes it (two if you count me)… out of All Those Kids.
How much do I love those kids? When I walk down some of those hospital halls today I, like Anne of Green Gables, still expect to meet my 9 year old self along the way. My self, and All Those Kids. When I think of them my heart is surely as big as the universe, and they are more alive to me than many relationships I have let slip by because of fear of connection due to my own fear loss. Go figure.
- Kids think differently than adults. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out. But mostly, they do what makes sense to them based on their biological and emotional make-up along with their experiences. Take the time to listen. It makes all the difference.
- Saving the body is not the same as saving the spirit and the soul.
- Know how precious life is while you are living it.
- Death is not the worst thing, facing it alone, in pain and with fear are far worse.
- Never underestimate the wisdom of a child.
- Find the hard places in your life and grow through them. It’s so worth it.