When my daughter was five, Make-A-Wish granted her wish to go to Disney World in Orlando. Being the recipient of this level of generosity was overwhelming, but first I had to accept the gift.
Certainly there were other kids who were sicker than my daughter. But Make-A-Wish isn’t a contest, where only the sickest child wins. Wish kids face life-threatening conditions, but aren’t necessarily dying…and this was a fact I had to quickly explain to my family when we announced our upcoming trip. Everyone was in a panic that my daughter was as good as dead if Make-A-Wish was involved.
Once I calmed everyone down, I faced the next hurdle…guilt. Certainly there were needier kids from whom we were robbing a wish for our daughter. “That’s low,” someone said, just before I gathered up my family and walked out of their house. My stunned silence couldn’t even conjure a simple “goodbye.”
Truth is I was already feeling this guilt without needing to be judged by others. I could certainly save money to send my family to Disney on my own…but Make-A-Wish assured me of two things. One, granting my daughter’s wish did not mean that another child would be denied theirs. And two, a Make-A-Wish trip was more than a vacation…it was about healing.
And they were right. A ton of healing was needed from the five years that had passed since my daughter was born. It was mostly my daughter who was affected, and my wife and I, sure. But my oldest daughter, her sister, had been thrown into an all new “normal” that was anything but. Months at a time would pass where she would see just one parent at a time, have grandparents visiting for extended stays, long times of boring excitement in the hospital waiting rooms. And she handled it all with such…grace.
We were all exhausted.
The wish was for all of us…a week of leaving “normal” behind to just enjoy each other. Every detail, from the ride to the airport, to the accommodations, to the parks and food had been taken care of for us. And our daughter was truly a princess for a week. It was her first limo ride; her first plane ride; our first trip away together.
We stayed at Give Kids The World Village, a storybook place where families like ours are absolutely normal, where kids are treated to visits from Santa year round, where it snows in the hot Florida sun, and you can have ice cream anytime you wish. If it sounds magical, that’s the point.
Our daughter played basketball for the first time and fell in love with a sleeping tree she named Gary. It snored from hidden speakers day and night; she had to say good-night to him each night and greet him first thing in the morning. (She hugged him and cried when it was time to leave.) Basketball, ice cream, and Gary was all she needed to be happy for a week…she had no idea there was more excitement to come.
At the parks, staff recognized our daughter as a Wish kid and called out to her by name. “Where have you been?! Mickey has been waiting for you!” they’d say, and take her for pictures and send her to the top of the lines. We nearly lost her at Universal Studios when she spied her favorite superhero running through the park. “Spider-man!” she shouted, giving chase. Spider-man, being chased by a screaming five year old girl, being chased by the rest of us through the crowd…what a sight that must have been. Spider-man gave her so much attention she was still in love years later.
Every child deserves that much happiness…some of them just have to catch it all in a single large dose.
As big as that trip was, it offered me one of the most profound and yet subtle moments of my life.
We were eating breakfast at GKTW, surrounded by other families with kids facing life-threatening illnesses. While getting my daughter ready for a day at Sea World, I glanced over to another dad. He, too, was getting his daughter ready for their day. She was in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank strapped behind…I couldn’t even guess what was wrong with her health. The dad glanced back at me and our eyes locked, our separate days pausing on a smile. Each of us nodded a look that said “I understand.”
I knew then that it would be important for me to re-pay the wish; to “pay it forward” so that Make-A-Wish could grant another child’s wish. I wanted so much to be able to give the opportunity for that type of moment to another parent…to feel normal, to feel understood.
Life and money, however, got in the way of my good intentions.