Hell is a Children’s Ward

This post is for all the Make-a-Wish kids I worked with who still haunt me:


Their sedan was on a narrow causeway just beyond the Ghost Fleet when the already dented delivery truck a couple of cars ahead spun around and hit the guardrail with such force that its rear axle flew off with the tail shaft still connected.  Together they twirled high into the air, spinning wildly out of control until returning to the ground and bouncing between the hapless cars. Sara watched from the backseat keenly aware that if it hit the windshield, the consequences would be gruesome.  There was no time to duck behind the seat or to say silent goodbyes to her children.

The axle and tail shaft cartwheeled in front of them and then the shaft plunged into a patch of soft asphalt like an arrow shot into the mud, causing the axle to detach, catapult over the guardrail, and roll down the hill toward the bay.  Sparks flew as the truck skidded on bare metal to a smoldering ruin, leaving deep ruts in the road. Miraculously the driver of the truck was not hurt nor were any other vehicles damaged.

They drove the final twelve miles to the army base in silence.

“I want a party – a HUGE party,”the girl began. “In a grand ballroom with at least two hundred people.  And I want Madonna to be there and Boy George.  Oh, that would be so cool.  And of course, kids from school,” she stopped to catch her breath, “and they’d come to the party in limos.  Or maybe helicopters.” She wore a purple terrycloth bathrobe and her hair was brown and stringy. 

Get the dead boy out of your mind, Sara ordered and force a loving look upon your face.

He looked about ten years, the dead boy did, and lay flat on his back just down the hall from the girl’s hospital room. The door to his room had been left wide open.

“Oh my God,” she’d said to the driver pointing to the body.  The man took one look and yelled angrily down to the nurses.  “Hey! Get down here.”

“How did you know he was dead?” the first nurse to arrive on scene asked. 

“I was an Army medic.  Hell, this hospital is still a shit hole.”  His wife, the other Make-a-Wish volunteer, hushed him.    

“You’ve been here before?”  Sara asked.

“Nam,” he replied.  “There was a tunnel running from the airstrip to the morgue so that no one on base got a good look at the steady parade of corpses.  It’s bad for morale, you know,” he said as through it was a very dark joke, “It’s probably still there.”

“I’m amazed you wanted to come back here.”

“I had to keep my sweetie safe.  Don’t like her to drive at night.”

The man and wife were now interviewing the foster parents in another room while she transcribed the girl’s wish.  There would be purple balloons and flowers and even purple gummy bears.  And a band of course, maybe Boy George or Madonna would sing.  “Do you think that’s too much to ask?”

Sara shook her head, no. The nurse trying to insert a tube into the girl’s already bruised and frighteningly thin arm, glanced at Sara with wet eyes.  Many of the “kids” she interviewed looked so healthy that it was hard to believe the doctor’s reports but this girl could have been mistaken for a victim of the Holocaust.

It’s so much easier to interview children under five, Sara thought.  They have no idea what they’ll be missing in life. Dying was the same as going to Disneyland.  Maybe better as they’d get to see Grandma or sit on Jesus’ lap.  No more needles, medicine that made them puke all night long or worse.  No more barbaric excavations into the marrows of their bones that had to be done without anesthesia. 

But the teens and the pre-teens want it all. They are vampires, voracious for life, wanting to suck as much nectar as they can before giving way. They go down fighting. Interviewing them, she felt her energy sucked into a useless, self-absorbed past.

After she finished interviewing the girl, and the man and his wife finished completing the legal paperwork with the foster parents and the doctors, they drove back to the Bay Area across the causeway where they’d almost died and past the rusty ships of war whose drunken ghosts saluted them with their middle fingers.  They all knew the girl would have her party in the hospital ward.  There would be purple balloons and gummy bears.  The Foundation might convince a local celebrity to drive out to the base.   And she would say “so what” because, in the end, that’s what we all say.

Last but maybe least, Sara’s transcription of the grandest party ever planned would be filed in a cabinet somewhere in the Foundation’s basement. Or maybe tossed or shredded or burned.

A Boy and his Monkey

WishkidMany years ago I was a volunteer for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. At that time the organization was only four years old, having been founded in 1980 in Phoenix Arizona.  (The first “wish” kid was a little boy who wanted to be a fireman when he grew up which was not likely to happen.) 

Scotty

Scott Douglas Newman, gone too soon but never forgotten

There are many ways you can volunteer, ranging from working in the office to “interviewing” the children and their parents.  Many volunteers prefer not to interview families for the obvious reasons but since I joined primarily because of my nephew, I decided not to take the easy route. I figured I knew what the families were going through.  Most of the interviewers I worked with were also the aunts or uncles of a child who’d died so I was not alone in seeking redemption.

ladyTramp

The number one wish when I worked for the Foundation was to go to Disneyland

My training was at an Italian restaurant near the Oakland Airport, one of those places with plastic grapes, checkered tablecloths and, to further set the ambiance, it was across the street from the Teamsters Hall.   The restaurant allowed Make-a-Wish to use one of their banquet rooms. They even provided platters of antipasto and soft drinks during our breaks. 

Interviewers, as we were called, always work in twos.  One questions the child while the other goes over the process and paperwork with the parents or guardians in another room. Unfortunately many adults will try to manipulate a child into wishing for something like a family vacation to Hawaii, something beyond the conception of a four year old child. So Make-a-Wish was forced to mandate that the child be interviewed in a separate room.

 The important thing was to note the child’s actual wish without making any promises.  Just to acknowledge it; to write it down.  If possible to get a second and third wish in case the first is denied.  Sometimes the wish can be very simple, for a turtle or a monkey.  The older the child, the more elaborate the wish.   

Hogan

My first Wish child wanted to meet Hulk Hogan – a true hero to Make-a-Wish.

I can still remember the pile of paperwork we were required to go through with the adults – forms to be completed by the child’s doctors, releases of liability, etc.  Nowadays it’s probably all done by computer but back then computers were in their infancy and so we arrived with a daunting pile of paper. Imagine arriving on the doorsteps of people in pain of the most unimaginable kind with a pile of papers they have to sign in order to give their child a few moments of joy. You feel like the shiny-faced harbinger of doom.

 After the interviews were complete, one of the interviewers either sent or delivered the paperwork to the main office.  Then we were assigned another case. Generally we weren’t informed of the progress of the case unless the first, second or even third wish was not approved.  Then we would have to re-interview the family which is akin to requesting a second root canal.  

AsiaSociety

From AsiaSociety

The number one reason for wish rejection was the child’s medical condition. I had one little boy with brain cancer who only wanted a monkey.  He didn’t ask for a second or third wish.  It was a monkey or nothing.  Given his fragility the doctors absolutely refused.  It broke my heart. The little boy’s family had been drawn and quartered by his illness.  His estranged parents openly argued about what the boy’s wish should be as he stood in tears.  If you’ve ever watched a little boy with visible signs of the cancer protruding from his bare skull cry, I guarantee you will never forget it.

The experience I wish I could have given that little boy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rjoRSoHsVk

Wrestlemania

My last Make-a-Wish child, a beautiful young lady, wanted to go to Wrestlemania. I never understood why until I had to fight to survive.

I lasted about five years until my marriage started to fall apart. I remember each of the kids.  One of them actually gave me the courage to change my life.

What unlikely source of inspiration gave you the courage to change your life?

Images, except for Scotty and the monkey, are courtesy of bing.com.