Beyond Ronald McDonald House
And Pediatric Oncology:
I slept in a chair/bed the last night I slept in Gainesville thirty-one years ago. It was upholstered in plastic and folded out to a meager twin-size bed. My cover was an extra blanket from the pediatric supply closet. Next to me, my seven-year-old daughter slept in a hospital bed. She rested easy that night because she had no chemo, no IV, no medications other than the ones she took daily to prevent infections and seizures.
This past Monday evening in Gainesville, I slept in a bed, a comfortable queen-sized bed with sheets and a comforter. It was my first sleepover in a city where I’d spent far too many nights sick with fear in waiting room chairs just outside intensive care units or inside those units when I was allowed to stay by my child’s side. It was the first night I didn’t stay in Ronald McDonald House or a hotel in Gainesville. It was the first night I didn’t awake afraid of what the day might hold for my child.
I fell asleep this past Monday night to the swish, swish, swish of traffic on nearby I-75. Those sounds lulled me to sleep, rather than having my slumber interrupted by the all-night noise of a hospital floor that held children afflicted with dire diseases or conditions. The lights were off in the apartment and no one walked in the halls. No buzzers rang. No IV poles beeped, beeped, beeped for attention.
I knew when I woke Tuesday morning that I would be with family, celebrating just being together, enjoying them and myself. No assembly of medical students would circle the bed in the room, learning, questioning, speaking in quiet tones.
When I woke the next day, I knew the day would be a new day—a day when I was not afraid of being in Gainesville—a day when no life decisions would be handed down or faced.
Thirty-one years ago, on that last night in Gainesville, my heart was broken. My beautiful child was being released from the care of those doctors and nurses who did everything they could to cure her. That everything was not enough and we made our solemn journey home a few days later. We made the most difficult journey a few months later when we said goodbye to Alexa.
Until a year ago, I had not returned to Gainesville for thirty years. When I got off I-75 that first time without a medical agenda, I met my oldest daughter and my son-in-law at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. Later, we went to lunch and then to Trader Joe’s. Other than a weekend trip to meet some friends who attended college there in the 1970s, it was the first time I had been to Gainesville for nonmedical reasons. I wasn’t sure I would know how to act.
I figured it out pretty fast. I acted just like someone who had spent an afternoon in beautiful gardens and then went to lunch and shopping with two of my favorite people. It felt odd, but I reminded myself that people come to Gainesville every day and live and work and play there and they never go to Shands Hospital or Ronald McDonald House.
Monday afternoon, when I got off I-75 at the Archer Road exit, which is the same exit for Shands, I didn’t go to Shands. I went to my granddaughter’s house. I ate dinner with my family. I had the best ice-cream I’ve ever tasted. We laughed, we talked, we shared.
Memories have a firm place in our psyches. Memories reflect and affect who we are today and how we respond to our environment. But memories don’t have to be static. They don’t have to encompass only one time and one experience. In spite of the past that often pains us, the present and the future can bring us comfort and, especially, joy if we are receptive to those things.
Nothing will ever change my memories of the time I spent in Gainesville with my Alexa, just as nothing will ever change my memories of her. But, my trip to Gainesville this week taught me that I can add to memories. I can change associations with places and times. Even in a place that once held much sadness, I can be open to and receive love, care, and joy.