When September rolls around, I look like any other haggled parent standing in the checkout with three kids. The shopping cart is filled with packs of pencils, note paper, crayons, markers and tissues.
“Why do we need to buy tissues for school?” my kindergartener asked last year.
I pictured a whole class of five-year-olds with runny noses and was tempted to reply, “So kids won’t use their sleeves.” But I chose the logical, “For when your nose is runny.”
My neighbor claimed it would be a busy year when she found out I’d have one in kindergarten, one in first grade and one in middle school. But not busy enough, I thought, and again resisted the urge to let her know that I was wondering what my fifth-grader would be needing for school this year.
My fifth-grader, Daniel, never passed fourth grade. Or third, or even first. He didn’t get a school supply list. Instead he got a kit from the hospital with syringes and bandages, all very sterile.
On Memorial Day Weekend, 1996, Daniel was three and diagnosed with Neuroblastoma. After eight months of treatments, surgeries, prayers and hope, this bald-headed kid, who acknowledged he was a “Brave Cookie,” was ready to be a cancer survivor. But a staph infection entered his weakened body and we had to kiss him good-bye.
September– now meaning for me, not only back to school, but Childhood Cancer Awareness Month– has rolled around again and as I stand in line with my kids, I know why the supply lists include tissues.
Just the other day while joining other parents and children in the “shopping for school supplies frenzy,” a woman noticed the gold ribbon pinned to my t-shirt. “What’s gold for?” she asked. “I know that pink is for breast cancer.”
“Children,” I said. “Gold because our children are golden to us.”
I half expected her to show shock or horror, being one of the thousands who refuses to believe that cancer is the number one illness among children. One of those who has no idea that each year one in every 330 kids will be diagnosed with cancer before age 19.
I was ready for her to walk away from me down the aisle. Instead she mouthed the words, “Did a child of yours…?”
“Yes,” I said. “A son who would be ten now. He didn’t survive.”
Her eyes showed tears, causing mine to fill. Then this woman–a stranger–touched my arm. “I am so sorry.” She smiled at my other three children. “They are beautiful. I’m sure your son was, too.”
If you see a mother wearing a gold ribbon on her shirt–the symbol of childhood cancer awareness—please ask her about the ribbon. The opportunity to talk will help with her healing and give you new wisdom. Be aware that she may cry. Feel free to hand her a tissue. Although she has done it before, she probably shouldn’t be using her sleeve.
(Written in 2002)