A Gift of Painful Honesty

She lays her smooth head in her mother's lap. Then she folds her long leg-long for a 9-year-old-under herself, hiding the pink satin ballet slipper on her foot. When I ask her, "How are you today, Chrissy?" she snuggles closer to her mother and remains mute.

Her picture hangs on the bulletin board by the nurses' station-an 8-by-10, black-and-white glossy, the sort that professional models use. In it, her hair cascades in curls, framing large eyes and a serious look. It was her publicity photo when she was on the circuit of beauty-and-talent pageants for little girls.

A recent newspaper clipping has been posted next to it. Its picture shows her in a bright red hat, with a big daisy on its floppy brim. She hugs a favorite doll and smiles broadly. The clipping, like all the articles I've seen on children surviving cancer, speaks of her courage, her indomitable spirit, her hope.

I have witnessed all those qualities in her-and in virtually all the children on the cancer ward of the children's hospital where I served as a chaplain. I watched her fly down the hall on her crutches after her leg was amputated and laugh heartily when a juggler came to visit the ward. But I am most grateful to be part of this moment-when she looks for all the world like a scared and delicate little bird with a broken wing, nestled in the protective embrace of its mother.

In my third week at the hospital, I walked into a room and an exhausted young mother thrust her crying 2-year-old into my arms. "Please, just take him," she pleaded as she untangled herself from his IV lines and left for a brief respite. I cradled Michael and rocked him to sleep and felt useful for the first time. Offering "presence" often seems like so little, and more than once I wished that I could juggle.

When the mother returned, she said, "I thought when they told me Michael had Down's Syndrome that nothing worse could happen. But this is the ninth time we've been here since he was diagnosed with leukemia in May." She spends her days at the hospital with him, and her nights at her home 45 minutes away with her 4-year-old daughter, and tries not to feel guilty that she can't be with Michael around the clock. She has had to give up her job, and hopes today to be able to visit her mother, who is ill in another hospital.

As we stand together over Michael's crib, she reflects quietly, "They say the Lord never gives you more than you can handle. I'm not sure I buy that. But you work with what you're given. You don't know what you can do 'til you have to."

DOWN THE HALL, a 14-year-old has begun collecting her hair in a plastic bag. "When she brushes it now, it comes out in clumps," her father says while she sleeps. "That's when the tears come." He tells me that he is divorced, and that he never took Melissa to church, and wonders if he is to blame for her cancer. I think of the disciples' question to Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). All reassurances to the contrary, most parents wonder what failing on their part has caused their children to suffer so.

A young mother agonizes about her infant son's retinoblastoma, a rare, genetic cancer of the eyes for which she was the carrier. One of Joey's eyes has been removed, and doctors have tried lasers, radiation, and now chemotherapy to cure the cancer in the other. "He has these terrible mouth sores and a fever-and he's in so much pain," the mother says as Joey screams, big tears streaming down his flushed cheeks. "If they take out the eye he still has, he'll be cured. But I don't want him to have to go through life blind." Without a change in the cancer, she and her son's doctors will soon face a choice between his eyesight and his life.

I don the isolation garb that is required when I visit many of the children-bright yellow gown, mask, and gloves. Large numbers on their doors mark the days since their bone marrow transplants and the hoped-for increases in their white cell counts. Some scream when I open the door, used to being jabbed or probed when anyone new enters. I try, from behind my awkward costume, to be reassuring. Sometimes when I'm asked why I'm there, I hesitate. One mother helped when her young daughter wanted to know, offering, "Because she's a friend of Jesus."

Just as spring was returning to the city, when other children were getting out their bicycles and baseball gloves, Chrissy lost her valiant struggle for life. It goes like that all too often. Parents speak of their reticence ever to rejoice, fearing that their celebrations will only feel like a mockery later when their children's cancer returns, or chemotherapy makes them ill again for months.

There is no discernible rhyme or reason to cancer's claims. Heaven gets stormed with prayers, and the faithful thank God for hearing their pleas for their children's health-only to wonder if God refuses to hear when cancer returns or a child dies.

I have no answers. I held hands and listened and prayed. I was moved every day by the courage of children who battled overwhelming pain and parents who kept an exhausting, unending vigil. But what I will remember most is the gift of honesty that they gave me. I saw the stuff that never makes the newspapers: the cries of anguish and tears of rage when there is no relief-and no good news. For their invitation into that communion of painful, vulnerable truth, I will always be grateful.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, is in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994). The names of the children above have been changed.


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