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Children's battle with cancer trivializes our everyday problems

| Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2004

For me, Sunday is anything but a day of rest.

It's entirely my fault. I often feel the counterproductive need to relax and party with my friends on Friday and Saturday nights, leaving a good portion of my work for the last day before another long week of classes. So I'm usually up early, making lists of things that have to be completed before the day's end.

By dinnertime, I'm spent, stressed from the events of the day and usually irritated with myself for my tendency toward procrastination. At 7 p.m., when I head to my final meeting of the day, all I really want to do is curl up in bed with a good book, zone out in front of the TV, or hang out with my friends.

But then I walk in the door to the Ronald McDonald House for Kids, and suddenly my worries seem trivial, unimportant. It is, after all, a home for families with children being treated for cancer.

As the secretary of McKids, a student-run volunteer organization at Duke, I visit the house every other Sunday along with about five other undergraduates, armed with two boxes of crafts supplies and an art plan for the night. We check in at the front desk, and they announce our presence over the loudspeaker.

Some weeks, there are more families in the house than others, so the number of kids that come to play can vary. But we usually get three or four, and they all come in the room holding the hand of a parent, looking nervously excited and innocent and shy. They are usually anywhere from 3 to 10 years old, and all are absolutely adorable.

This past week, the first little boy who walked into the room was hiding behind his mom, peeking out at me. Squatting down, I asked him if he wanted to come play. He nodded hesitantly, so I reached out my hand to take hold of his. Grabbing on tightly, he emerged from the relative safety of his mother's shadow. It was then that I saw the scar on his head, 3 inches long, and the huge square bandage taped onto the back of his skull.

There's something about seeing a child that young, so obviously sick, that I will never get used to. It seems cruel, twisted. How is it even remotely fair that these kids can have this awful disease• At 6, 7, 8 years old, they have barely begun to live.

And they are heartbreakingly normal. After helping my little guy into his chair, he attacked his art project with the boundless energy of any child, ripping up construction paper and using way too much glue. He began to chatter enthusiastically, an endless stream of words and half-stories and requests for markers, stickers, scissors. Not once did he mention the reason why he was at the house -- nor did he seem to care -- but I thought back to my own childhood of days spent playing sports and running around in my back yard and ached for him, for what this sickness had stolen.

There were two other little girls there, ages 5 and 9, siblings of kids who were being treated. They, too, were amazingly cheerful, boisterous, smiles stretched wide across their faces, thrilled at the prospect of creating a pretty picture. Both seemed wholly content with their surroundings and way of life, not uttering a single complaint. I watched them laugh with my roommate, who was making a big show of placing stickers on a piece of construction paper, and I found myself stunned by how unselfish these kids were. The idea of living in a home that is not their own with many other families does not faze them at all. They appear confident and well adjusted.

The McKids volunteers stay for an hour. At 8 p.m., parents return to retrieve their children, who are so excited to show off their artwork. Watching this happy scene, I was oddly sad, perplexed by the mystery of why these kids have to deal with this disease, unable to understand the hand of fate.

Walking back to my car, my roommate expressed similar feelings, although she put a bit of a different spin on it, telling me that she was at least glad they were here at Duke, one of the best medical centers in the world. At least they had a chance.

And so I go back to work with a new perspective, feeling lucky for my health and all that I've been blessed with. If I begin to get stressed, I have a new motivator -- the smile on the face of that tiny little boy who is asking only for a chance.

Megan Bode of Upper St. Clair is a sophomore at Duke University in North Carolina. Additional Information:

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