The old man showed up to visit his granddaughter in the pediatric oncology wing of the hospital. It was late. He took the elevator and got a few weird looks from other passengers since he was carrying a bouquet, a boombox and wearing a snappy suit.
He walked into his granddaughter’s hospital room. The little girl’s face turned 101 shades of thrilled.
“Grandpa!” said the child in a weakened whisper.
The nurses cleared away the girl’s supper of Jello and creamed potatoes. Her mother dabbed her chin.
He placed the boombox onto a chair. He straightened his coat. He hit the play button. The room began to fill with the silken sounds of the Count Basie Orchestra. Then came the trombone-like voice of Old Blue Eyes. The song was “The Way You Look Tonight.”
“I promised my granddaughter I would teach her to dance,” the old man recalls. “Told her I’d make sure she knew the Foxtrot, the Samba, the Rumba, and the Waltz before she got married. But we never got around to it, so I wanted to fix that.”
The nurses helped the frail child out of bed. The little girl’s head was bald. Her limbs and face were swollen from the effects of the medications she’d been taking. And she was tired. Cancer is not for sissies.
“Let me have your hands,” said Granddaddy.
Her little hands fit into his old palms nicely.
“Now stand on my feet,” he said.
The child placed her stocking feet atop the old man’s shoes. He stooped to kiss her shiny head. “That’s good,” he said.
He moved his feet back and forth and told her to follow his lead. They had to pause now and then because they were both prone to laughing fits.
The nurses videoed with their phones. A few orderlies watched from the doorway. The girl’s mother sat on the hospital bed, watching.
“This is how Grandpa taught me to dance,” said Mom. “Back when I was your age.”
But then Mom felt her eyes fill with moisture. She held back a Niagara of tears. Because when Mom was her daughter’s age, the biggest problem in her young life was dealing with was poor grades, or learning to be nice to her little brother. She didn’t have to deal with fatal disease. She didn’t have to listen to doctors use terms like “survival rate,” “immunotherapy,” and “lymphatic system.”
The little girl caught onto the dance steps quickly, and counted with six-beat rhythm aloud with her grandfather as she rode on his feet.
“Slow, slow, quick, quick…”
“You’re doing great,” said Granddaddy.
“Slow, slow, quick, quick…”
The nurses applauded when the song ended. The next song was “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” The dance steps changed somewhat and became more of a Waltz.
The girl’s mother began to cry. She covered her face and left the room. Because that same morning, the doctor had given the family sobering news. The child’s cancer had spread. It was still too early to tell, but this could likely be the girl’s first and last dance.
Childhood cancer isn’t something you think about until it hits your circle. The first thing you learn in such cases is that cancer sucks. The second thing you learn is that pediatric cancer is not at all as uncommon as you once thought.
The leading cause of death in children in America is cancer. Each day, 47 kids are diagnosed with cancer in this country, approximately 17,000 each year. The good news is that 84 percent of kids in the U.S. will be cured. The bad news is: you never know for certain whether you’re in that 84 percent.
“You can’t relax,” said the girl’s mother. “Twenty-four hours per day, you’re afraid. You learn never to trust good news, you learn to never—NEVER—get your hopes up. Prayer is your full-time job.”
The music ended. Granddaddy and grandaughter took a bow.
The girl’s mother says it seems like a lifetime ago since that night, 10 years ago. Since then, everything has changed for the family. They have learned to move on. They have become more unified. And they have learned that cancer, no matter what horrific damage it causes, no matter how much it steals, no matter how much of your life it ruins, cannot win. Will not win.
Tonight, somewhere in the wilds of West Virginia, that little girl is now 19 years old. As you read these words, she is wearing a long white gown, standing on a parquet floor, about to waltz with her grandfather at her own wedding reception.
And I just thought you’d like to know.