There aren’t many places you can walk into that will cripple your spirit and forever rearrange what you think is important in life. There aren’t many faces you can look at, and know instantly, you will see them when you close your eyes at night. A year from now, five years from now, you’ll wonder how they are. Where they are.
If they are.
The ninth floor of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center will do that to you. It is the pediatric floor of the hospital and is filled with children who have cancer and young parents who are wondering how and why they got here. Year old babies being held by moms pushing IV poles. Toddlers who haven’t been walking that long are now walking attached to a drip line. Teenagers who should be enjoying some of the best years of their lives are instead confined to a chair for six or seven hours a day.
One of the children who was there that day was my seven-year old Grandson, Matthew, who was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of Lymphoma a few weeks ago. The positive news is that the doctors believe it is curable and this will only be a page in his life. But curable doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had surgery, endless tests, spinal taps, or bone marrow pulled. It doesn’t mean he’s immune from having to take endless amounts of pills or five-hour round trip car rides into the city or fourteen hour days 4-5 days a week during chemo weeks. It doesn’t mean he’s not confused or angry at times, especially when he looked and acted like a normal seven-year old boy whose energy level was off the chart. It doesn’t mean he won’t have to endure several rounds of chemo, risk of infection, possible hospital stays or transfusions. It doesn’t mean he won’t have side effects or that his self-esteem will not suffer. And we haven’t even started to address what this has done to his parents and our family.
When you find out an adult has cancer people generally ask questions. When you tell someone a child has cancer, no one knows what to say. They stare at you and shake their heads as if they misunderstood. They tell you it must be some sort of mistake.
Except it isn’t.
The ninth floor at MSK is a violation of everything you might believe in or hold holy. And yet it is a place of laughter and smiles, hope and healing. It’s where courage lives, battles are won and heroes are born every day. The kids here may have visible scars and be without hair but their strength, and that of their parents, is palpable. The nurses are a special breed of people, the doctors are respectful, patient and honest.
As difficult as this is for Matthew and our family, we feel blessed that his cancer is curable. As my younger daughter said, this is the best possible news in the worst possible situation.
I’ve known a lot of people in my life but there have only been two or three that have made me laugh out loud every time I spoke with them. Matthew is one of those people and the things he has gone through recently has not changed that at all. He has an unfiltered and irreverent sense of humor that can make you shake your head or laugh out loud and I’ll take those chances every day of the week.
A few weeks ago we were sitting on the beach late on a weekday afternoon watching the waves and talking about life. Cancer was not part of his future. These days we’re sitting in a treatment room on the ninth floor of Sloan Kettering as the meds alter his little body. Life changes pretty quickly. What was important a few days ago now seems trivial. What was once upsetting now seems petty.
People have asked if there is anything they can do for us. We always answer the same way.
Pray. Pray for Matthew and for all the ninth floors everywhere.
P.S. Last night after he got home from a long day of treatment at the hospital, Matthew and I were sitting on the sofa watching one of the America’s Funniest Home Video shows I DVR’d for him. (Are you surprised he loves that show?) He was sitting curled up next to me with his head laying against my chest laughing. As I began fast forwarding through a commercial he looked up at me and said very seriously, “You know, Grandpa, you’re the nicest old man I know.”
It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me because I knew exactly what he he was telling me and where his heart was. That’s who he is and that’s why I love him so much.
Thank you for listening.