“Front Desk. Security. The St. Jude shuttle is here”, bellowed from my handheld radio.
As the families exited the bus, I pressed the door button to allow entry into Ronald McDonald House of Memphis (RMH-M). A mother with arms full of supplies and her two-year-old daughter, ‘Ellen’, were first through the door. Ellen bolted for the staircase ignoring the many verbal objections of her frustrated mother. My supervisor encouraged me to help the mom since Ellen loves men, and I’m an ‘experienced grandfather’. I left the welcome desk area and started playing peek-a-boo with the two-year-old. She smiled and actively participated. Soon I stuck out my pinky finger and asked Ellen to go for a ‘pinky walk’ with me. She extended her hand, and I wrapped mine around her tiny pinky. We walked and talked, following her mother to the kitchen area where they will soon join other St. Jude children and their families to cook, eat, and share their individual stories of surviving life in the childhood cancer world. I bent down and Ellen gave me a big hug. I held her gently, smiled, and thanked her for playing with me. I walked slowly back to my volunteer position as I prayed for strength and healing for Ellen, as well as strength for a family on a journey no one volunteers for.
Years earlier as I approached retirement, my wife and I started discussing volunteer activities for me. I was involved in church missions, but I knew I would need to expand my repertoire to fill my calendar and God’s command to serve others. When I mentioned RMH-M, my wife’s response was, “Really?” I had to admit, helping in an environment of children battling life-threatening cancers was way out of my comfort zone. With a career spent in aviation, fighter pilot then airline pilot, I was a Type A doer/fixer, not an empathetic caregiver. However, RMH-M had been on my heart for over two decades—ever since the 18-month-old son of a young pilot under my tutelage was sent to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the family stayed at RMH-M. Their stories of the magnificent caregiving of both agencies struck me as places I needed to offer more than a donation check.
I had helped cook a few breakfasts at RMH-M with my church men’s group, so I was somewhat familiar with the operation–and I knew I was uncomfortable seeing a small child walk in with a tube running from his chest to a backpack held by a parent; or a child in a wheelchair with a cap on her bald head and a mask covering her nose and mouth. I decided to ease in by volunteering at a couple of their off-site fundraising events, keeping me a safe distance from discomfort. But getting involved way over here in the safe zone just drew my heart even further to a desire to get involved over there; so I took the plunge and attended orientation training followed by training sessions with experienced volunteers.
Throughout the training, I was amazed at the total dedication of RMH-M staff and volunteers to caring for every need of the families staying at the House. From check-in to check-out, the organization’s focus was ensuring the families felt at home. It was not a sad place of tubes and wheelchairs and headwraps as I’d blindly assumed those years ago. The families, and especially the kids, just wanted as normal a life as possible away from the rigors of the hospital—movies, Xbox, basketball, family meals, quiet time, birthday celebrations, and ‘normal’ talk about favorite super-heroes or baby dolls . As my volunteer shifts mounted, I found myself becoming quite comfortable interacting with the very kids that once had caused me to pause. I also learned active listening was the best caregiving I could give; for in their situation, the cure-giving process is long and challenging with no guarantee of success.
I will admit, I am still emotionally troubled watching infants, young children, and, quite frankly, young individuals of all ages struggle fighting cancer. I have learned to celebrate their many ‘mountain top’ experiences on their roller coaster road to recovery—Chemo treatments without nausea, no fever so they can have blood transfusions, blood counts that allow them to go home for a few days, remission, tumors that shrink, etc. This stepping out of my comfort zone has opened up a whole new world where I see and celebrate many more of the common miracles that surround me each day—good health, a walk in the park, a beautiful sunset/sunrise, time with family, listening to the rain, a hug from my loving wife, or playing ‘pile-on’ with the grandkids—no longer do I need the extraordinary event to inflame my soul and bring a smile to my face.
My day at the RMH-M reception desk was coming to an end, and this particular day had been tough. An hour before, a father confided in me that his young five-year-old daughter had taken a turn for the worse. As he left the building, he asked if I would pray for them. I prayed but truth be known, I had to wonder where God was in all this. I was completing my final duties as a lady approached the desk and asked if we had Memphis Grizzlies basketball tickets for the evening game. She said her 17-year-old son, a leukemia patient, was a big basketball fan, and he needed relief from the weeks of chemo treatments to raise his spirits. We had no tickets, but our Program Manager said she would check with her sources as soon as she returned from an appointment. As the lady turned back toward her room, my phone rang; it was my replacement. She stated she was caught in traffic and would be about 15 minutes late. She then said, “By the way, my husband and I have Grizzlies tickets for tonight’s game, and since we can’t go, I have the two tickets with me if anyone wants to go.” I turned toward the woman shuffling away and, with a goofy grin on my face, responded loudly with, “You have two Grizzlies tickets for anyone who wants to go?” The lady stopped abruptly and turned back toward me with eyebrows raised and jaw dropped…I nodded at the perplexed mother and said to my replacement, “You know, I think I do have someone who can use those…”. The mother smiled as a tear rolled slowly down her cheek. God was there all along.
Ellen and the other kids with cancer who stay at RMH-M have extended my comfort zone beyond limits I never imagined. They have shown me what strength, courage, and optimism can do when life’s challenges seem insurmountable. They have taught me to marvel at the little miracles of daily living. I thank God every day that He put them in my life by simply calling me to step out.