I was in Texas a few years ago, giving a speech in the elementary school auditorium. She was sitting in the front row. She laughed at all my jokes. She laughed first. She laughed loudest.
The girl wore a scarf over her bald head, and she was dressed in pajamas. Her frail little body was puffy from cancer treatment medication.
She had gotten out of the hospital just to come see me. She had read my books. She read them in the hospital multiple times. When we met backstage we got our pictures together. I signed her books.
She asked about my dogs. I asked about her life. We hung out.
Before I left, the kid gave me a hug. The girl squeezed so hard I felt my ribs creak. She just kept hugging me while her mother stood back and watched.
Mid-hug, the little girl said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know when I’m ever gonna be able to do this again, so I wanna make it a good one.”
So we just hugged for, I don’t know, five or six minutes. I remember at one point my back started to hurt. Truthfully, it was a little strange to hug a kid for that long. But I never forgot it.
My wife and I left the auditorium and walked out to the car. I removed my sportcoat and hung it on the backseat. The girl’s mother approached me. The woman told me her daughter was dying. She told me her family was already doing bucket-list stuff, preparing for the end. They were taking her to Disney World, the Grand Canyon. That kind of thing.
The mother started weeping right there, and I didn’t know what to do so I hugged her, too. We stood in a parking lot for a long time.
And I was thinking to myself, how did this happen to me? How in the name of heaven did I find myself here, hugging strangers in Texas? The experience was surreal, and it affected me deeply.
We parted ways. I had a six-hour drive to my next speaking gig. I pulled over at a West Texas gas station in the middle of the night and I had an emotional breakdown while pumping gas.
I’ve written a lot about terminal kids in my fledgling career as a writer. But when you hold a dying child, when your shirt is wet with their mother’s snot and tears, it does something to you.
I loosely stayed in touch with the girl via email. Over time, she kept getting worse. The funny thing is, in the girl’s messages she always encouraged me. She never once asked for pity. She never once complained.
I wrote a few columns about her and kept her name anonymous. Her mom would send me emails with photographs, and in each photograph, the little girl looked a little more like a skeleton in each photo.
My wife and I prayed for her every night at supper. I’m not a religious guy, but when you write human interest stories full-time, you end up with a pretty long prayer list. My wife and I usually say marathon prayers before supper, mentioning everyone we can, trying not to leave anyone out. This little girl was always at the top of my list.
“God, please heal her…” we would say. And sometimes I wouldn’t feel like eating after our prayer.
She quit writing to me. I sent several emails, but never got answers back. Years went by. I thought about her often. It didn’t take a genius to reason that life had stepped in and delivered a cruel blow. Because that’s how life works.
Then, one day, not long ago, I was sitting in my office, writing, when there was a knock at the door. I thought it was the mailman or maybe an Amazon delivery. On my doorstep was a beautiful teenage girl in jeans and a T-shirt. Her hair was golden. She was tall and healthy.
“Can I help you?” I said.
She smiled. “You mean you don’t recognize me?”
You could have knocked me over with a flick. I’m not sure whether I was crying or smiling. Maybe both.
We hugged, long and hard.
“I’m sorry,” I said, squeezing extra hard, “but I don’t know when I’m gonna be able to do this again, so I wanna make it a good one.”