Many people would agree that to raise and love a child is the only thing in life that has any real meaning. Wealth, fame, athletics, even intellectual pursuits, all amount to empty achievements in comparison to the profound importance of creating and nurturing life. One might even say that accomplishments such as winning a race, composing a symphony, or painting a beautiful portrait represent two-dimensional creativity, since, once completed, are set in stone, so to speak. They no longer have the opportunity to change, grow or transform. Whereas giving life to a child can be thought of as three-dimensional creativity, since, once born, can truly change the world.
Bob and Jennifer Holloway had been married for three years when their prayers were answered with the birth of their first child, a beautiful, healthy boy. Bob was a bit older than your typical new father, so his happiness was that much more exquisite. Just a decade earlier, he had strong doubts that he would ever experience the wonder and excitement of parenthood. Now, upon the birth of his little son, a new world had opened.
Jennifer was younger and a very robust mother. She took naturally to her parenthood, providing her baby with warmth, love, and the richest nutrition available in the universe, directly from her body and soul.
Their young child, Sammy, showed all the signs of normalcy, and none of the worrisome indications of a medical or developmental issue. The boy made good eye contact, exhibited curiosity and interest, and began walking and speaking before his first birthday. By the time Sammy was school age, he had already begun to read and do simple math.
Bob enjoyed nothing more than taking Sammy out to the park, where the two of them could romp and run. Sammy was quite the little athlete, and by age 6, he could outrun his father. Bob remarked that Sammy reminded him of a whippet, a miniature greyhound with amazing speed. Bob gave up on trying to keep up with his little son. The kid could run like the wind.
A few years later, when Sammy was eight years old, Jennifer noticed that Sammy seemed to be walking with a slight limp or imbalance. On further observation, she also noticed that his smile appeared a bit off-kilter, mildly asymmetric, with less upward movement to one side. She asked him how he felt, and he claimed that everything was fine. However, when she mentioned it to Bob, he was quite alarmed.
“Jen, I’m really concerned about Sammy. A kid of his age shouldn’t be imbalanced or have an asymmetric smile. I think we have to get him in to see the pediatrician.”
“I think you’re right. I’m really worried.”
When Bob called the pediatrician, Dr. Matthew Silverman, the doctor asked him to bring Sammy in immediately. Despite a busy schedule, Dr. Silverman felt Sammy needed an urgent evaluation.
After seeing the young patient, Dr. Silverman addressed the parents.
“Bob, Jennifer, I’m concerned about these observations. I would like Sammy to go for an MRI of the brain, just to be sure that there isn’t anything serious going on. I called the hospital MRI department, and they are going to get him in this afternoon. I will speak with the radiologist as soon as the scan is done.”
The MRI was obtained within an hour, and upon consultation with the radiologist, Dr. Silverman’s suspicions were confirmed. He asked the parents to come back to his office for an in-person discussion.
“Bob, Jen, I’m really sorry to tell you that there appears to be a mass or growth in Sammy’s brain.” Standing at the film box, Dr. Silverman pointed to an ominous dark shadow almost directly in the center of the image. “This round shadow appears to be emanating from a structure called the brain stem, specifically in an area called the pons. It’s a very deep area, very difficult or perhaps impossible to reach surgically.”
While Jennifer softly cried, Bob asked the doctor, “Dr. Silverman, what could this growth be? Is it likely to be benign or cancer?”
“Unfortunately, in kids of this age, and in this area of the brain, it’s most likely to be malignant. The most common tumors in the brain stem in kids are either astrocytomas or medulloblastomas. Both are malignant, but the grade of the tumor is also an important factor. Some tumors are low-grade and tend to grow more slowly. Others are more aggressive, like glioblastoma, and tend to grow quickly and spread. There is still a possibility that this is a benign tumor. But the likelihood is that this is a malignant growth.”
Bob gripped his emotions and asked, “Doctor, what’s the next step?”
Dr. Silverman continued, “Well, the next thing we must do without delay is to have Sammy evaluated by a neurosurgeon. We are going to need a biopsy that will help us know which type of treatment to recommend. The area where the tumor sits may be too deep and too surrounded by other vital structures to attempt complete surgical resection. But the biopsy will guide us in that regard.”
After meeting with the top pediatric neurosurgeon in the medical group, a biopsy of the mass was accomplished. The result was not favorable. A diagnosis of grade 3 pontine astrocytoma was made. This tumor was aggressive, malignant, but not resectable due to its location. The only medical option was guided proton radiation followed by chemotherapy.
