We walked up to the McDonalds in the Anchorage Airport looking for dinner before we caught the red eye to Denver. The smell of burgers and fries intermixing with the Cinnabon next door lingered in the air. I noticed a very young boy in front of me when he loudly insisted to the man in front of him, “Mister, hey mister, you can go now!” The boy almost seemed to be pushing this big, tall man who was dressed in a red shirt and jeans and looked as if he was straight out of a Cabela’s catalog. You could see the hunger etched in the boys eyes along with a bright vivaciousness and uncommon wisdom for someone so young. He sure wasn’t shy about taking things into his own hands to make his dinner happen faster. The Cabela’s man quickly went to the cashier, and then another cashier opened up for the boy and his father. The boy’s father, who was loaded for bear with all things carry on, encouraged his little guy to order what he would like. “A Happy Meal, chicken nuggets and fries, please.” “What would you like to drink with that?” the teen cashier asked. “Milk, white milk,” pausing for a second, “and two hash browns.” Another cashier opened up for us and we moved forward to place our order. After we finished ordering, I stepped around a wall into the tiny dining area to snag a table for two. As I was settling my carry on bags I noticed the dad storming across the hall, muttering something about stupid McDonalds. He seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders now, along with all those bulky carry ons. He called to his son to grab the rolling suitcase and follow him. The boy sat down on the edge of the seat across from his dad. His dad furiously trying to get hold of someone on his smart phone with no success. I imagined that his credit card had been declined and I was sad to see the little guy not getting his dinner. Those eyes spoke of more than hunger now as concern and confusion crowded in. As I sat there trying to figure out how I could pay for their meal I saw the Cabela’s man dart across the hall carrying a McDonald’s bag and a Happy Meal. He handed them to the father and came back over to retrieve his own meal and then sat down in the dining area. The boy soon followed and gave the Cabela’s man a big thank you and a hug in return for his kindness.
As Neil brought our burgers and fries to our table I saw the boy and his father head down the hall towards the B Gates. We sat eating our dinner and I filled Neil in on what had taken place. Neil was quick to jump in and say we could buy them dinner. I told him that the Cabela’s man had already saved the day for the hungry little boy and his father. As I was sitting there I continued on with a thought that felt like God was tapping on my heart. I asked Neil if we could go find an ATM and get some cash and find this father and boy and give it to them. Neil whole heartedly agreed, and after finishing our meal we found an ATM and took out some $20’s. We headed down towards the B Gates. Neil voiced that I should give the money to the father as it had been my idea -- that was, if we could find them. I really couldn’t take credit for this idea though, as I suspected whose idea it had really been. We walked down the long hallway with lots of gates interspersed along the way until we got to the end where four gates were spaced in a half moon shape.
The boy and his father were sitting on the floor playing with what looked to be the newest game the boy had acquired in the Happy Meal - french fries and drinks were spread out by their side - as we went to our gate across the way. The son looked happy and relaxed now, hunger had been abated and the dad seemed to be in a better spot too. I sat my backpack and rolling bag down beside Neil and felt the $20’s in my vest pocket. I didn’t want to make this a big deal so I walked over and stood next to the man, and as he looked up at me, I quickly gave him the $20’s and told him, “We just wanted to give you this as we have been in similar places.” Surprise crossed his face, and then I quickly turned and booked it down the hall to the bathroom.
While walking back towards our gate a few minutes later, my mind was tumbling with so many memories. I remember feeding my own child, Tim, so much Chick-fil-a this last 3 1/2 years, when he was hungry. We could have easily moved into the nearest franchise and camped out, especially during the steroid rounds. Many times this seemed as if this was the only thing I could do, as he faced some of the biggest trials and hardships that Leukemia had brought into his life. This was the one thing I could do, and then to not be able to do it because my credit card wouldn't go through would have been adding insult to injury. To see this father so upset and the weight of it written on his face, I could feel his pain deep inside myself. But there was another stab of pain that struck even deeper in me, this little boy that was wise beyond his years was also bald. As soon as I had seen him in the line at McDonalds, I knew that this father and son were fighting battles that no little person or parent should have to fight. Watching the suffering and dying that chemotherapy brings in our children, to bring about life, breaks us as parents. So many times I have wished I could switch places with my son, taking on his pain, his agony, and his cancer, leaving him to live the normal, carefree life of a 19 or 20 year old. But it was never an option. I was shaken to the core by this little guy and his father. We were two weeks away from finishing our last chemotherapy after fighting this war for 3 1/2 years.
As soon as I sat down next to Neil at our gate, the boy was at my side bringing a pink and white paracord keychain shaped like a fish. He handed it to me and I asked, “Did you make this?” The father answered, “No, I made it,” and as I looked up to meet his eyes there were tears sliding out. He went on to tell us that they were on their way to Michigan for a PET scan and experimental treatment. They go every six weeks, and live in Nome, so it is three long legs to their journey one way. I asked the boy his name and he told me, “Jenn,” and then spelled it out, “J-E-N-N." I told him that we had a son named Tim, and he was finishing up treatment for Leukemia after fighting for 3 1/2 years. Jenn's father then explained that Jenn was eight, had been fighting cancer for four years, ... and there was no cure! I turned to Jenn and raised up my hand to high five him and said, "It sounds as if you are a fighter." He raised his hand to meet mine with a smile, but sadness in his eyes.
As the tears dripped from this hurting father's eyes, I realized that this is where the similarities in our stories ended. I had never been told that my son’s cancer was incurable. The realization of why they were going for experimental treatment donned on me. They had been fighting for four years and the last eight months had seen a decrease in the threat, but he was not cured.
As they started to leave, the father reached into his backpack and pulled out another fish keychain. This one was red and white. He said, "This is for your son." As I watched them go to their gate I was heartbroken, and yet grateful, that I had met Jenn and his father.
When I got home I couldn't wait to tell Tim about Jenn. I told him about the fighter that Jenn is and about our chance meeting in the airport of Anchorage. I gave him the fish keychain that was in his favorite color, red! Tim immediately put the red fish onto his other key ring so that he would have it whenever he was carrying his keys.
After many days of pondering and thinking about this chance meeting with Jenn and his father, it finally came to me, that I was getting a glimpse of the face of so many of the kids that had come before Tim and enabled him to have an 80% cure rate. I remember talking to a women right after Tim was diagnosed and she told me about loosing her little brother to Leukemia when she was a teenager about 30 years before. Leukemia was a death sentence for all children back 30 years ago. My kid is alive today because of the important research and experimental treatments that has happened in the last 30 years. The doctors worked and experimented with new therapies with so many children that never got to see the cure, let alone live their lives. Along with this knowledge, treatments for other cancers were changed in so many other protocols because of things they learned treating Leukemia. Jenn is in a battle, and the hope is that the experimental treatment will cure him, but there are no guarantees. This is the face of cancer in all of its heartache and all of its misery. The pink fish key ring hangs on my computer monitor to remind me every day that there is a boy named Jenn, along with so many others, that don't deserve this thing called cancer and that they fight every day. And I too can still fight every day for them, even though my son has been cured and even though it is no longer September - a.k.a., Childhood Cancer Awareness Month...