I guess you know things are bad when your therapist tells you to get a life. It was about five years ago and I was in my therapist’s office, balled up on the couch like a baby, shivering under a blanket. I was trying to escape a cold Oregon day and the reality that had become my life. I was lamenting again… I was venting about everything. At some point my therapist heaved a long heavy sigh and said “you need to go do something for someone else”. It was one of those moments when I wondered if she had therapist fatigue-I mean, is the person I am paying to listen to me..is she tired of me too? I did feel like a whiner. I had nothing good to say about anything. I had allowed myself to be pulled down into a cesspool of despair. My outlook felt bleak, and it was showing. She told me I could become a wish granter for Make A Wish. “You’ll get a wand….” Alright, she had me at wand. I could work with kids, have a sparkly magic wand and grant wishes? Where do I sign up? After a few orientation meetings I became a volunteer “wish granter” There are many misconceptions about Make A Wish. First of all, the children are not all terminal. Children are not granted one last “dying” wish…I had thought that for years. Children must have a “life threatening” illness. Some go on to live happy healthy lives, and some leave this earth way too early. Not all children have cancer. Many illnesses and conditions are life threatening. I attended trainings, learned about families, and how to “grant” wishes. Parties, balloons, fun food, and enhancements to build up a child’s anticipation. I was so excited to work on a wish!
My first wish was a boy who wanted to go to Disneyland. Many wish kids want to see the Happiest Place on Earth and he was no exception. The wish went smoothly, the family had a wonderful time and off I went on another wish. Sometimes I worked on two wishes at a time.
My reality and perspective was amplified one day when I was asked by a child’s mother to spend an afternoon with them in the children’s hospital. Wish granters always go in pairs, so my wish partner and I decided to visit one very hot afternoon. We brought popsicles and headed up to the children’s ward. This particular child had three siblings. The entire family had traveled very far to take advantage of exceptional treatments available at our local children’s hospital. They had lived at the Ronald McDonald House for over a year with their four children, seeking uninterrupted treatment for their little girl. Their lives at home came to a screeching halt. Jobs were left, home was only a memory for awhile and a “new normal” had developed. We handed out popsicles to kids everywhere and ran around behind everyone with wet paper towels, wiping up spills. Kids on tricycles with IV stands rolling behind them don’t really care that they’re also leaving a trail of popsicle juice. No one cared. I felt bad that we were making such a big mess, but the nurses laughed it off. “What a refreshing visit” they said. Oncology nurses are special angels. They wear brightly colored scrubs, with cartoon characters, cats and dogs or superhero are quick with a hello and a smile. Underneath all of that is iron clad strength.
Stepping off an elevator into a children’s cancer ward takes your breath away for a moment. There’s a mixture of colorfully painted walls, scattered toys and children of all ages moving up and down the halls. Some are lying in bed watching TV or sleeping. Some are crying, and some are just sitting still, staring at you. This particular visit was up close and personal. I had never actually seen the treatment side of children’s cancer. (*Note* this particular visit is not the “norm” for a Make a Wish Volunteer-I came because she asked me, but we usually do not see the treatment side). I found my “wish kid’s” mother and we sat down to chat about the afternoon’s activities, and I could see she was tired, yet comforted by the presence of another adult. She proceeded to tell me about the last 18 months of their lives. Diagnosis, treatment, the waiting, the testing, the hair loss, the vomiting…and the screaming. This particular afternoon her voice was muted as she explained that a picc line had to be placed because the treatment they thought was finished was going to resume. She wanted her three other children in the playroom away from her daughter’s room. I helped her gather everyone up, grabbing tiny hands and helping with a trike. As I stood up I saw through the window, my wish kid lying in her hospital bed. She was thrashing, and her Dad was holding her hands. His voice was soft, yet firm. Her little feet were flailing, her screams drowning out the laughter of children in the hallway. Her mother turned to me and our eyes met.
“The only way they can ever get the picc line in is if he holds her down…he has to be the one to do it.” I watched as he stroked her hair, and spoke to her in a calm soothing voice. I briefly saw him turn his head to the side, his eyes determined yet pooling with tears. This brief encounter was only seconds, but it is burned into my memory. All of my problems felt small. I felt insignificant. I felt helpless. We gathered the children and took them to the playroom, where puzzles, watercolors and stories took over the room. I lifted a small child up onto my lap, as she thrust a book at me. She grabbed her blanket and pacifier and folded herself into my arms, as though we belonged. I didn’t know whose child this was…and yet it didn’t matter. I would find out later that sometimes in the children’s ward, parents are absent. They have jobs, other children to tend to, or they need a break from the punishing life of child cancer treatment. When a random child showed up at my feet, I just pulled her up on my knee. We read a story. She smiled and hummed.
My wish kid’s mother set her head back and closed her eyes. “It’s been a long year” she sighed. A long year, a lifetime. They were close to the end of treatment and the prognosis was good. The doctors wanted to make sure they weren’t missing anything.
I left the ward later that afternoon. As I made my way to my car, I couldn’t stop the flow of hot tears. I walked quickly, opened the car door and my chest heaved with sobs. Life is so fragile. And so short. I asked myself how I could live in such an ungrateful state. My therapist had been right all along. I needed to do something for someone else. My experiences as a Make a Wish “wish granter” have continued to astound me, and have brought me to a place of deep gratitude for even the smallest moments. I have seen families fight for life. I have seen the weary faces, heard the worry in cracked voices, all masked by balloons and smiles. Many children go on to lead happy productive lives. Some don’t get so lucky. But in the halls of hospitals, whether it’s a visit to a child or volunteering to help with a magical holiday party, my soul has come to know of the things that matter in this world.
Sometimes I feel like we’ve forgotten what its like to be soft. To be kind. There’s a vortex of darkness that we could easily slip into if we buy the lie that there are no good things left in this world. I couldn’t find my way out, five years ago on that rainy day. But I found it. Because someone told me to shift the focus on someone else, and take the spotlight off myself. There are good things. There are good people. And there is a little bit of magic in my tiny plastic wand that I carry when I meet a new “wish kid”.
I still have really hard days. I complain and can easily slip back into the dark. That’s when I close my eyes and I remember…popsicle juice, a little girl fighting for her life, her Daddy holding on to her hands, and a Mama who had just had it. She’d just had enough. And I brought some magic and for one afternoon, that was enough.
One of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass. What an incredible honor it is to walk with these families, bring some magic to their lives and leave each time more and more grateful for every gift I have ever been given.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer Wish Granter please contact your local Make-A-Wish chapter