August 28, 2012

Return to Sender

Today is Special Delivery Day—without a doubt the best holiday of every month. I always mark the day on the pediatric oncology ward calendar with a bright happy-face sticker. Once a month, when tiny little patients (with their friends and family) come in for checkups or a playdate, we spend time creating homemade greeting cards. We make cards for friends who may still be in the hospital, for family members, for nurses, and sometimes for family pets. Once the cards are ready, we walk across the street to the small post office and hand the cards to the post office manager, Jessica.

When the children visit the post office, Jessica brings bright-colored envelopes and thick markers for everyone to “address” the cards. Jessica knows that the cards will have only a name and a descriptor, such as: “TO: My Sister Amanda.” Even with such little delivery information, there is never a “return to sender” problem. Jessica ensures the cards always reach the mailbox of loved ones.

This morning we have 10 busy children (all under the age of 8) making cards. I am helping my friend Ethan create a card for Jessica.  Wearing an old, battered Dallas Cowboys baseball cap, Ethan has decided to use only blue and silver glitter. The completed card has a drawing of Jessica standing by a mailbox.  As always, she is smiling. She will like this.

2012 1522 page12Several hours later we pack up two boxes of homemade cards, and I enlist the help of two nurses to walk across the street with us.  Inside the post office, as the children address the envelopes, I notice an old man walk into the building using a cane. He is moving rather slowly, holding a yellow slip of paper. He’s here to pick up a package. I notice he’s wearing the same (though less-weathered) baseball cap as Ethan. As he stands at the counter, the man smiles and waves. Is he waving at me?  Instead, I hear Ethan say, “Hello, sir. I like your baseball cap.” His voice echoes in the post office hall. The man smiles and nods. 

All cards accounted for and mailed, we begin our walk back to the hospital.  Panic! Where is Ethan? I sprint back to the post office counter, suddenly feeling very scared. There he is! Ethan is showing a card to the man. He explains that the woman in the card is Jessica. He talks about how Jessica helps deliver cards to people Ethan loves. The man compliments the choice of glitter color. In a quick movement Ethan removes his baseball cap and explains the similarity of the colors. Standing there, bald from chemotherapy treatment, this 7-year-old is sharing his heart with a complete stranger. Why? And then I see it, the small detail Ethan had noticed when the man waved: an identification bracelet from the oncology ward in the hospital across the street. He is a patient, just like Ethan. 

Done with the explication, Ethan carefully takes the card and places it on the counter where Jessica is sure to find it. He sees me waiting, puts on the baseball cap, and simply states: “It won’t hurt. I promise. You will be OK, sir.” And with that he waves goodbye to the man, runs my direction, and takes my hand. As we walk outside, Ethan tells me he had decided to hold on to Jessica’s card in order to show it to the old man. “He needs to know Jessica because she can help him with the special delivery cards.” Then in a whisper he adds: “Maybe we should pray for him.” Ethan stops walking. There, in front of the post office, Ethan prays out loud.

“Son.” The prayer has come to a close, and as I open my eyes I see him slowly heading our way. The man hands Ethan the package stamped with deep-red letters: RETURN TO SENDER.  He explains how the package never made it to its final destination. “Maybe it was because Jessica didn’t help me,” he says. “Now I know.” Smiling, he slowly walks away. In the box, a brand-new baseball cap, just the right size for Ethan. 

Dixil Rodríguez, a college professor and volunteer chaplain, lives in Texas. This article was published August 9, 2012.