This was a chapter I wrote for Dillie's book that did not make the editor's cut. This happened in summer, 2013.
As spring turned to summer, the pain of losing our beloved dog Lady lessened and we could once again remember her with smiles instead of tears. I was still going through chemo, but the results so far had been encouraging. Follow-up scans had shown the tumors in the lungs, liver, bone, and kidneys had gone. All that was left were a few of the largest masses at the original surgery sites, and they, too, were on the run.
Dr. M gave me the good news before my latest treatment. He said he was thrilled, but surprised, at my response. I realized then that even he hadn’t given me the whole truth when he blasted me with those gut-kicking statistics at our first meeting.
My chemo nurses Cathy and Cindy both hugged me. Then, they plugged me into the iv pump and hit me once more.
Take that, sucker, I thought. Here’s another dose of hellfire for you. You had better get your chemical bonds in order, Tumornator. I am coming after you.
Once I was settled in, Cindy came over to my pink recliner and talked to me about Dillie. She had read about me in the local newspaper and wondered if I could bring her ten copies of Dillie’s book.
“I need one for each grandchild,” she said. She reached for her cell phone, and showed me a photo. “These are my kids,” she said proudly.
The picture showed all ten children, none over ten by the looks of them, a mixture of boys and girls, all button cute in little school uniforms, and all of very obvious Asian descent.
Cindy could see my surprise and smiled. “My sister and I adopted three refugee families and their kids. We are their adoptive grandmas.”
She explained that these three families were members of a tribe of people from Burma known as the Karen people. The Burmese army had been attacking these people for “ethnic cleansing.” After seeing their parents murdered in front of them, three siblings (the parents of these precious children) fled into the jungle. For three years, they endured the jungle and evaded their would-be murderers, the Burmese army. Finally, they arrived at a refugee camp on the Thai border.
They spent another seven years in the refugee camp. By the ages of the children, some of them were born in this camp. The camp had become so overcrowded that the Thai government asked the UN to step in and place some of the people in other countries. By the luck of a draw, these three families were placed together in Akron, Ohio. Various church groups stepped in to help them procure housing, education, and necessities.
Cindy’s sister Penny came across their story through one of the churches. She and Cindy had both done mission work throughout the world at various times. They still felt a need to do this, but could no longer travel to the Philippines or Africa like they had before. The two of them decided that they would make these three families their mission. They would become their adoptive grandmothers, and provide the three families with whatever support they needed.
With their assistance, all the parents got jobs, homes of their own, and medical insurance. The children all received education under the watchful eye of their loving adoptive grandmothers, who made sure the children did their homework and practiced their multiplication tables.
I sat in my chemo chair, amazed. Forget the Hokey Pokey, I thought. This is what it really is all about. This is what a life of service to God is: showing His love by sharing His love. It isn’t just sending in a check to a fund that will take care of the children in a refugee camp. No. That was not enough for this incredible nurse in front of me. She had given her life and love so completely to these kids she was now their grandmother.
I was embarrassed to realize I knew nothing of the plight of these people. I considered myself a well-educated person, constantly updated on current events. I was not one of those people shown on a late night talk show “Man on the Street” interviews that couldn’t name the vice president or didn’t know the Earth revolved around the Sun. Yet, I was not even aware that the government of Burma had tried to extinguish an entire race of their own people.
As Americans, we are woefully undereducated about the hardships around the globe. Unless it catches the eye of a celebrity who then stages a telethon, genocides like these are not even on our radar. Yet, even in these modern times, holocausts occur every day.
I had always vowed not to be like that, to not be so wrapped up in the luxury of American freedom that I was blind to the tired and poor, yearning to be free. However, there were times like this when my ignorance slapped me in the face.
When I first met my family doctor, for example, I was intrigued by her thick slavic accent and asked her if she was Russian. She pounded her fist on the exam table and said emphatically : “I am no Russian! I am Ukrainian!”
Oops, I thought sheepishly. I am American and I don’t know the difference.
Embarrassed, I later researched Ukrainian history and learned the source of her indignation. The Ukrainians had also known ethnic cleansing, by the iron Russian hand. Under Josef Stalin, Russia tried to obliterate the Ukrainian people and culture. Millions were killed by forced starvation. Women were raped and forced to bear the children of Russian soldiers, as a plan to “Russianize” the people. Whole families were executed and entire villages were burnt off the map.
Stalin wanted all evidence of the Ukrainian people erased for all time. He even tried to eradicate their history. Ukrainian history and lore had traditionally been told through song by blind minstrels, kobzars. In 1930, Stalin called them to a conference and executed every single one.
Shame on me for not having known this. Likewise, I knew nothing of the plight of the Karen. In fact, when Cindy had first mentioned them to me, I thought she had said they were Korean. I did know about the current plight of the North Koreans, and thought that was what she meant. As I sat in my chemo chair, I researched Burma on my I-pad.
Everything Cindy had told me was true. Prior to that day in chemo, I couldn’t have pointed out Burma on a map. Yet, life really is a learning experience and that day I learned about the history of Burma, including how the current government was butchering its own people.
That beautiful group of children in the photo and their parents had endured unimaginable horror. Lady Liberty had given them a new life, as she had my own grandparents escaping the Sicilian fascists in the twenties. My ancestors, too, had risked every thing to be free, coming to a foreign land with only lint in their pockets but a heart full of dreams. This was what America was all about.
