Just a day after Thanksgiving and they already were back at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
When she heard the doctors tell them that her 13-year-old daughter would probably have to spend Christmas there, too, Stephanie Parker sighed.
This would be Shaneil’s second Christmas in the hospital since the diagnosis of leukemia last year. The disease went into remission in the summer. But it was back. Stronger than ever.
The hospital was becoming more like a prison. A very gloomy prison.
After every chemotherapy treatment session, Shaneil couldn’t even walk around the halls to the nursing station: She had to stay in her room to avoid catching anything.
Mother and daughter did their best to make the room as unlike a hospital as possible. Covering nearly every inch of wall space were posters of the brooding Hollywood heartthrob Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward in the “Twilight” movies. A tabletop Christmas tree twinkled with lights and shimmery icicles.
The mother tried to comfort her daughter, reminding her of what she could still do. Shaneil could text and call her best friend, Angel Singleton, back home in Rosendale, Mo., north of St. Joseph. Maybe Angel could even come and visit, like she has done before, Stephanie told her.
Leukemia has shown the mother how remarkable and strong her daughter is. An eighth-grader who never complains about the nausea from the chemo. Who apologizes for being sick at all. A girl who — as her doctors told her they were running out of options — told them flat-out she wanted to fight. I want to live, she said.
Almost every day Stephanie asks God to take away her daughter’s illness. Or maybe let her have it, instead. It’s one of the hardest things in the world to watch her daughter suffer. The illness hurts them both.
The bright spots of normal life are when Shaneil gets to hang out with Angel. The two girls have been inseparable since they met in third grade.
Their first play date they caught dozens of inch-big frogs and brought them to Shaneil’s house.
After her grandmother told them frogs needed water, the girls put the frogs in the kitchen sink. Moments later, the grandmother screamed at the sight of a frog invasion leaping on the countertop and stove, spilling out on the floor.
The memory still makes Shaneil laugh. It’s become a family legend.
A week before Christmas, Angel and her parents drove to Kansas City. The girls could visit! Shaneil, who had been feeling really blue, perked up “like sunshine” at the plan, remembers her mom. “She cleaned the room, tidied it up, putting things away.”
But then, the call: Angel was stopped at the front desk. The H1N1 virus was affecting hospitals everywhere and strict rules about children’s visitation were in place.
Only siblings now, the security guard told Angel. She called Shaneil with the bad news.
Just four floors away and I can’t see you, Angel said, trying not to cry. Later, Shaneil, who holds back her emotions, did cry in her mother’s arms.
It had been a tough week. Another 13-year-old girl with leukemia, a girl Shaneil had shared talks with during chemo sessions, had died days earlier. She had the same leukemia as Shaneil.
Life was pretty hard.
But then the strangest phone call ever.
Stephanie listened as a man who said he was Chief Elf had heard about Shaneil’s struggles. He wanted to make this Christmas her best ever and he had a plan....
Christmas is when magic happens, he told her. We’ll talk with the hospital.
On Christmas Eve, a team of folks calling themselves The Elves of Christmas Present arrived at Children’s Mercy, even as a blizzard was blasting Kansas City. Angel arrived, too, driven in by her brother, a Jackson County deputy sheriff. The nurses and the security guards and doctors all knew about the very special present for Shaneil.
The elves hauled in a box bigger than a washing machine. They brought matching flannel pajamas for two best friends, a television and popcorn, “Twilight” movies and floor pillows. And then they helped a 13-year-old girl climb into the box, wrapped it with 100 square feet of cheery Santa Claus paper and tied it up with one red bow.
In Shaneil’s hospital room, only the Christmas tree lights were on.
I wish I could go sledding with Angel, she told her mom. They talked about the times the girls went four-wheeling. And camping. And vacationing with each other’s families.
Shaneil wondered what Angel was doing, unaware that this time, her best friend was just outside her door.
A nurse walked into Shaneil’s room. “Let’s turn more lights on,” she said.
“No! They’re too bright,” said Shaneil, annoyed because lights would wake her up. She wanted to forget Christmas, wanted the holiday to forget her.
But the cheery nurse couldn’t hide her excitement.
“You have a present here. A really big box from somebody.”
Shaneil’s eyes grew big as the box, almost as big as her bed, was wheeled into her room.
“Who sent this?” she asked her mom.
Her mom didn’t answer, smiling so wide. Just as Shaneil stood on tippy-toes to pull at the bow, her best friend in the whole world burst out, arms flailing at paper, nearly tipping the box over: “Merry Christmas!”
The two girls hugged each other, and laughed, and cried.
“We’re having a sleepover. Here!” Angel said.
And suddenly, the room changed.
With snow falling outside, a tree twinkling on the shelf, and now one very real, live Angel standing in the room, Christmas had found Shaneil.
Christmas outside the box.
Lee Hill Kavanaugh, The Kansas City Star