I didn’t see Lily until she appeared suddenly next to my chair. She was blocking my view of the stage, where I’d just given a speech before 330 people, most of whom would be running the New Jersey Marathon on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training on Sunday morning.
I’d just cleared away a tear, caused by the entirely unexpected standing ovation — my first — after a speech to “my people,” survivors, and families and friends of survivors who, like me, had been touched (more like slapped) by a blood cancer. I was supposed to inspire them, but they inspired me, by choosing to run 13 or 26 miles to raise a total of about $700,000 dollars for the LLS. (As I said in my speech, I don’t run unless there’s a ball or a chance to slide tackle someone else with a ball. Go runners!)
Lily had thinning curly blond hair and a newly missing front tooth. She couldn’t have been more than six.
“I’m in chemo,” she announced without introduction. “I loved your speech,” she said.
What six-year-old listens to a speech by a grown-up? At least, one that’s not about Dora, the Explorer or animal crackers? Lily did, because Lily knows what it’s like to fight cancer.
“Do you have leukemia?” I asked, figuring that odds were, that’s the blood cancer she had. I mean, when you look up leukemia at the LLS web site, there’s a photo of a child. Lily, who’d offered her name by then, nodded.
“You know, I had chemo, too, and now I’m okay,” I said. “Look at all my hair!” I added, shaking my head. She shook her head, too, but her curls, which I assumed were caused by chemo, didn’t move. I had the same chemo ‘do last summer.
She smiled, and I touched her face. It was smooth and warm, and her eyes were smiling, too, as though she was just a regular kid, dragged to some fundraising dinner by her parents, instead of the reason for the dinner in the first place.
“I’m going to be praying for you and thinking of you, Lily,” I promised. She thanked me and ran off to her table, but I didn’t see where she went.
So, I stormed the stage, my left leg nearly giving out as I jumped — in heels — onto the riser. To her credit, Laura Giorlando of the NJ Team in Training Chapter, let me take over.
“Where’s Lily?” I shouted rather than grabbing the microphone.
Suddenly, Lily appeared again in her purple LLS t-shirt adorned by a long strand of faux pearls.
“Lily’s in chemo now, and I’d like a photo of her, if she doesn’t mind.” So Laura took our picture with my cell phone. Then I turned to the audience and said, “I think Lily deserves a standing ovation, don’t you?”
And all 330 people got up and applauded for the little girl with cancer who had liked my speech, while she beamed.
I followed her to her table and introduced myself to her parents. Turns out, Lily had chemo last year, but now she has to start again in July. I asked them if I could post a photo of her on my blog, and they said yes. I promised Lily that I would write about her by today.
So Lily, this one is for you. This is my standing ovation for you. This is my tribute to the little girl with the missing front tooth, the curly blonde hair and the big smile. Go get em, kiddo.
Photo Credit: Laura Giorlando.
[CORRECTION: Lily is 7 1/2. And still darn cute.]
Read this great article about Christopher Johnson, who is running triathlons to help people like Lily and me, in the Suburban Trends.