By: Susan Piland
As my 30th birthday loomed, many years ago, I was comfortably settled in an interesting book-publishing job. Outside the office, though, I was bored with myself, solitary and too much at loose ends. I knew what the self-help books would recommend. Shift the focus off yourself. Do something for others.
So I became a Saturday morning volunteer at Boston Children’s Hospital. The job description was simple: Pal around with kids who were well enough to need some distracting. This I could do.
I met adorable playmates. There was the munchkin who wanted me to show him how to draw bumblebees. The roomful of boys watching TV who gleefully corrected me when I said that wrestler did not have a real snake in his sack, no way. (“He does!” “He’ll take it out in a minute!” “It bites!”)
As the weeks passed, however, I often felt outmatched by my revolving roster of charges. Their vulnerability and impulsiveness could be terrifying. One tiny girl climbed onto a chair and launched herself at me, thinking I would catch her, while I was looking away. Somehow, I managed to grab her before she hit the floor. (“She does that,” a pint-size bystander told me.)
Another child, maybe 6 years old, didn’t want to play anything. “I have to talk to my mother,” he kept saying. I got permission to help him call her. From what I could hear, she sounded engaged and affectionate. He said almost nothing. After a while, he handed me the phone. “You didn’t say goodbye,” I said conversationally as I steered him back toward some entertainment. He started wailing: “I forgot to say goodbye. I have to call her again. I have to.”
Every “this is fun” encounter seemed to be offset by an equal and opposite “things fall apart” moment. These kids were from all kinds of backgrounds. They were in a hospital. I didn’t always know what to watch out for, what they would like, what would help, what I should and shouldn’t say.
One Saturday, I was hanging out with a gangly preteen bundle of energy who was jumping in and out of bed. I asked about his shoulder, which was wrapped with gauze. “My sister’s boyfriend shot me,” he said.
My face must have changed. “He didn’t mean to,” he said quickly. “It was an accident.”
We went down to the hospital’s leafy Prouty Garden, where he ran around happily in the sun, his johnny flapping wildly. It was a warm summer day; the garden was filled with kids and parents.
He was particularly drawn to the fountain. He asked about the pennies, nickels, and dimes glinting in the shallow basin. “People throw in a coin whenever they want to make a wish,” I explained.
We checked out the various animal sculptures tucked throughout the garden. In a fluted shell next to a small bronze frog, more coins.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“You go to the frog when you have a really special wish,” I said, freestyling.
He ran around some more, then went back to the fountain. Lying on his belly on the rim, he reached in with his good arm and swept as many coins as he could toward himself.
The collecting quickly got more frenetic. Uh-oh, I thought, this is not the outing I envisioned.
“You’re getting wet,” I said. “You’ve got to get up.” He ignored me. His change pile grew.
Again with the descending chaos, I thought grimly. I cannot let his bandage get soaked. We are going upstairs now.
Before I could say anything, he hopped up and gave the child next to him a handful of coins. “Let’s go over there,” he said, pointing toward the frog sculpture.
For a long time, I watched as he walked kid after kid over to the frog, showing each one how special wishes come true, until all his coins had been given away.