Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sunday Polo Fun

September 10, 2008
Subject: Sunday Polo Fun

It has been a long time since we've had the emotional and physical well being to be out in public doing something truly fun. Until very recently, the public arena was always rather threatening; "What kind of germs are circulating out there ready to infect Aria? Will Aria have the stamina to deal with an exciting event? Do I have the wear to deal with it?" were common questions always circulating, inhibiting us from doing anything too strenuous or social. Being safe and quiet at home was always the more reasonable choice. However, Doc mentioned an advertisement for a polo-match/fundraiser that caught his attention in the newspaper several days ago. The fundraiser was in support of the Ronald McDonald house here in Spokane. He mentioned it to me and I was immediately all over the idea. Horses, polo ponies, hats, champagne, fund-raising, Ronald McDonald House, these were all things right up my alley. I got on the horn to order tickets a few days later and this is the story of those few days.

It is important to preface the story with a little word about the Ronald McDonald House, a place I knew only as the little plastic coin drops outside of the drive-through windows at McDonalds. I have to admit that I was skeptical about those coin drops and rather cynical too until I actually found myself using and needing the comforts that our local Ronald McDonald House provides. You see, on the inpatient oncology ward there is the Ronald McDonald Room, which looks and feels a lot like today's modern open kitchen plan that is attached to a family room with cozy comfortable furniture and a large television. This room is incredibly cheery with a 50's style table and chairs including a highchair and a fully stocked kitchen that patient's families can use to feel like they are in a home away from home while in middle of terrible crisis. We were able to store the many meals that people brought to us in the large refrigerator. We ordered take out a number of times and could save all of our left-over food to reheat in the microwave later. The kitchen was always stocked with milk, juice and sodas as well as yogurts, soups, bread, jams and jellies, peanut butter, popcorn, coffee, tea, utensils, and so on and so forth. All of these things were provided to us free of charge and I simply will not be able to articulate how important this room came to be for us. It was a place to depart and touch normal for a moment. It was a room where we found refuge from the many worries attempting to consume us. We were so grateful for everything that was there for our use and consumption whenever we needed it.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are hospitalized with your child and you cannot go home. That thought is almost impossible for me to grasp and for many families we've met, that has been their reality for not days at a time but for months at a time. The Ronald McDonald House for them is home away from home and I haven't met a single person yet who has not been completely and profoundly affected by the goodness and generosity found there. I have since learned that 60% of families utilizing the Ronald McDonald House are those families with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). 30% of families are there with the oncology department and the remaining 10% represents a smattering of everything else that could affect the life of a child. These families, all of them, are stressed to the max and the Ronald McDonald House and those who work there provide comfort, compassion, understanding and a place for families to decompress and process in the comforts of home to face what they must. I know more about this place than I ever wanted to and it has been a privilege.

We are in a place in Aria's treatment, as I have said a number of times now, where we have space to think about others, and to do what little we can to improve the quality of life for those struggling as we did not so long ago. So about a week ago, I called the Spokane Polo Club to inquire about tickets. I was told to contact a woman named Miss Suzy and that phone call led me in a direction I never in my wildest imagination could have predicted. Miss Suzy and I chatted for a few minutes about the event before she mentioned that it was probably already sold out. I was thrilled to hear it and at the same time a little disappointed because it was something I was starting to think about and fantasize about. In truth, I was really thinking about the costume I wanted to make for the occasion. I was desperate to do something creative and this seemed like just the event to force open that part of myself that I had to shut down for several months.

Forgive me but I must digress a moment. Not too long ago, I finally saw the movie "Pride and Prejudice" starring Kierra Knightley and Matthew MacFayden. I was enraptured by it. I loved the book but the movie was an eye-full of costume mastery for those who are remotely interested in textiles, sewing, and fashion that has little to do with fad and frivolity but everything to do with classical style and personal expression. The costumes that Kierra Knightley's character wore blew my mind. I loved them; everything single thing about them; the hems lines, the waste bands, the sleeves, the back stitching and collar lines. They were artistic genius displayed in the fabric of a gown. So when Doc mentioned this polo match, I thought, "Ah Ha! The perfect venue for a classical gown with a somewhat modern appeal." I couldn't wait to get started!

