Belle met a new friend during her recent checkup at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Aaron is his name. He and his family had moved into the Memphis Ronald McDonald House “just five hours ago,” they shared as Belle introduced herself to Aaron.
Aaron wasn’t so sure about Belle despite her best efforts to convince him to play with her. As Aaron debated, I could only notice the weariness and fear in the parents’ eyes.
I knew it well. It was the same look I saw in my sister- and brother-in-law’s eyes just over three years ago when Belle’s cancer diagnosis was announced. Belle was 2 when the tumor was discovered and she and her mommy moved to Memphis temporarily for treatment.
She’s 5 now, a kindergartener and living life like any other child — except she is not cancer free. We live life in three-month segments, from one checkup to the next.
Each time Belle “goes in the big machine” as she calls the MRI scan on her brain and spine, our family holds a collective breath until the results are shared.
But even with the compartmentalized fear that has forever tucked itself into our beings, we bounce around the St. Jude campus like it’s home, greeting new families and encouraging them like so many did our family three years ago.
And Belle is right there with us — actually she’s the one leading us.
Belle has a sincere and loving heart and truly befriends every person she meets. Among her best friends are her three siblings. She tells others about them constantly and always gets four stickers from the doctors and nurses so everyone gets a sticker, not just Belle.
She also has close friends she loves dearly in her hometown as well as lifelong friends she has met through St. Jude.
In fact, when she returns for her St. Jude visits, she has a list of friends with whom she expects to have a play date. Belle picks right back up with them as if they were together yesterday no matter how long they’ve been apart.
Belle also pays close attention to details and will pull out a memory as she walks down the halls of the hospital. “Remember when …” she says as she outlines the exact toy she was playing with or the funny joke that was said when that particular memory originally happened. She also fondly remembers her St. Jude friends who are no longer with us.
I watch her and I learn. She is a masterful teacher. I sit in amazement at how she truly lives every nanosecond to the fullest and doesn’t let the worries of life steal away her time. It frustrates her when a situation prevents any aspect of life from being filled with pure joy — even the moments that make the adults around her cringe.
As I write this column, I watch her sleep and think about all the hopes and dreams she expresses for the future. “When I go to high school …” and “When I’m 18 …” and “I’m going to marry …” — she chatters about her “when I grow up” dreams each time I’m with her, and each time I say a silent prayer that she does indeed get to experience what she has just described.
Her hugs, her sweet words and her smile will easily melt your heart, while her sassiness, spirit and courage boost your strength and motivation almost immediately. And her sincere compassion and love, well, they simply make us better.
So many times, she has been the strongest of all of us.
We don’t know the future for Belle, but we have no question that God is using Belle’s life to touch the world. I know I am better just because I have the privilege of being her aunt.
—By Jennifer Davis Rash
P.S. To donate to Team Belle’s fundraising efforts for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in honor of Belle, visit heroes.stjude.org/unclejay.