I've been thinking a lot lately about children who are sick. Their names rise up in my morning prayer; their images float before me during meditation. In my extended online community, there are two children who are struggling with cancer. One is a not-quite-four-year-old boy, from whose brain a large and dangerous tumor was recently removed. The other is a six-year-old boy who is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. Their names are Gus and Sam.
I have never met either of these boys. If you want to be a stickler about it, I've never met their parents, either -- not in person, anyway; I've never shaken their hands or enfolded them in an embrace. But I read their parents' words, I look at the phtographs their parents share, I hold both the children and the parents in my heart and in my prayers. I know them in the ways which most matter.
It's among a parent's worst nightmares. I can't even really imagine our son being sick, not sick like that -- some self-preservation instinct in me keeps the idea at arms' length. When I was a student chaplain at the hospital in Albany, I ministered to families whose very young children were very sick. But there's a gap between knowing intellectually that my child is not magically protected, and actually getting the realization in my heart. Selfishly, I hope I never have to "get it." And my heart breaks for all of those who do.
A good friend of ours works as a Child Life Specialist. She tends to children who are in the hospital, helping them to understand the procedures they're facing. She uses role-playing and therapeutic play to help the kids process what's happening to them and to help them navigate the often-overwhelming world of the hospital with relative comfort. I think what she's doing is some of the hardest, and some of the most important, work there is.
I pride myself on my words, but when I think about these two boys fighting cancer, and about their families struggling to make sense of their diagnoses and to maintain hope -- when I remember that these two little boys are only two of the 12,500 children and adolescents in the United States who are diagnosed with cancer each year -- my words fail me. I fall back on the one-line prayer which Torah tells us Moshe prayed when his sister was stricken with disease: ana, el na, refa na la -- Please, please God, please heal her.
Please, please God, please heal them. Guide the hands of their doctors and nurses, give us the skill and the insight we need to cure this disease and every disease, guard these children safely until they are well.
October is national breast cancer awareness month here in the USA, and pink ribbons are everywhere. NFL players sport bright pink shoes during football games at this time of year, which is always vaguely comical. I have friends and family who have battled breast cancer. I'm glad people care. But I didn't know until this morning that September, now over, was national childhood cancer awareness month. How did I not know that?
I turn to Debbie Perlman's Flames to Heaven, New Psalms for Healing & Praise, and the book opens to her psalm two. I offer this, thinking of Sam and of Gus and of all the children who are ill, all of the families who fear and hope and grieve.
A Song for the Time of Treatment
For C.R.S., z"l
And I will praise You with clear sweet tones,
Singing Your gift as I gather my courage,
Hearing the music of my life
As, once again, I gird myself for battle.
And I will praise You with melodies
Remembered from my girlhood,
Songs that comfort me in night's darkness,
That relieve pain as I call forth their echoes.
And I will praise You with measures counted
In perfect stillness,
As machines whir and focus their healing beams,
As fluids rush through clear tubing.
And I will praise You, seeking harmony
In the discord of this illness,
Seeking to hear again the sounds of strength
Above the cacophony of this invader.
And I will continually praise You,
All the days of my life.
I asked my friends whose children are sick what we can do to help. The first answer was "consider adding children's cancer research, and the foundations built to help pay for children's cancer treatment, to our charitable donations." Here are a few:
- CureSearch: National Childhood Cancer Foundation. "CureSearch for Children’s Cancer funds the lifesaving, collaborative research of the Children's Oncology Group, the world’s largest, cooperative pediatric cancer research organization in the world."
- Children's Cancer Association. "When seriously ill children and their families need more than medicine, the Children’s Cancer Association’s innovative programs create joy one moment at a time."
- CURE Childhood Cancer. "CURE Childhood Cancer is dedicated to conquering childhood cancer through funding targeted research and through support of patients and their families."
- Sam's parents also have a How You Can Help Us page on their Superman Sam blog.