So Suzy and I were chatting about the event and I let her know that I was happy to hear that it was more than likely sold out but that I would check the website just to be certain. It was then that I briefly mentioned that I knew virtually nothing about the Ronald McDonald House until Aria was diagnosed with leukemia. I started to say, "I have since met several fam.."
" WHAT? You have a daughter with cancer?" Suzy interrupted.
"Yes." I replied.
"Oh my God! I am so sorry to hear that. Well, you have just got to go to this thing. I mean really! You have got to be there."
Suzy was emphatic. I was stunned.
"Well, if the thing is sold out, then surely we can get on a waiting list for next year or something," I stammered.
"Oh, no! no! no!" Suzy began, "Listen, I'm on the board of this thing and I need to make a phone call. You guys are going to this thing. You have got to be there. Aria is why this place exists for families. I mean…She's the real deal!" Suzy pauses, "How's she doing? How are you doing?"
I told her a little more about Aria and I let her know that the other reason why we wanted to go was because Aria is just gaga about horses.
"Oh my! Well, I'm one of the organizers and I'll be playing in the polo tournament. So, you just have to bring her over to the ponies after the match so we can get her on a horse or something."
I was nearly in tears.
"Suzy,” pause, "You have no idea how much that would mean to Aria. That is something she'd remember forever!"
"Well, Julia, we just gotta get you on board here. Tell you what, let me make a phone call and I'll call you right back."

I hung up the phone and started to process the conversation a little. Suzy is a dynamo type person. She is high energy and bubbling with enthusiasm that is not only contagious but uplifting and inspiring. She told me of the variety of boards she serves and the things she does on her farm. She is a horse fanatic and a social mover and groover. I found myself saying, "Be careful Julia, she's got the kind of persuasion to rope you into volunteering for some cause or another!" I giggled at the thought because clearly being in her presence is akin to being in the middle of a refreshing breeze just primed to cleanse one of their complacency. It was here that I began to gather an image of her in my mind. She has a rough sounding voice; a rancher's voice and someone used to delegating duties and assigning chores. I pictured her in her late 50's maybe early 60's with a matronly build. I imagined her arms to be powerful and weathered. For some reason, I could not picture her as a polo player and wondered about that. It just didn't fit to put a stocky solid young grandma type up on a polo pony whacking a ball around an enormous field. The idea filled me with delight and I could hardly wait to meet her in person. In fact, I began entertaining the idea of crashing this party if I couldn't get tickets just so I could meet her.

Within 10 minutes, she called me back and had tickets for us. Not only that but she had us sitting in the premiere tent with a family whose young daughter is a leukemia survivor and would be singing the national anthem. She put me in contact with the director of the Ronald McDonald House who helped us sort out all the details. It is worth mentioning that the event was indeed sold out and these tickets were drummed up somewhere for us. Wednesday was the day that everything got sorted and the party was going to be Sunday afternoon. I had to get hopping if I wanted a fanciful gown and headpiece ready in time!

You have no idea how healing this process was for me. It was a complete departure from what has been haunting me for months. It was hours of light-hearted creative energy that came from somewhere other than me. I was able to sew 15 minutes here and there for 3 days and by Sunday morning I had only to hem my dress and my costume was complete. I'll say that I already had the pattern and a design that I had drawn to make the dress as well as all the fabric and notions. It came together like nothing else. It was nothing but a selfish enterprise and I indulged myself completely!

Sunday afternoon rolled around and the kids were beside themselves excited! Aria was buggy-eyed to see the horses and Reo was thrilled to find out what this thing was going to be like. I was completely decked out feeling fancy-free for the first time in so long. My spirit could not have been any higher. Doc was gussied up too. Rianna and Aria both wore dresses that I had made long before Aria got sick. It was festive. We were going out on the town as a family. We were celebrating the Ronald McDonald House and those families we knew staying there. We were celebrating Aria and rejoicing in her ability to resume normal activities that make the memories of childhood so fantastic. We were relishing this moment because we knew how monumental it was for our family.

