Here’s why we do this for the beautiful children in the Sinai Hospital PICU:
In 1981, I owned a 1968 Ford Falcon – my first car that was desperately seeking love. I was reminded of this at every red light, when I would have to throw the car into park, rev the engine just enough as if I were soothing its little hood, and then drop it into drive and push on before it stalled out. We named her “Deuce,” and she became the vehicle, both literally and figuratively, for my first group of high school friends to explore life beyond the boundaries of home, and beyond the tired old wheels on our rusty bikes.
Given that first taste of freedom, my friends and I chose to brighten the lives of some individuals who were less fortunate, or who might be spending the holidays alone. We created a group called The Smile Merchants, and we spent 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas visiting 30 hospitals, pediatric cancer wards, senior centers, and nursing homes bringing smiles to those who would be spending their holidays away from home.
My short story, “Gretchie’s Gifts,” embodies that power. Gretchen was a friend from high school whom I wish I had taken the time to know better. We were like toddlers, always practicing parallel play in our circles, never really connecting but always aware of what each other was doing. We did connect a few years agoat a viewing, and she reminded me that she had never been a Smile Merchant but had wanted to be one. That night, I dubbed her an honorary merchant of smiles (nobody had a more beautiful smile than Gretchen), and we stayed in better touch after that. We chatted online whenever our paths crossed, usually very late at night. In our last chat session, Gretchen told me this most extraordinary story of the greatest gift she had ever received. “This is a story that you need to tell,” she wrote. “I will,” I said.”I promise.”
Soon thereafter, Gretchen died.
The story stayed with me for a year, and then in November 2016, I finished writing” Gretchie’s Gift.” While it is a work of fiction, its foundation is grounded in fulfilling Gretchen’s wish to tell her story.
There’s something deeper, though, that I need to share with you. For good or for bad, I have always had a sense for the fragility of life, and in my journey, I have had the honor and privilege to meet or know of people that are true champions at living. Meggie Curd and Emily Davis, along with my sister Cindy, are three such individuals.
Meggie Curd and Emily Davis were never students of mine. I never even met Emily in all her young years as she changed the lives of so many while battling cancer. Yet, I am a member of the community comprising thousands whose lives were touched deeply by such an inspiring, courageous girl, a 15-year-old artist and hero who shared the passion of living and loving so strongly that it reached us, stayed with us, forever changing our lives and making us better individuals toward each other.
Emily’s love and inspiration touched those who knew her well so deeply that, in knowing them, I was touched forever by her strength in working with others, helping them see beauty within themselves.
That love, that courage to make the most of today and to allow others to see it as well, is with me as strongly today as it was when Emily died.
When I was much younger, still a teen in high school, I took a class called Education for Responsible Parenthood taught by Mrs. Falcone, and in that class I met a wonderful young girl named Meggie Curd, who, at the age of 8, was battling cancer. Now, this was 34 years ago that I met Meggie, and I did not get many chances to spend time with her or even get to know her well as I might a friend I see every day. But the frequency of visits did not matter at all. Meeting Meggie just those few times was all I needed to understand that we all have choices in our life in how we use our precious moments here on Earth. We can spend our time in sadness or grief over our past or our present, or we can embrace the new moments that are here now, and are yet to come, filled with possibility and with hope, filled with whatever we choose to make of them.
Meggie did two things: She decided to see love in those moments, and she decided to share that love with others, so strongly and powerfully that it stayed with them so that they, too, could share that magic and that love with those they met along the way.
When Meggie died, we all cried and mourned her passing. But when we hugged each other in support and in comfort, we knew that each of us contained a gift from her to carry with us for the rest of our lives. She allowed us to see the beauty in these moments that we experience, and we have the awesome responsibility of sharing that love, that beauty, with all whom we meet.
That responsibility, that love, stays with us forever.
In 2005, a year after Emily died, I was at a local restaurant with a good friend when I saw a few members of Emily’s family a few tables away. I wanted to let Emily’s mom know that her daughter, through her friends and her family, had touched me deeply with that love and seeing the beauty in each moment. A few others from the Davis party joined us at our table, and I shared my story of Meggie with her, telling her that Emily’s memory will not fade away; it will stay strongly with us just like Meggie’s memory is still with me and so many others.
One of Ms. Davis’ friends who joined us at the table had been Emily’s nurse. She looked at me and smiled. “Meggie Curd?” she asked. I looked at her, a little incredulously and nodded. “Meggie was my patient,” she said. “She touched people like that. She’s still making a difference.”
I got over the initial surprise that Emily’s nurse had also known Meggie as well. And today, I take great strength in the way our lives cross in such important ways. It reminds me that the ripple of love, of courage, of hope never ends as we carry with us the people in our lives who have passed on.
There is grea tsadness in the passing of a friend, a loved one, especially so young. But their lives, and the way they lived them, serve as reminders to us all how there is much to savor in a single moment. Each passing second contains an opportunity to make a difference, to reach out and remind each other that we do have a choice. In Meggie and Emily’s memory, and in the memories of Gretchen and so many others that have passed on so early in their lives, I choose to see that love and pass it along.
My sister Cindy, who has battled cancer since 1990, continues to be a daily inspiration to me. She chooses to live, every day, with positivity and love. In everything I write there’s a thread of my sister’s will to live, her belief in the beautiful, and her courage to face life’s greatest demons with a smile and an unwavering, indomitable strength to carry on.
Each of these amazing individuals – and countless others – inspires me to share their stories and how they have lived their lives. Each of them has taught me that all we need is a single ray of hope, whether that comes from a letter, an ornament, a greeting, a smile. We cannot control how or when it will be received; it is our job to merely offer it, and offer it as often as possible.
As I get older, I sometimes see myself as that broken-down Falcon, chugging along and throwing it in park a little more often than I might like. But thanks to all of you, and especially my faithful readers, for being that light that lets me drop it in drive each day and continue along on my own little journey. May you continue to see the light, and be the light, to all in your lives.
Your donation to Gretchie’s Gifts for the children at Sinai is so appreciated. As you begin your holiday shopping, thanks for thinking of Meggie, Emily, and Gretchie, and all of the beautiful children at Sinai.