Bob and Jennifer sat in consultation with the neurosurgeon and the radiation oncologist. They wanted to know what exactly to expect, and what the longterm prognosis was. The neurosurgeon spoke with the parents.
“Bob, Jen, we think a course of localized, focused radiation and chemo will shrink the tumor and slow it down considerably. But these tumors usually do not just vanish. Although we can slow them down, we cannot eradicate them, and they almost always come back. After several courses of treatment, we are likely to arrive at a time when continuing treatment will cause more harm than good. At that point, we will have some important decisions to make.”
“Doctor, can you estimate how long we might have before that moment arrives?”
The doctor said, “Well, it’s not possible to be precise about that, but usually all of this happens within 1-2 years.”
Jennifer softly remarked through her sobs, “Sammy is so young. He’s such a sweet child. Why would this happen to him?”
The neurosurgeon responded, “Jennifer, believe me, I know how you’re feeling. I have a seven-year-old son.” The doctor’s eyes welled with tears. “We don’t know why these things happen. It’s the bane of our profession and our lives. How many children we see who have similar tragic circumstances and diagnoses! I personally find it terribly distressing. But we will fight together to try to help Sammy, and, at the very least, prevent suffering.”
The parents had come in separate cars, so once Jennifer had taken Sammy home, Bob walked slowly to his own vehicle on the other side of a local park. As he walked, his emotions overwhelmed him, and, sobbing hysterically, sat down on a park bench.
He leaned against the back of the bench, resting his face in the crook of his arm, and allowed his desperate and utter sadness release. Waves of gripping lamentations caused his chest to heave and contract to the point where he could barely breathe. Through an agonized grimace, he cried out loud, “Why? Why would this happen? How could my sweet little son have such a terrible tumor?” Through clenched teeth and a pounding headache, he screamed, “Why?!?”
Suddenly, Bob heard a soft voice speaking to him.
“You have such pain. Please, tell me about it. Perhaps I can help.”
Bob slowly lifted his face from his bent arm and glanced over at the source of the voice. There, on the bench, sat an older man, dressed in ragged clothes and a heavy woolen overcoat, sitting quietly, staring at him. Bob saw compassion in the man’s eyes, but also observed him to be a homeless individual.
“I appreciate your offer, but I don’t think you would be able to help. My son is sick. He has a brain tumor. And the doctors are not optimistic about the chances of saving him.”
The old man looked concerned and pained. He said, “I know things don’t seem hopeful right now, but perhaps I could help. Tell me, are you religious?”
Bob was taken aback by the question. “Well, no, not really. What does that have to do with anything?”
The ragged fellow said, “Sometimes, when things don’t look promising, and you are in despair, a little prayer could help. Would you allow me to pray with you?”
Bob said, “Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Sure, go ahead. But I wouldn’t know what to say.”
The old man in the woolen overcoat took Bob’s hand in his, and began.
“Dear God, there is a man here with me who is in great despair and anguish. His son is sick. I ask you to help him and his son.”
And from the Psalms, he spoke.
Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all His benefits,
Who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from the pit of sadness,
And crowns you with love and compassion;
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,
And saves those who are crushed in spirit,
The righteous person may have many troubles,
But the Lord delivers him from them all.”
And then, the old man spoke in a foreign language which sounded to Bob vaguely like Hebrew. Towards the end, Bob heard the phrase, “Baruch HaShem.”
Following the prayer, the old man let Bob’s hand go, and said, with sincerity, “Now go to your son and hug him. But remember, everything is possible for he who believes.”
Bob sat for a moment, staring at the old man. Daylight was diminishing and evening was approaching. As the darkness enveloped both men, Bob noticed a soft white aura surrounding the old, homeless fellow. Through his peripheral vision, he perceived a light in the sky and looked up to see the Moon shining softly, surrounded by three sparkling stars. He thought to himself, if only Sammy could live to experience such a beautiful sight.
When he looked down, there was no one there. Bob was sitting alone. The old man was nowhere to be seen. Bob swept his vision back and forth, and behind him, but there were only two squirrels sitting nearby.
When Bob arrived at home, he immediately went into Sammy’s room and asked his young son, “Sammy, how are you feeling?”
Sammy smiled and said, “I’m feeling fine.”
Bob noticed that Sammy’s smile seemed perfectly symmetrical. When Sammy got up to go to the kitchen, Bob saw that Sammy no longer exhibited a limp. And he thought, “No, it’s not possible. It just couldn’t be that easy.” And Bob decided to wait until the next day to mention to his wife anything about his chance meeting with the strange homeless man.
