Under a colorful mural of a storybook tree with a bird’s nest, three volunteers sat together on one of the big sofas, studying the list, recognizing names. Behind their heads, on the mural, I noticed one small bird, forever leaving the nest, soaring into a radiant sky.
The volunteers didn’t say “passed away.” Or “left us.” The child’s special person’s never coming back. There’s no ambiguity. Death is real here, where the mantra is “trust the process.” Coached, and ready, the volunteers headed outside to welcome the arriving adults and kids gathering outside under the lights by the basketball court. A 12-year-old boy, losing his dad to a cancer, swings in the swing set and laughs with his new friends, twins sliding down the slide who just moved here so their single mom could be closer to chemo treatments. A fatigued mom, her hairless head covered with an elegant scarf, high fives her boys.
Hi, hi and hello. After the children were broken into groups by age, the “Littles,” “Middles” and “Teens” followed their shepherds to their assigned cozy rooms furnished with fat, worn sofas, big cushions, beloved stuffed dolls and colorful murals. The group I joined opened with the “Check-in.” A toy magic wand “talking stick” was passed from small hand to small hand. Every child tells us their name and everyone in the room welcomes them by name. And then the child says, “My special person is my mom.”
Everybody: “Your special person is your mom.”
“My special person has cancer.”
Everybody: “Your special person has cancer.”
“I feel sad and tired.”
Everybody: “You feel sad and tired.”
And as the wand was passed, unfathomable sadnesses were shared and silliness, too, followed by awkward silences and laughter and fidgeting and story time. And the “Middles” made tissue paper flowers and took turns answering tonight’s question, “how do you show you care?” while in the next room over the “Littles” talked about “what can we do to help when someone feels sad?” while in another teens sorted out how to talk about death with their special person. Down the hall a small group of parents with serious medical conditions talked about writing to their child in the future. One asked, “How do we tell the kids no Disneyland this year?”
Only their peers really understood what they were going through. Only their peers knew.
I wondered where the time went as I watched the children playing outside, waiting for their rides. When everyone was ready to go, Sophia, the leader that night, asked them to stand in a circle. “Anyone have a special person to remember?”
Small hands went up. Two special persons who died were remembered with a moment of silence. “Do we have any birthdays?” A hand went up. We sang happy birthday.
“Hold hands with the people in your family who are here tonight.” Everyone held hands and hugged and when Sophia asked them to “clasp your hands over your hearts,” everyone did. “Hold onto the love and support you found here tonight and say, ‘I got it.’” Everyone said “I got it.” Including the “Little” standing by her mom who clenched her hands tight enough to make a diamond.
The volunteers regrouped to discuss whether or not that night’s prompts worked or if anyone saw any breakthroughs. “One of my ‘Middles’— who never talks— opened up to the group about her dad’s brain cancer tonight.”
When it was my turn, I babbled at the volunteers that I’d never seen anything so powerful...so emotionally touching...and...when I was 23 my special persons, my parents, had died a month apart from cancer and tonight at Tu Nidito I’d been blessed, honored, to return to the familiar world I’d known from the time I was 7…to share a sacred space with these amazing children, a safe place made holy by all of you empathetic, healing, compassionate volunteers.
I sat back, exhausted. The volunteers smiled at me. They were accustomed to children opening up.