So far, Dinner with the Smileys has been about us and what we are going through while Dustin is away on deployment. My boys have met interesting people who have given them unforgettable experiences and thoughtful gifts. My boys are forever changed because of it.
After the mayor’s surprise limo and trip to get ice cream, Ford wanted to know why everyone is being so nice to us. I explained to him that it feels good to do things for others and that “treating” the boys is for our guests a treat in itself.
Ford decided it would be nice to do the same thing for someone else.
For our fifth Dinner with the Smileys, I asked my friend Jenifer Lloyd to show the boys what philanthropy is all about. Jenifer is a seven-year breast cancer survivor. She works for Champion the Cure Challenge. She knows a thing or two about giving back all that has been given to you.
Jenifer planned to take Ford, Owen and Lindell to the pediatric floor of Eastern Maine Medical Center, where they could meet children who have cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
A trip like this, of course, requires some planning … and lots of warning. In the days leading up to our dinner, I talked to the boys about what they might see and how they should behave. I told them they might have questions, and if they did, either Jenifer or the nurses could help them understand.
The boys were attentive and curious. They also were a little nervous. We decided to buy small gifts for the patients. Doing so helped the boys put themselves in the other children’s shoes: What would I want if I was in the hospital? Older kids, Ford decided, would want crossword puzzles. Younger kids, Lindell said, would want coloring books.
I reminded the boys that our dinner guests had done the same thoughtful planning and questioning before they came to our house.
We met Jenifer at EMMC and rode the elevator to the eighth floor. When the doors parted, the boys saw a lighthouse and a mural of fish on the walls. This was not the “hospital” they had imagined.
They hadn’t seen anything yet.
Inside the double swinging doors and down the hallway past the patient rooms was an atrium filled toys, a foosball table, books, sofas and tables with umbrellas bathed in natural sunlight from the glass ceiling.
The boys were confused. Their faces said, “So when do we get to the hospital?” And in truth, I’m not sure Lindell, who is only 5, ever really understood that we were inside a hospital. Hospitals have come a long way from the time when the only comfort for children was an old television that played reruns of shows like Wheel of Fortune.
Amid such a child-friendly environment, my boys eased back into kid mode. Lindell rode on a stuffed dinosaur. Ford and Owen checked out the foosball table. There was laughter and noise.
Then a boy shuffled past in a hospital gown. He was close in age to my older boys and like them in almost all respects. Except he was carrying a bag for his catheter.
Now the boys remembered.
They made crafts with the boy in the family resource room. Then he offered to help them pass out gifts to the other patients, some of whom we could not meet because of the nature of their illnesses.
After the hospital, it was time to have a meal with our dinner guest. Jenifer arranged a table at the Black Bear Inn in Orono, where downtown’s Montes operates a small cafe. The boys let out some of their pent-up energy by running to the newly renovated restroom to see the fountain heads (literally) that spit out water. While they were away, Jenifer asked if she could share her cancer story with them.
I wasn’t sure how much the boys would understand. Do they even know what breasts are? But when Jenifer showed them pictures of herself being wheeled into surgery, they “got it.” The table was quiet for a couple minutes while Jenifer fiddled with her smartphone. She pulled up another picture, this one of her bald head and her naturally bald husband wearing a wig meant for her. The boys looked at me as if for permission to laugh. Jenifer beat them to it. When she laughed, they did, too.
It’s hard to know how much the boys absorbed from the day, but they have been unusually quiet ever since. Did I show them too much? Did any of it make sense? I’ll probably never know.
Yet, as we left the cafe that night, Jenifer gave each of the boys a gift from herself and the Inn. It was a stuffed bear. My older boys are past the age of stuffed animals, so I worried they might make a face. I held my breath.
Then Owen read the card tied to the bear’s neck. All the proceeds from the stuffed animal go to Cancer Care of Maine. No one said a word. The boys stared at their bears. And my heart was glad because although everyone got a gift, I saw what the boys had come to know: It wasn’t about them.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this story contained an error. Jenifer Lloyd works for Champion the Cure Challenge, not Champion the Cure.