I was grateful for the lesson Cindy had given me that day. “You must bring them over,” I told her. “They can stay the day and swim with Dillie.” I didn’t want this to be an empty promise like a “let’s do lunch” goodbye. Her story had touched me so deeply that I truly wanted to see all ten kids playing and laughing with their adoring grandmother.
On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, Cindy and her sister, the parents of the families, and the cutest group of grandchildren ever on Earth graced us with a visit. I was just pulling a cake out of the oven when my phone rang. They had the whole group together because they were going to celebrate a birthday for one of the little girls. Could they stop by with them?
I looked at the mango pineapple upside down cake in my hands. I bake a cake no more often than once a year. I had only made this one because we had some mango and pineapple for Dillie that was getting overripe. I could just throw some candles on it and– voilá– a birthday cake for a little girl!
They arrived an hour later in two separate vans. My nurse Cindy and her sister Penny, the children’s parents, and suddenly a swarm of laughing, giggling, running, playing, delightful children. They ran in ten different directions, trying the swing set, exploring the yard, marveling at the pool. The sound of their laughter filled our yard and our hearts.
The parents greeted me in very broken English but with generous hugs and thank yous. The children’s English was perfect as they peppered me with questions about Dillie. What does she eat? Does she like to swim? Where does she sleep? Why does she like bananas?
Dillie was in the yard when they arrived and at first she was a little overwhelmed. Grandma Cindy took charge, however.
“Ok, kids,” she said. “Everyone quiet down and line up over here.”
With the obedience and precision of a marine platoon, all ten children lined up next to her in complete silence. “Ok,” drill sergeant grandma told them gently, “we are going to go pet Dillie in groups of two.” Group by group she took them all up to the corner of the yard where Dillie grazed.
Dillie enjoyed the visit. She licked their little hands and faces. She shook her head as they tickled her ears. One of the boys was wearing a ball cap, and Dillie kept taking it off his head with her teeth. Everyone giggled as she did this over and over again.
Now that she was more accustomed to them, Dillie started playing with them in the yard. She put her head down like a little bull and mock-charged them. She kicked up her hooves and jumped in place. Everything she did caused a wave of child laughter to flow through the yard.
Steve and I looked at each other and smiled. We had had many treasured moments with Dillie and new found friends since she had become famous. This moment with these children was a special one. We would keep this one in its own little box in our hearts and pull it out when we needed a smile.
After the kids were done visiting with Dillie, Steve brought out the cake and lit the candles. The birthday girl was a precious little girl named Ellen. She had the jet black straight hair that all the family had, but hers was pulled back with pink ribbons. She wore a pristine white dress adorned with tiny pink flowers, lace trimmed Bobby socks and black Mary Janes. A more beautiful child could not exist in a Disney movie.
We all sang “Happy Birthday” as the children clapped. Ellen blew out the candles, with a little assistance from her grandmother Cindy. I handed the birthday girl the first piece of cake.
“Don’t forget the ice cream!” Steve said, placing a scoop of vanilla next to her cake.
“How old are you?” I asked her.
“Six,” she said, proudly.
“What do you want for your birthday?” I asked.
She looked up shyly at her Grandma. “It’s ok,” Cindy reassured her. “You can tell her.”
Her answer floored me.
She said sweetly: “A Bible.”
She had been born and raised in a refugee camp, this beautiful little girl whose smile outshone the summer sun. Up to just a few months ago, her young life had been full of uncertainty and fear. Yet, she didn’t want Barbie dolls or the latest video game. All she wanted for her birthday was a Bible. .
Dillie wandered over to Steve who was eating his own cake and ice cream. Her nose twitched and her ears wiggled. She was after the cake! The children all laughed as she pulled the plate repeatedly from his hands. Finally, Steve gave up and fed her what was left of his serving. As the softened ice cream splashed all over her nose, the children laughed more loudly than ever. The laughter was the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
I looked around the patio at the adults, the children’s parents and their two grandmothers. I could see the love in their eyes as they watched the children. How blessed we were to be able to give them all this moment.
Much too soon, the visit was over. In single file, their grandmothers marched them into the cars and off they went. Steve and I waved as they drove away and little voices shouted good bye. The yard that had just moments before filled with joyous laughter was now completely quiet save for an occasional sparrow chirp and the muffled sound of a neighbor’s lawnmower.
I contemplated all the stars that had to be aligned to have made this meeting possible. Through a chain of love and a miracle of grace this group of children had been brought to this point of time from a Thai refugee camp into our backyard. Had I not had cancer and had we not had Dillie, we would have never gotten to meet the angel in the pristine dress, the giggling gaggle of boys and girls, their parents, and their adoptive grandmothers with their boundless love. Right then, I knew my cancer journey was a blessed path, and Dillie, as always, was leading the way.
My own pets had lived a more comfortable life than these children had for nearly all their lives, yet they were filled with joy and love. I have met many people that had never endured one real hardship, certainly never saw their parents hacked to death in front of them, never slept in a jungle, never pulled bugs out of their day’s ration at a refugee camp, yet somehow still felt the world owed them an apology. Our country has an entire generation of milliennials that play baseball on X-boxes instead of getting real grass stains on their knees or think a harsh parent is one that will not allow them to upgrade to the latest I-phone. Sadly, we also have millions of Americans that turn to a life of cruelty, crime, or drugs because they say “there just isn’t anything to do.”
Tragically confused, so many people just can’t seem to find any meaning to their empty lives. They put their left foot in. They take their left foot out. They do the hokey pokey and turn themselves about. And they think the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.
Not even close.
Those children, this life of love, this is what’s it’s all about.