I always sleep on planes. Or, if I don’t sleep, I fake-sleep because I don’t feel like talking to my seatmates. Why is that? I don’t know. But today was a little something different. I was happy to get an aisle seat and passed a quick smile with the lady sitting in the middle. She said “Hi.” Uh-oh, I thought, woman looking for travel chat. I noticed out of the corner of my eye she had a kid with her, but I didn’t see the child’s face or pay either of them much mind.
As I closed my eyes to try to drift off, I heard the mom talking to the child. She was saying the kid had to keep something on until they got to the car when we landed. I was wondering what the heck sweater does this kid need to keep for a two hour flight, and why?
They start talking about other things: if the kid had fun (I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl yet) in Chicago, and if they liked this or that hospital better. Two weeks away, now it was going to be “back to business.” I thought, hm, vacation is over, and then, hm, mom must be a nurse and they are planning to maybe relocate. I don’t know where I get these ideas about people.
Then I looked over, barely opening my eyes and got my first glimpse of the child at the window. And I saw what the kid was being told to keep on previously: a surgical mask. Protection from all our germs. The child was thin, too. The child was sick. But, I could see he or she had short dark hair, so it couldn’t be any kind of cancer, right? What then? I heard them keep talking. About how the kid hadn’t been to school for two years and was always with the mom. It had to be something. But it wasn’t cancer, I thought. And for some reason, I felt relieved. Because what do I say to a mom, let alone a kid, with cancer?
So I fake-sleep a little more, then I decide, all right this woman has been making enough statements out loud that I think maybe she is looking to converse. As soon as I get my notebook out, sure enough, she asks what I’m writing. I tell her I’m revising a play. We talk about our mutual love of writing. I mention she sounded so much like someone I know from the area, same regional accent. I asked whereabout she lived. Surely local. But as it turned out, she said she wasn’t actually from around here. She then proceeded to tell me the story of the journey she and her daughter had been on. (I’m leaving out names for privacy.) I had been wrong about another thing, too, in my hypothesizing. Her child, a girl, 7, did in fact have cancer.
The whole story was quite something. Diagnosis,chemo, remission and then relapse, surgeries, organ removal, blood transfusions, missed school, separation from family, financial struggle, and all manner of emotional ups and downs. Very harrowing. The kind of thing you hear that leaves you wanting to hug every kid you know and never complain about anything ever again. And she told me with a solidness that said this was the story she and her child lived through. They owned it. They earned it. And she wasn’t going to be afraid of it. She was massively impressive and at the same time completely down to earth.
And all the while as the mom, a woman five or six years younger than I am, is telling the tale, her daughter is sitting like any kid, fidgeting, flopping around, drinking her coke, taking things out of her bag and only paying us sporadic attention but at the same time, staying totally tuned in. And every now and again, Id see she’d be looking over to me with eyes that indicated both curiosity and impishness. What a cute kid. Tiny, shy, but, wow, what she’d gotten through. I imagine she’s made of steel.
We interacted some. The girl reached over and tapped my hand as a handshake. She showed me with her fingers how old she was. She laughed when I asked if she was in seventh grade or sixteen. How could I have possible been afraid of talking to this kid?
I didn’t just see the version of this child from today. There were photos. Her mom had taken thousands on her cellphone over the course of the last years. She wanted her daughter to have a record of what she’d survived. So, I saw before and after shots of the girl. In some she had long dark hair, then no hair, and now, hair about the length of a boy’s, but growing back and fast. Beautiful kid in each picture. She also apparently had two wigs. Today she was sporting a ribbon headband so no one would mistake her for a boy. I hesitated to admit I’d done just that earlier.
The mom said her daughter is a poster child for a cancer charity back where they’re from. She showed me some pictures of events where the girl had been an honored guest. The mom said putting her daughter’s picture out there might elicit emotional responses from people who will then donate to families of sick kids who need help. She mentioned the charity they’re connected with, the Jessica June Cancer Foundation.
Looking to give the girl something out of my purse (the auntly instinct), I gave her my business card. She seemed a bit interested (even though it was a lame thing) and thanked me in the prefunctory sing-song way kids do. Her mom put the card in the kid-purse that kind of looked like a camera case and had some plastic toys in it, the kind kids always have. And I realized I’d wanted the mom to know who I was, maybe in case there was any random thing I could do, maybe because I’d be carrying their story around with me, so they should know my name, a person they had affected for the good.
Truly, they made me braver just by talking to me. Would I have passed by that aisle seat if I’d seen the girl there to begin with? Have I been I afraid to talk to sick kids? Probably a little. I remember passing Children’s Hospital on the way to do the stem cell donation back last year and all but physically shuddering. “There but for the grace of God” go the kids I love. It’s frightening. And there is that unimaginable thought of “I am talking to a beautiful little kid here who may not make it.” (Her mom showed me pictures of kids who’d been in the hospital with them for whom that was true…). Yes, I stay away from that kind of thing. Yeah, this little girl and her mom left me braver today, more sensitive and better prepared–o at least wanting to be more of all those things, realizing my weaknesses. I wonder if they know they did all that.
That’s the power of stories and human connection. Strength and insight. Inspiration and hope. These are the gifts we get from listening, for allowing ourselves to be vulnerable instead of trying to protect ourselves from the bad things and sad stories of other people. Strength and insight. Inspiration and hope. These are the gifts we get for staying awake.
The Jessica June Cancer Foundation. Help individual families facing financial hardship due to childhood-cancer related medical expenses. Quite amazing.
The Jimmy Fund. You know them.
Thanks for reading as always, and hug those kids, people,