The following morning, before Bob had the opportunity to tell Jennifer about his unusual encounter, she said to Bob, “Honey, have you noticed that Sammy’s smile appears more normal? I wasn’t sure when I first noticed it, but now it seems more obvious.”
“Yes,” he answered. “I did notice.” He then continued, “Jen, yesterday afternoon, after you and Sammy went home, I walked into the park. While I was sitting on a bench, I met an old man, probably homeless, who prayed for us. I’ve never had such an experience.”
Jennifer responded, “I didn’t realize you were so religious.”
Bob answered, “You know I’m not. But the man seemed so sincere, I just couldn’t say no.”
Jennifer stated, “Well, I’m going to call the neurosurgeon and let him know that Sammy seems to be improving. I would like to get his opinion on that.”
“And I’m going to go back to the park. I would like to meet that man again. I hope he’s there.”
Bob told his wife that he would return in about one hour. He drove to the park and sat down on the same bench as the night before. As he sat, he allowed his mind to wander, his eyes closed, feeling the gentle Autumn breeze on his face. He dreamed of a happy future, with his beloved son healthy and happy. And just then, he heard a soft voice.
“Hello, again, Bob. How are you feeling? And how is Sammy?”
Bob looked to his right. There was the ragged, homeless man, dressed in the same heavy woolen overcoat, sitting quietly, appearing very serene.
Bob said, “He seems to be doing better. My wife is calling the doctor this afternoon to let him know of the improvement.”
But then Bob suddenly realized, “Excuse me, but I don’t recall that I ever mentioned my son’s name to you. How did you know his name is Sammy? And how did you know my name?”
Just then, Bob’s cell phone rang. He saw that his wife was calling, and immediately engaged the line. He said, “Jennifer, how is everything?”
Bob’s wife said, with overwhelming excitement and happiness, “Bob, I called the neurosurgeon and told him that Sammy seemed to be improving. He asked me to bring him in for a new scan. The doctor just told me that the tumor is gone. He is totally perplexed. He said he has never seen anything like it.”
Bob’s face lit up with utter astonishment and euphoria. He screamed, “Oh, my God! That’s incredible!” and swung around to tell the homeless man the good news. But there was no one there.
Bob looked back and forth, but there was only the Autumn landscape. Beautifully rufescent, citrine and earthen brown leaves fluttered and shuffled in the breeze, as an October chill descended upon him. Yet, he was alone.
But then, off in the distance, he heard a whisper.
“Remember, everything is possible for he who believes.”
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Wonderful story. Astrocytoma is *%^(*$%(^@% :( I'm so glad for the ending!! Funnily enough, when I was a kid, my dad's colleague's child was also diagnosed with astrocytoma. The family went to Lourdes, and the son was cured. If you have time, could you give feedback on my story too please https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/9ms7og/ ta!
Hi Bruce, nice treatment of a tough subject. My wife works in medicine and has had to make a few of these awful diagnoses. You rendered it well. One thought from the critique circle might be to pull the fascinating idea of "three dimensional creativity" from the intro down through the rest of the story. It would be intriguing to see the parents, the doctor, the messenger of the miracle and Sammy himself explicitly interact with the concept.
Hmmm, that’s a very interesting idea. I’m going to look at that. Thanks!
This was beautiful. It gave me goosebumps. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Angela. Goosebumps are wonderful.
💕 I loved this story! Absolutely beautiful! It's amazing how many families with children have one challenge or another, whether autism, cancer, severe allergies, or other developmental challenge or medical problem. I've seen so many examples of people that have dealt with such things, and have had first hand experience, to the point that it's surprising! Personally, as a kid, I don't remember seeing as many people having such struggles. Makes you wonder if childhood illness is more common now. I've been so inspired by some of the Christian f...
Wow, amazing plot!
For readers of faith, this will be an inspirational story. Doctors are miracle workers too; we have a history of cancer in my family and many would not be here without the wonders they perform with the scalpel. An uplifting read; we are primed to want young Sammy to survive. Well done on handling the time frame;I particularly liked the opening exposition.
Thanks, Rebecca. Doctors do work hard, but often things are just beyond their ability to fix.
I love this inspiring story Bruce. It seems incredible things do occasionally happen to people. Really easy to read too.
Thank you, Wendy.
Oh, speaking of medical, I have a new one up and would love your particular read-through to see if my facts are straight, if and when you have time and are willing. :) https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/3dljmj/