For 572 Saturdays, a witness to the fullness of life.

December 18th, 2013, 2pm

a witness

The view is magnificent.  Okay, maybe not magnificent, but for the children here, it really is pretty cool. You are looking at the atrium inside the Hospital for Sick Children (affectionately known as Sick Kids). For almost eleven years I was a volunteer here. The events I witnessed in this extraordinary building broke my heart and mended my spirit. You may be thinking right now that it must have been a depressing experience—being in the presence of ill children. It was not. As I said, my heart was broken on many occasions, but that is not what stays with me.

Danielle, the essence of 14. Lively, and engaging, her freckles danced on her cheeks when she smiled. A fierce air hockey player (who beat you more times than you can remember), and a great storyteller. Hair as red as it could be, she was a cool kid. To you she never complained about her chronic and serious circumstance, always just happy to be. So, when you return one Saturday to find that she had died, it makes you blue. It makes you consider the “unfairness” of life. It makes you put away things small and petty.

Oh, Peter. At 15-years-old, a typical Canadian boy, yet he surprises in so many ways. Through his winning smile he will tell you, honestly, that kids his age spend too much time inside on the internet. And as your face registers surprise upon hearing this, he flashes that grin again and you simply cannot doubt him. He introduces you happily to his family, one by one, and when you shake the hand of Grandma, he tells her that you are his friend.

Becca & Brian. A mother and son. Always, Becca & Brian. In and out of Sick Kids over the many years of Saturdays you are there. One son in hospital, another in the military. The heart of a mother tested. A free and easy talker, she has done a lot of living, Becca has. So many bad choices in her life, she tells. But you do not sense regret in her words. She has offered the facts—that’s all. Each time you see them—Becca & Brian— Brian has grown another six inches, until he towers over you and his mother. His ever-lengthening limbs making his double-jointed shoulder tricks all the more amazing (and uncomfortable to watch). But a child is not a child forever, and he reaches the age of 18 during one of their absences, aging him out of Sick Kids. You imagine Brian as a giant now. Well and with mom at his side. Always. Becca & Brian.

You did not know her name and never met her child. You cannot really even recall her face, only that she had fair hair and always asked how you were every Saturday she saw you. You listened. She tells you that she has made peace. A peace that no mother, no father, should ever have to seek. Your child is dying and you have made peace. Please read that sentence again. A mother has seen enough of her child’s suffering, and will let her go, because she must. You still cannot imagine how this is done. But if this is not grace, then you know nothing on this earth.

Wilson!! See this nine year old boy. He is a sibling to a sick sister. A difficult journey for anyone, never mind a boy. He is sweet, and full of mischievous energy. From the east coast, he is a small-town boy, in a big hospital, inside an even bigger city. He is farther away from what he is used to than you can imagine. During the week, while you are away, he builds a reputation as a “trouble-maker” among the nurses and other staff. In fact, some of them say: “Oh, here comes trouble”, when he enters a room. You can see that this hurts him, and abets him all at once. You ignore the behaviour and see only the brown-haired boy. He is different with you on Saturdays, and, even before he leaves you a Batman Valentine’s Day card, you become “big-brother” protective. His family remains for weeks and weeks, until, one day, sister can return home. He has made something for you, a little baseball, formed of clay, or plaster, painted in pastels; he slips it into the chest pocket of your uniform shirt. You hug him, lifting him off the floor. He says goodbye, waves and runs out the door into the hallway. You will never see him again. But years later, by that time a teen, he calls the hospital looking for you. You get his message. Stunned, you imagine him as he might be—could be—and hope that his life is a good one.

Here are Big Johnny and Little Johnny. Little Johnny needs a new kidney. Big Johnny is a perfect match. Doesn’t always work out like this, but thank God. The Saturday you meet them, Big Johnny cannot stay, he must go to work. Little Johnny says he understands, but his little face says otherwise. Eventually, you coax him from his sulk and into play. An impromptu game of soccer in the hallway outside his room cheers him, a bunch of crunched up paper towels substituting nicely for a ball. After awhile, he tires and you tell him the game must end. The pout returns, as he climbs back into his bed. You talk. And talk some more, hoping that perhaps some other member of his family will appear before you have to leave. But this does not happen. You stay as long as you can, but you have to go. Leaving Little Johnny alone in that room, breaks your heart in a whole new way.

And, recall Cody. “Is that all you do here—play?” Yes, you answer proudly and happily. Just play.

It was a privilege, magnificent view and all.

Adrian, David Wade, Emanuel and Frank said thanks.

Share this moment

Mark Yearwood

Can a man remake his life? In the woods, no less? I am trying.

Create a free account

Have an account? Sign in.

Sign up with Facebook