The two bald toddlers are cancer patients. There are pizza boxes spread all around the end of the hospital bed, surrounded by IV pumps, on the hematology-oncology ward of Children’s Hospital. The main patient is two years old; they are both in flowered dresses, and joyfully eating pizza from paper plates. They have wide, happy smiles on their faces. Even slightly jaundiced, they are the brightest lights in the room. The girl in the middle of the bed is the primary patient. The other girl is a patient-friend from another bed. They are living life fully in the midst of uncertainty.
In the 2013 photograph, hope is perched on this toddler’s face at the arrival of the unexpected pizza party. I saw an embodiment of hope itself in her face, and I told myself that would be true even if she hadn’t lived, since I didn’t know how the story ended.
I looked on her blog recently and learned her cancer relapsed three years later—now. She had just started kindergarten. She has just finished her first round of combined immunotherapy and chemotherapy. I say to myself, what was it that I experienced with that happy pizza photograph? Was it real? Where is hope, MY hope? It felt like it was quashed…
My nihilism is a membrane away.
That is exactly why I’m so inspired every time I witness patients and families choosing to live life, moment by moment—celebrating birthdays, music, stories, food, and each other when others around them are focused primarily on how many days remain, not on the day at hand. The hope of the present joyful moment is not easy in the face of overwhelming odds. It inspires me every time because I can’t do it on my own.
When I read her family’s blog, I realize they can’t either. They have back-up, they have other people.
That’s the point, I think, that we have people to pick up the slack when we falter; we hold each other. And we have unexpected parties to remind us we’re living when we’re dying.