I’m not quite a kid anymore, however, so I told her she would have to play by herself. I would watch, and I circled the structure as she ran about and played, keeping a casual eye on her as she ran in and through packs of other kids up and down the first two levels of the playground.
After a while she came to me and pointed to the highest point of the playground, a tower five levels up and probably close to a hundred-fifty feet high. “I want to go there,” she said. Wary of what happened last time – of her getting turned around and afraid and stifling a cry – I warned her, I “I can’t go with you.” She seemed unsure of how to take this, eyeing the peak with an envious longing. “I’ll guide you from here and tell you where to go,” I suggested. She cracked a big smile and eagerly took off, climbing a ladder and calling out to me, “Where now, Daddy?” I’d say, “Go right,” “Go up those stairs,” each time with her shouting, “Where now, Daddy?”
The higher up she got, however, the harder it was for me to direct her. I couldn’t clearly see which way she should go, and it got harder for us to hear one another. I lost sight of her for a minute, until I heard in the distance the familiar sound of her crying. I located her at a junction on the fourth level, not far from the top, clutching at the netting on the side of the jungle gym and frantically calling out to me. I waved and caught her attention, trying to reassure her I was there and she could keep going. But she was frozen, only crying out “Daddy, Daddy.”
As other kids streamed past her, one girl in a gray shirt, probably a year older, saw Curly Fries crying and stopped. I saw her say something to Curly Fries, although I couldn’t hear what it was. Then Gray Girl gave my daughter a big hug. And as if nothing was wrong, she stopped crying and stood up and followed Gray Girl up to the top. They played around for a few minutes, then slid down a long spiral slide all the way to the bottom. I rushed to meet her and see if she was okay. There were still tears on her cheeks, but she was laughing. “Do you want to keep playing?” I asked cautiously. She nodded and pointed to Gray Girl and said, “I want to play with her. She’s my friend.”
Curly Fries played with Gray Girl the rest of the morning, following her up ladders and down slides. When play time was done and Curly Fries and I got some tortas and quesadillas for lunch, Gray Girl walked by with her family. Curly Fries invited her to eat with us. They weren’t staying for lunch so they waved goodbye and Curly Fries was genuinely disappointed. “Why is she not sitting with us?”
“Honey, her family is leaving to eat lunch somewhere else.”
“Oh.” She sat back and frowned over her lunch basket, then said with a grateful sigh of reservation, “She’s my best friend.”
We never got Gray Girl’s name, but it was clear that for those few hours, she really was Curly Fries’ best friend. As much as I loved that little girl for the kindness she showed my daughter, I might have called her my best friend, too. The quickest, truest way to love me is to love my child. Gray Girl, in that one moment of innocent and caring sweetness, loved us both.
Last night I spoke at a vigil for lung cancer awareness here at my hospital attended my survivors, patients, family members, as well as doctors, nurses, and clinicians in the cancer center. There were testimonies from survivors, words of encouragement about new research and clinical trials from physicians, and descriptions of the various holistic healing resources our medical center provides. I told them the story about Curly Fries and Gray Girl as a way of illustrating how powerful it is to feel like someone else is with us. “It’s amazing what we can do when we’re not alone,” I said last night. “There’s a depth of courage and strength and bravery within each of us that is capable of facing the darkest of challenges if only we have an ally by our side to help us unlock those reserves of determination.” I told them of my own family’s losses to cancer: my grandmother to lung cancer, my grandfather to pancreatic cancer, and my brother – my daughter’s namesake – to a brain tumor. I told them that there were times when I had felt lost, suspended hundreds of feet off the ground in a maze of despair and darkness. And that nearly every time I felt lost, someone stopped to whisper in my ear or hug me. My girlfriend who let me cry late into the night. Church members who faithfully practiced the sacrament of casserole. An English teacher who gave me homemade vegetable soup in Mason jars. The wrestling coach who offered to let me stay at his house while my brother was receiving radiation, even though – this might be obvious – I was not on the wrestling team. The remarkably compassionate oncologist who clearly suffered with us. Some of the best nurses that the profession has ever produced. Volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House where my family stayed that scored my brother tickets to a Duke basketball exhibition game – on the floor behind the team. And of course, the football signed by the entire Tennessee Volunteer team, whose starting quarterback at the time was Peyton Manning.
Last night, I told all those at the vigil that we were gathered to celebrate that we were not alone. “No matter how far off the ground any of us may feel, no matter how distant from the voices of home, we are here for one another. Together, our voices diminish the silence; our light chases away the darkness; our presence nullifies the void. We are not alone, and it’s amazing what we can do together.”
As a parent, it’s a beautiful and touching experience to witness other people being present with my child – particularly another child. I hope that my Curly Fries will one day soon find a way to offer her own presence to a peer in an equally compassionate way, to have experienced Gray Girl’s gift so she can pass it on to others. What stays with me most vividly in this illustration is what it felt like for me to see another person offer my child care. When you show compassion to my child, I experience it. When you care for my child, you care for me. When you love my child, you are loving me.
I believe this, then, is how we love God. In all those ways that people have shown me love, the ways that people cared for my family when my brother was sick, these were all ways that people showed their love of and for the divine. I wonder if God is less impressed with our worship than with our love for God’s children. I know that I like having people tell me how wonderful I am, but Gray Girl never even spoke to me and I have been thinking about her all week.
So, to every Gray Girl who has ever shown me and my family love: thank you. You inspire me to be the same. I can celebrate that we are not alone in this universe because of the ways you’ve made me see that it is good to be with others. You help me unlock my own inner reserves of courage and to keep moving upwards and to strive to be of hope to others. Most of all, you show me what it means to love. You’re my best friend.