“The world is wide and beautiful. But almost everywhere,
everywhere, the children are dying.”
In the summer of 1991, my oldest son and I began attending a place called Camp Courageous. It is a camp where, for one week, he and I served as counselors. Not psychotherapy counselors but softball-playing, bracelet-making counselors. The children who attend are like any group of kids — energetic, testing limits, frustrating. However, there was one word which binds these children together. That word is cancer. Each of these children was waging a battle against cancer or, in a few cases, had won the battle or at least been given a reprieve.
Each year I attended, I was assigned as a counselor to the teenage group. This allowed me the luxury of getting up earlier and running. For the teenagers, thankfully, tended to greet morning with great reluctance, wanting instead to sink deeper into their sleeping bags (especially after having been up half the night.)
My run took me about five miles round trip, the midway point being a lake where the children might go fishing during the week. One of the small joys of my four summers at this camp was the memory that, for each of the last two summers, some of the boys in my group would actually get up a time or two to run with me. (In that regard, I’ll share one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. While running with one of the boys, he turned to me and said with utter innocence “Say, you’re in pretty good shape for an old guy.”)
The children we met over the course of four summers were both remarkable and typical. The teenagers, for instance, were just as adept at power struggles as any I’ve met. The little children (with whom my son usually works) could be annoying and demanding with the best of them. By the same token, these children had a profound insight or perspective. At times, simply hearing them talk about their battles rendered one speechless. My son recalls coming upon four of his charges, all under seven years old and listening to them compare stories about their experiences with portable catheters.
There is something within most of us that screams a resounding “NO” to the idea of children contracting cancer. We may be horrified by the inhumanity that we inflict upon one another but most often when we hear stories of atrocities we sigh. But when we hear of a child diagnosed with cancer, we feel the rumble of a protest within. Such things are not supposed to happen to children, we think. At whom are we raging? Are we not arguing with God? Absolutely! Many of my early morning runs at Camp Courageous were taken up with angry words directed at God. Especially when I had learned that another child known from previous years had died. Such harsh realities stood in sharp contrast to the magnificent forest and technicolor sunrises that surrounded my run.
And so it goes. I am always reminded of the Tao, of the tension of opposites. Bald heads and missing limbs against a backdrop of pine trees and flowers. This seems to be the world we’ve been handed. Even within nature, we encounter these poles. As I wax poetic about the forest, Annie Dillard’s horrifying story about the death of a frog comes back to me. Here is her description of how a water beetle kills a frog:
“(The water beetle’s) grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward.
It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with
enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite
it ever takes. Through the puncture shoots the poison that dissolves
the victim’s muscles and bones and organs — all but the skin — and
through it the giant water beetle sucks out its victim’s body, reduced to
That passage rivals the greatest horror-writing I can think of .
In contemplating the giant water beetle, I am inclined to view it as the villain and to define what it does to the poor frog as evil. But it is me that imposes a moral judgment here. The water beetle is just being a water beetle. Cancer, too, is simply cancer. It is neither a test nor a punishment, even when the sufferer is a child.
Nature after all is amoral. Thus, those who sadistically argue that a disease is invoked as a punishment, whether the disease is AIDS or cancer or anything else, are only imposing an ugly morality on amoral nature.
The amorality of nature, of course, does not ease our outrage. Are not the rules of nature set up by God? Many of these children, especially the younger ones, seemed to waste little time on such theological reflections, focusing instead on having a good time. Some of the older ones, however, would occasionally give a glimpse of their inner battles. One summer I sat with a young woman who spoke with anguish of how she could no longer dance and of how friends seemed to drift away. She spoke, too, in such a way that I knew she was preparing herself to die. And yet, poet that she was, she spoke of how, when she did die, she would live on by becoming a part of the trees and the wind and so would continue to be a part of the other children whom she’d grown to love so much. Such wisdom from a sixteen year old!
These experiences tend to deepen my outrage with God. Yet I also know that these children taught me clearly that time is indeed of the essence. I have often taken time for granted, assuming that I have lots of it left . I put off saying something or trying to heal a relationship. I allow the passage of time to cause friendships to wither. Were it not for these children, I might still not fully notice how foolish I am when I continue to presume upon time. Certainly adult cancer victims I’ve known have helped me also to appreciate time. But it was these young ones who challenged my assumptions that I will live for many more years. Suppose we all were given the same number of years, let’s say seventy. In other words, we all knew that we’d live until age 70, then die on our seventieth birthday. How might that effect the manner in which I live? Well, in my own case, I believe I would spend roughly sixty years in self-indulgent activity and then begin to worry about my immortal soul for the last ten years. I would quickly become very religious. These young children remind me of the absurdity of that scenario. They are the teachers of the 90th Psalm: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
And then there was John. One day, I walked out onto the lodge porch to find John standing next to a hummingbird feeder, his arm stretched out with his index finger poised by the feeder mouth. When I asked him what he was doing, without moving or looking at me, he said “If you hold your finger out and wait long enough, a hummingbird might land on it.” A chill went up my spine. A few moments later, John lowered his arm and rubbed it, looking at me and commenting “Chemo.” While he rested, I attempted to take a picture of a hummingbird at the feeder. But each time, I lifted the camera to my eye, the hummingbird would dart away. John silently observed, then said “Hold the camera to your eye and wait.” I looked at him and thought to myself “Am I in the presence of a Zen Master?” I followed his guidance and indeed captured a hummingbird on film. One year later, I returned to camp eager to show John the picture. At the meeting place, I learned that 16 year old John had died two months previous.
The Algonquian tribes had a tradition. On the evening of the death of a loved one, the family would go outside, look up into the sky and select a star to stand as the campfire of their loved one, lit brightly so that he or she could be found when the others would follow.
Each summer after John died, I had the same experience during one of my morning runs, most often on the last one for the year. As I ran, I noticed in the sky a last bright star still visible as sunrise took over the sky. I know that some would say that what I saw was the morning planet. But I know the truth. There is no doubt. It was John’s campfire.