He looked terrified. He was 13 years old, diagnosed with lymphoma, and a guest at a Leukemia/Lymphoma Society fundraiser with which my husband was helping, and which I was attending for the first time. He wore a baseball cap to cover his bald head, and kept pulling it down as if no one would know as long as he kept it on.
When I saw him from across the room I immediately recognized the look on his face. It was a look of panic and fear, one that I had had myself when I had first been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Why did this happen? What does this mean? Am I going to die?
During the fundraising auction I never saw him smile, although I did see him mouth “thank you” when the MC presented him with a gift certificate for a trip with his family to Indianapolis. Thousands of dollars were raised for research that day as Notre Dame banners and footballs were auctioned off as well as guitars signed by rock-and-rollers whose names every teenager would recognize. In the air was frivolity and generosity. But the success of a fundraiser and its light-hearted manner means little to you when you’re fighting for your life. That queasy feeling of uncertainty doesn’t go away just because you break for a fancy lunch with your grandma and a bunch of other nice people. Even when you’re 13. Especially when you’re 13.
So after the lunch, I wanted to connect. Having just finished treatment myself for lymphoma and being declared in remission, I wanted this boy to know he’d be okay, that the pain of the chemo would end and his life could go on. I filtered through the crowd to the other end of the restaurant and found him standing against the wall. After introducing myself and telling him I had just finished treatment myself, I tried to encourage him. Things would get better, I said. That crummy taste in his mouth would go away and his muscles would stop hurting from treatment. No more nausea. No more sleepless nights from shooting pains in his arms and legs. Then, for good measure, I did what any other mother would do in such circumstances. I lifted my wig to show him our common denominator a bald head. He broke a small smile.
Some things are easier dealt with when someone else has been there first. Something that would mortify my own children should I do it in public in front of them seemed like the right thing to do in those circumstances. Two bald heads made a perfect bonding moment. My hairlessness gave credibility in a way nothing else could. When I told that boy he’d be okay, I hoped he’d believe me because I had actually been where he was. I hadn’t thought life could go on when I became ill, but it did.
Similarly, when my sister-in-law Theresa lost her husband in a tragic plane crash, she didn’t think life could go on. For months afterward, she exchanged emails with a young woman who had experienced the sudden loss of her own husband. This woman completely understood what Theresa was experiencing. The wondering, “Why?” The excruciating hurt. What to tell her two young toddlers? In time, Theresa’s heart began to heal. She began to find joy in her life again. One day Ken came into her life. They fell in love. On a brisk fall evening, as the leaves began to change color, Theresa and Ken married. That night, Ken gave Theresa his ring, and he also produced, out of his pocket, two small rings for Theresa’s two little daughters. He placed the rings on their fingers, as he had placed a ring on their mother’s, and promised to love, honor and protect them all. There wasn’t a dry eye in the whole chapel. Today, two kids later, Theresa fields phone calls from young widows. She knows what to say and her answers ring true because she has been in their shoes. They believe they can live again and love again because she has.
Our tragedies are chances to be angels to others. And opportunities are everywhere. At a PTA meeting, down the pew to the left, right next door. And, of course, across the room at a fundraising lunch. To have a companion down an uncertain path, if even for a moment, is a gift indeed. And while one follows today, he may lead tomorrow. And the cycle of community goes on. “Church” with a little “c”. That’s us. There for each other when things get tough. Our gift to one another can be as simple as sharing our experiences and trials, and sometimes, when the time is right, even a bald head.
Theresa A. Thomas, wife of David, is a homeschooling mother of nine children, as well as a freelance writer and newspaper columnist for Today’s Catholic. Look for her contribution in Amazing Grace: Stories for Fathers due out from Ascension Press later this year. This article originally appeared in Today’s Catholic.