Today’s act of kindness was bittersweet. It has been on my list since the beginning, but I kept finding reasons to put it off, to wait one more day. I delayed until the weekend so I would have plenty of time to prepare and linger, if necessary. Today I returned to the pediatric oncology unit at the hospital where Mary Hazel was treated for and cured of Wilms Tumor nine months ago. I wanted to thank the doctors and nurses who took care of not only my baby but all the precious children who are undergoing cancer treatment. Again, I asked myself how in the world do you say thank you for saving my daughter’s life without it falling woefully short? I decided on a basketful of chocolate chip cookies and a bouquet of sunflowers, the happiest looking I could find. I realize that cookies and flowers are not really on par with removing cancer from my baby’s body, but I just wanted to let the staff know, after all this time, that I still appreciate them.
When I got ready to go to the hospital, I wondered if I should bring Mary Hazel with me or let her take her regular (and much-needed) afternoon nap instead. On one hand, I thought it would be nice for the nurses to see how happy and healthy she is now. On the other hand, I wanted to be sensitive to the other patients’ families who are still fighting the fight. Would I want to see a toddler in remission running around laughing and playing while my toddler is sick in the bed feeling nauseated from the latest round of chemo? In particular, there is a little boy I know of named Noah who is a little younger than Mary Hazel. He was very recently given the saddest prognosis. What his mother thought was an ear infection several short months ago turned out be a nasty and aggressive cancer. Neuroblastoma, to be exact. Though they pursued chemotherapy and completed a round of bone marrow harvesting, the tumors spread more and more quickly. There is nothing else to be done except make him and his family comfortable. The hospital christened a brand-new pediatric hospice unit in his honor and named it Noah’s Ark. He has been surrounded by his whole family this week, including his twin brother and his dog, Gizmo. My heart breaks every time I think of Noah, which is quite a lot. When I heard that he had entered hospice care, I broke down and cried in the freezer aisle at Publix. My sadness is twofold. Primarily I am devastated for this sweet boy and his devoted family. It is a horrible thing to even hear about much less have to live through. I cannot imagine what their journey has been like. I also feel very emotional because I keep picturing my family in an alternate universe where this could have been us. I don’t think I could endure it. I don’t know how anyone does.
When I took the elevator up to the fifth floor of the children’s hospital, I started getting nervous. I felt like I was in a time machine as I had not been in that elevator since we brought Mary Hazel home from the hospital in July. I felt like I was wearing a heavy blanket of anxiety and dread all over again. I reminded myself that this trip was intended to be a good thing. When I pressed the button to open the automatic double doors to the pediatric oncology unit, my heart started beating faster. It was déjà vu. I expected to hear the beep-beep of the monitors, see the nurses quietly and quickly moving from room to room, and hear the whispers of mothers comforting their children. Instead, it was dark. All the room doors were closed and the nurses desk was abandoned. The play room was empty and locked. It was a ghost town. I couldn’t really make sense of it. Where were all the people? Where was the place from my memories? I didn’t really know where to go or what to do. I kept walking until I found another set of double doors which took me to the PICU. There I found a nice nurse who told me the pediatric oncology unit had moved to the main hospital because they needed more space. I was relieved to be put on the right path, but I was sad to hear they relocated because they needed more rooms. Somehow, it made me sadder to think the place where Mary Hazel was healed was no longer really the way I remembered it.
I finally found the right place. When I walked in, it was bright and big and cheerful. Right away, I spotted two of the nurses who helped us so much. I gave them the sunflowers and cookies. They smiled and thanked me but then asked, “So, where is she? Where is the baby? Why didn’t you bring her?” I still wasn’t really sure why I didn’t. Sweet Dr. B. popped her head out from behind a door and came over to hug me. I asked her where Noah’s Ark was and she nodded toward the corner with a solemn face. I asked how the family was doing. She told me that Noah was comfortable but there was nothing more they could do. My heart sank. She was clearly moved and said that it had been a hard case. Though I still have trouble verbalizing my feelings, that is why I could not bring Mary Hazel back. It seemed somehow not fair to bring her happy, chubby self to celebrate in a place where someone else’s equally precious child was clinging to life. Dr. B. asked me if I wanted to speak to Noah’s mom. I wanted to hug her, cry for her, shake my fists toward Heaven for her, but I couldn’t think of one single thing I could say to make anything less awful. They didn’t need to make small talk with me at a time like that. I asked Dr. B. and the nurses how they did what they do every day. She reflected quietly for a moment and then replied with a wistful smile, “For every case that devastates me, there are fifty success stories to celebrate.” She said she couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else. This is one of the many reasons she deserves sunflowers and cookies every day for the rest of her life.