I’m standing in front of a wall at the Kluge Center, an offshoot of the University of Virginia’s Children’s Hospital. My family and I travel here every three months so the friendly doctors and nurses can do some unfriendly things, namely poking and prodding my daughter to make sure her diabetes is still under control.
I’ve never been a fan of hospitals. They tend to be drab and dark and they have a smell that can only be described as suffering. But it’s refreshingly different here. As this facility is exclusively for children, there are bright colors and fish tanks and a huge playroom complete with a Helen, the nice lady who doles out to the patients construction paper, crayons, and plenty of oohs and aahs.
I’ve come to learn that sometimes you have to be a good actor in order to be a good father. You have to embellish from time to time. You have to sometimes convince your kids that some things are fun when they most definitely are not. Things like school. And broccoli. And coming here to get poked and prodded.
But my little girl’s a trooper. She’s tough (like her old man) and also soft-hearted (also like her old man). She must live twenty-four hours a day with a disease that has no cure and can at a moment’s notice strike, but she also wears a perpetual smile and thinks God gave her diabetes so she can write books for diabetic children. Still, it’s not fair that my daughter has to suffer through this. Not to me. Not fair that her tiny arms are bruised by four shots a day and her fingers pocked by the scars of glucose checks.
The sound of her laughter turns my head. She and her little brother are playing in the big plastic castle that is part of the playroom. She’s the princess in distress, and he’s the knight trying to save her from the dragons. My job usually–saving her from the dragons. But the ones I’m protecting her from are real.
I go back to studying the wall. Which, as it turns out, is really a window. But the view of the grounds and the railroad tracks across the street has been replaced by a better one. Taped to the window is artwork from the tiny patients who pass through here every day, many of whom are afflicted with things far worse than my daughter’s broken pancreas. Though her diabetes is incurable (and let’s all pray that will change), it is manageable. Medical science has come a long way, and I at least have the comfort of knowing she can lead a somewhat normal life. For some of the children who colored these pictures, that’s not the case. And that makes staring at them much harder.
What kind of a world do we live in where children are stricken with disease and die? Where the most innocent of people suffer? It seems so unfair. So…wrong. We all have a right to live. A right to grow and learn and love, a right to create a life for ourselves and find our God-given purpose. But that’s just not going to happen for some of these children. What’s worse is that many of them realize this.
But I’m puzzled. Confused by the knowledge that though many of them know the realities of their lives, they are still joyful. These crayon-scribbled pieces of paper do not convey a sense of despair, but of joy. These are not obituaries, but love letters to life. Rainbows of every color shoot across the pages of many. Sunshine beams down on brightly greened grass. Flowers sprout and grow in fields of golden hues. Stick figures smile and laugh and hug.
These are pictures of lives embedded in eternal Spring.
Pictures drawn and colored by children who may be dying, but who are more alive than I am.
True, their innocence may be protecting them. Many can’t process what’s happening to them and don’t feel the need to question or blame. What they don’t know can’t hurt them.
A blessing, I think, in this case. To be ignorant of life and death.
And then I spot in the middle of the display a small sheet of paper. Written in pencil are the words of a twelve-year-old girl named Sarah. Words that make me question just how ignorant these children really are, and shame me with both a smile and a tear:
“The world is a beautiful place and everyone should shut up and enjoy it once in a while.”