“They are so happy out there, you wouldn’t imagine they are sick.” I absentmindedly tell the lady standing next to me as we watch them play and laugh with their newly made ‘friends’…
“The kids here know that every day counts. They enjoy life to the fullest while they can. If one passes away, they are all personally affected, and by reflex we give them time to recover. They barely talk to us before their mourning period is over. It’s even harder for their parents. Watching their young ones fight for their lives is draining and difficult. They have become one big family united by hope and faith that all will someday be well. Chemotherapy is a painful process: some of them make it through and recover, others don’t.”
“Do you ever feel depressed?”
“No, it’s very easy to get depressed in here, but we have refused to be. It’s my job to cheer them up. I derive so much satisfaction seeing them smile in pain… It has taught me gratitude, I have learned how to pray too.”
We are at the Kenyatta National Hospital, ward 1E…the oncology one. After writing Nightmare in Reverie, I realized that maybe the reason I dreaded valentine’s day was because I had always been on the receiving end, because I allowed myself to measure my worth by the premium dates and gifts that came along with the day. I pegged my happiness on what other people did for me, and yes, I missed the point for over two decades. I wanted a different kind of valentine’s day this year, one I would look forward to. It is this ‘want’ that brought me here today:To give selflessly and not expect anything in return. To be among my most comfortable company: kids. To spread the love to those who needed it most, and to momentarily journey with them in their journey to recovery, or maybe their last days.
One of the bubbly kids passes by and ‘Sister’ smiles back at him. They all call her sister, the lady I have been talking to. Our conversation goes on.
“See how fast they pick up? That boy couldn’t walk when he came, his spinal cord was affected. Now he is getting better, but it’s only for so long… Victims of the cancer he has barely grow past thirteen years, I hope he will be one of the lucky kids who make it beyond the life span.’’ I walk away from sister feeling disturbed by her last statement, the thought of having numbered days to live is frightening, it is a countdown to the last breath: to death.
My pals are out playing with the other kids. I am inside the ward, with the ones who are a little too weak to play. They all defiantly afford me a smile. All of them, except one. I walk over to him trying really hard to keep it together. I am scared I will break down into tears. I am suddenly realizing just how much I have been taking for granted. What am I supposed to tell him? What if I can’t contain myself? Am I allowed to show empathy by crying my heart out? Am I even supposed to cry in the first place? There is something about a child fighting pain and tears that splits me apart.
“Mala” He whispers.
“Ma?” I am not sure what he has just said.
“Mala…” I am now startled. But he is looking at a pack of milk next to his crib.
I guess he wants milk, Maziwa mala. (Accurate guess). His plate of food is barely touched: chewing and swallowing are equally painful to him. I have noted that a good number of the kids’ parents are here to give them the morale to carry on, to fight the pain and to provide a shoulder to lean on when the ache becomes unbearable. Most have severe back ache, I am told that it is caused by the Neulasta shots administered. As he sips the mala, my mind drifts. How does it feel having a child with cancer? Do you wake up scared that they will have succumbed by the next time you get to there? Where do you draw the strength to keep trusting in God’s favor? But wait, why are we always saying that the Lord has been faithful when things are smooth, does it mean that the Lord is not faithful to those who are suffering? To these kids juggling in pain on Valentine’s day, would they believe me if I told them that the Lord has favored them?
Back to the boy in front of me. I ask him if his family will be coming.
“I don’t know. Mom akipata pesa atakuja. Daddy sijui alienda wapi, hajawai kuja. He is starting to cry.
I look away to wipe tears from my eyes. I am not sure what hurts me more, the sudden realization that we take so much for granted, or the pain in those kids. They all go through pain, to some more than others. And the detachment from their families at such tender ages! I look at the boy and wonder how much he is enduring, and how much more it tortures him to be away from the comfort of his home. How much the little attention he gets from his mom means to him, and how much he appreciates the sacrifices she makes to afford the transport charges to see him. A wave of tears gushes out, I am losing my composure. I reach out for my sunglasses with trembling hands, I must conceal my weak self. My pitiful self that is now being betrayed by my inability to hold back tears when I most need to. I somehow feel like an emotional wreck but altogether determined to remain collected. I feign a smile, promise him that I will be back in a few minutes, and storm out for some form of release of emotions. I cry a little in the ablutions, dry my face and walk out determined to be the sunshine in the storm.
I walk over to Cii; she is the one girl who helped in the planning of this visit. I ask her a million questions. Why we came? And if she feels like we have achieved our objective. I ask her what we can do for the kids and if a foundation for supporting children with cancer would be a viable idea. I question what she knows about chemotherapy and radiotherapy and what happens to those who cannot afford the process. I answer myself without giving her the opportunity to respond. That they (The patients) are so many, we wouldn’t even reach out to them all in a million years. Then I pause, I remember my life coach telling me that the winning strategy is to think big and start small. That great things are done by daring to believe in the bigger picture and the end goal. She listens apprehensively.
We are almost equally lost in our own small world. And we both agree on a couple of things. That next time, we will remember to bring them temple run! And that a foundation is a worthy course! And that going forward, our way of showing love on Valentine’s Day will be by giving our time and attention to those who need it most, these kids included.
As we leave the hospital, I feel overwhelmed with mixed emotions. I feel happy that we put smiles on their faces, and partly feel disappointed in myself for momentarily losing my calm. I Feel sad that we are leaving them, hopeful that we will be with them again soon, and challenged by the work that the medical team does to save lives, to restore hope and be there with the patients whenever they can.
I am immeasurably proud of the children’s strength in their battle with cancer. They are my roses for Valentine’s, Roses of pearl-coated infinity who have transformed the hospital
into a palace made of psalms and gold with their zeal to live. And for all those who have succumbed to the battle, I make a quick prayer that their souls find eternal rest. I look at the amazing friends beside me who found time on this special day to be with me and quietly thank God for them. I look at Cii and anticipate a day when our bigger picture will come to pass, all in due time.
“Life is made up of a few moments all strung together like pearls. Each moment is a pearl, and it is up to us to pick the ones with the highest luster. If we do not have time to do great things, take a few gentle moments and do small things in a great way.”
― Joyce Hilfer