Girl battling cancer scratches item off bucket list with PNC Park trip
A little girl peeks over the railing along the left field line, waiting for a player to notice her.
She wears a No. 22 Andrew McCutchen shirt, but it doesn't need to be him. Any player will do. All she wants is for one Pirates player to spot her, walk over and autograph her homemade sign.
The sign reads: Jessica for Cancer Survivor. Because that's what she hopes to be some day.
“She has inoperable brain cancer,” Jessica's mom, Michelle Bookwalter, says matter-of-factly. “And this was on her bucket list. We're trying to come up with fun stuff for her to do while she can still do them.”
Jessica was diagnosed this year before her fifth birthday. The tumor is at the base of her brain, near the pituitary gland.
It came out of nowhere. There's no history of cancer in the family, Michelle says, but doctors immediately tested Jessica's twin sister, Emily, to see if she had it as well. She did not, which was a relief, but their mother was left with many questions.
“Why her?” Michelle Bookwalter says as her daughter leans against her leg and waits for that one player. “Why does it have to happen to children? They don't understand. In the hospital, Jessica would say to me, ‘Mommy, I promise I'll be good if you let me go home.' She thought she was being punished.”
And she was, only not by her parents.
Once a smiling, bouncy little girl — who hadn't been separated from her sister until the night when doctors whisked her away at the hospital — Jessica developed debilitating tremors during the treatments. The chemo — 21 rounds and counting — leaves her unable to feed herself, speak or walk. She hurts all the time.
“I don't think people realize what these kids go through,” Michelle said. “They're so tiny. Their bodies can't take this. But you have little babies going through it. ...
“I cry all the time. I cry for my other children, I cry for her. This is so hard.”
The Bookwalters, who live in Franklin, have stayed at Pittsburgh's Ronald McDonald House for six weeks while Jessica undergoes radiation treatment. Chemo resumes in November.
Until then, mother and daughter try to cross items off the bucket list of a 5-year-old, a list that includes visiting amusement parks (they made it to Disney World this year) and anything involving baseball.
“That's her passion — she loves baseball,” Michelle says. “Finances are kind of tight when you're battling cancer, but I knew this was important to her, so here we are. This is her first game.”
An hour before the first pitch, Jessica continues to wait patiently along the left field line. Surrounded by other kids, she takes a brief break from Pirate-watching and scans the field. “Still no pierogies,” she says with a sigh.
Her mom runs her hand through Jessica's thin, patchy hair. “Nope,” she says. “Still no pierogies.”
Then a tall right-handed relief pitcher emerges from the dugout.
Jessica pulls herself up on the railing to get a better look. The pitcher begins his walk to the bullpen in center field. Along the way, he stops to pose for photos, shake hands and sign autographs.
Jessica holds up her sign.
Arquímedes Caminero — mere seconds away from running off — finally sees it. He walks over, reads the words, looks down at the little girl, then takes the pen she offers. Caminero signs his name, right under the ‘J' in Jessica.
She stares down at the signature, smiling, showing it proudly to her mom.
In 12 hours, a new round of radiation begins. But in this moment, Jessica is able to forget, and cross off the next item on a list no 5-year-old should have.