When I was in my teens, I watched my grandfather die.
Maybe “watched” isn’t a good term. Let’s just say I was around while cancer took it’s toll on him and, inevitably, his life.
It struck him without warning or reason and went to work with a terrible quickness. Already well into his senior years, he didn’t put up much of a fight. I don’t think a year passed from first diagnosis to the day we said goodbye.
The reason I say I was around is because I wouldn’t go into the room while he was dying. That vicious butcher of a disease shut down parts of him—parts that made him the man I knew. The medications did the rest, burying his cognitive functions under suffocating blankets of chemicals designed to delay the spread. He was reduced to a shell coming in and out of consciousness, not the man I grew up loving to be around.
I don’t know why I didn’t go into see him. I was young and uncertain. I’m not sure if he would have recognized me, or I him. If I must give a solid reason for my avoidance, it would be fear. I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to feel, that it would hurt me some way I didn’t yet understand. Afraid I wouldn’t know what to say, as if I could say anything that would change things.
Some things in life can’t be changed.
At 8:30 a.m. July 21, I traveled with the Beavers front office to a destination I’ve never been before. In the back of the car were trash bags filled with stuffed animals and a box full of Padres T-shirts. The mascot came too. We were headed to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital to meet kids with cancer.
My job was to dress up in uniform and present children with stuffed animals, wish them well and sign whatever they wanted. Lucky the Beaver would do the same, except in pantomime- I would have to speak.
At first, the people who directed us to meet the children were skeptical. I don’t blame them. I was skeptical. You may wonder what I had to be worried about. You may picture a lovely scene in your head, something out of those Boys and Girls Club commercials where kids are giggling and smearing pine tar all over each other while a big leaguer stands heroically, upbeat music filling the air.
It’s not like that.
I’d walk into the room, and there would be a girl—pale, bald, shrunk to the size of Third World starvation poster child. Tubes connecting her to machines that beeped and chimed. Her mother close by, within arm’s reach, laying in a makeshift bed next to a pile of sanitized items from home, as if to bring some piece of home to this place. Mom would look at me, no smile on a sleepless face, watching like a lioness on an intruder too close to her cub.
I am the product that kids love, the jersey adorned avatar of dreams. I would have to go in and play the role. Smile, say cliché things about baseball and make those god awful allusions, “I’ll see you at the park soon,” or “You’ll be a big leaguer before you know it.” I’m not even a big leaguer. But that’s what is said, even expected. It’s the face of commercially excepted charity. I even had drink Koozies.
I’d give a stuffed animal, sign a shirt with a company logo, and well wish. I’d try to be convincing, but in the eyes of a mother watching her child waste away to nothing, there are no convincing words.
If you ever visit a children’s cancer ward, you’ll spend a lot of time sanitizing your hands. Their immune systems are so weak, you can’t risk bringing germs inside. In fact, if I’d had a stuffy nose, I wouldn’t have been allowed in at all.
Yet if I wasn’t wearing a baseball jersey, I wouldn’t be allowed in either. It’s moments like this that make me wonder if going into this place is something that comes from the heart or a really shameful way to bring advertising to places other companies can’t go?
All this swirled in my head as I stood in room after room of cancer-stricken children. Finally, after digesting it, I realized I was the owner of the words coming from my mouth.
Sure, this jersey is no miracle drug. I can’t fix these kids with it. I can, however, make them happy for a little because I wear it. I’ll play the role because they need me to be a super hero in a costume, even if I know the truth.
But to those parents, who love their children and know fake words when they hear them, I stopped patronizing them. This is what I said:
“I’m sorry this has happened to your daughter. I know this T-shirt and this stuffed animal aren’t going to make it better. If I was really the superstar the media makes us athletes out to be, I’d find a fix. But I’m just a guy in a uniform, like the mascot. I just want you to know, this is not an advertisement. I don’t expect you to love the Beavers more for us coming in here. If I could have, I’d come in here myself without the uniform and felt more comfortable that way—but not just anyone can come in. I don’t feel right giving you these things, I feel cheap. But if it will make your child feel better, even for a little, you can take that whole bag of stuffed animals. We really do care about what you’re going through. I don’t know how to express that sentiment in a way that makes sense, but I feel it. I’ll be praying for you and your family. Thanks for letting me come in today.”
I don’t know what I would have said to my grandfather when he was sick. Finding words in those moments is hard. Looking back, I don’t think it would have mattered how it came out, because it would have came, pouring forth in a language stuffed animals and T-shirts couldn’t express.
Some sentiments can’t be captured with words or teddy bears. Some things should never be easy to explain or talk away. Some things should rend our hearts and souls until it changes the very way we look at the world around us. This, too, is one thing in life that can’t be changed—nor should it be.