When we arrived at the polo field it was lined with enormous white tents. Beautiful people were milling about. Horses were everywhere and the mood was joyous. Almost every woman I saw was wearing some kind of hat. The whole place was a kaleidoscope of color and carnival. We found our tent without any difficulty and were promptly greeted by the director of the Ronald McDonald House, who, by the way, knew Doc but didn't piece together the names until that morning. He asked if Reo and Aria would like to participate in one of the fundraising events, which would require them to go onto the field during the polo intermission and hold signs indicating the cost of housing a family for a period of time. Reo and Aria were thrilled to participate and held onto their signs the entire time! We had a marvelous lunch and I was able to wander around with Rianna in my arms, checking out the silent auction items and the artistry a few vendors were selling. I ran into the wife of a colleague of Doc's who I adore. She hadn't heard about Aria and was stunned, truly breathless, trying to process what we were going through. She said to me with tears welling in her eyes, "Julia, that is my worst nightmare. My greatest fear is that something is going to happen to one of my kids! Oh My God, just don't let anything happen to my kids!" I was nodding the entire time and telling her that this experience is still my biggest fear and nightmare. Sometimes it doesn't seem real and yet it is very real. One thing I had to tell her was that every person working with us has left me feeling like I'm a baby kitten or a dove. People have been so gentle, so easy-going, so careful in their care, so considerate and tender that it has been almost easy to allow them to take my hand and lead me wherever it is that I have to go. Her emotion was genuine and I so appreciated the connection we had. Before we parted, I mentioned that I spoke with Miss Suzy and asked if she would introduce us since Suzy mentioned that these families were very close. She told me that Suzy was probably getting ready for the polo match but that I shouldn't have any trouble finding her. In my mind I was thinking, "Yeah right, just look for the granny on the steed!" when my thought was interrupted by her comment, "Yeah, she's the gorgeous blonde one out there!" My mind was reeling. I heard myself silently mutter, "I'm sorry, did you just say, gorgeous blonde?" This was not computing with my weathered-matron-rancher. I was beside myself with intrigue!

We shared our table with a family from Idaho. Their daughter, when she was 4 years old was diagnosed with ALL. She is one of 5 children in her family and they found themselves living at the Ronald McDonald House for months at time. Her treatment was exactly like Aria's and lasted about 30 months. She has been in remission for 8 years now. Her mother was very sober telling me about her and their experience. She shook head often saying things like, "It is something I'll never forget. It has changed me forever." She looked at me with such compassion and understanding. I almost felt sorry for her because I'm certain that seeing me made her re-live some memories that she would just as soon like to forget. The young girl's grandparents were there and they were all such a delight! She took a genuine interest in each of the kids but especially Aria and wanted to know how she is and where she is in her treatment. The mother pulled me aside at one point and said, "Just a little information for the future. My daughter is absolutely fearless. She is willing to try anything and has more confidence than anyone I know. She remembers everything about her treatment and experience and it has made her exceptional." It was an emotional moment for the both of us. Here we were, 2 mothers, one with a daughter cured of her leukemia filled with relief and pride and another mother with a daughter in the early stages of treatment for leukemia looking at this little girl as living proof of our hope and our trust. I kept hearing those words, "living proof". She is "living proof" that Aria will one day be cured. I tell you, as fun as this party was, my emotions were just beneath the surface the entire time.

Just before the polo match started I noticed a woman on a horse standing alone looking around. Aria was eating her lunch so I wandered over there with Rianna. Phoebe was her name and she was perched upon a very handsome horse named Phantom. He had light blue eyes that were gorgeous but a little creepy and he was big! I don't know why she was there other than to act as patrol of some kind and she worked with search and rescue and may have been bringing awareness to that organization. I regret that I didn't ask her more questions but I was so captivated by the horse. I asked her if it would be possible for Aria to come over and say hello and pet him. Phoebe was thrilled to hear that I had a daughter interested in horses. She could think of no finer occupation for little girls. As she said, "If little girls are playing with horses, they aren't playing with little boys!" I found this hilarious! So, I raced over and got Aria and introduced her to Phoebe and Phantom. Doc, Reo and Rianna soon followed. Phoebe let Aria sit on Phantom and you should have seen Aria's grin. She was elated! A family approached us asking if we wanted our picture taken. Their 2 children (8 and 10 years) were wandering around the event playing their violins. They were stunning little kids and the daughter was dying to get in the picture with us. I noticed that Reo and Aria were barefoot. I could only imagine where their shoes were and hoped they were tucked under some seats somewhere!

Soon afterward, the polo match began. The mood was still and a little somber as a lone rider entered the field carrying the American Flag. I didn't know it at the time, but the rider was Suzy's daughter. She walked the length of the field with the flag blowing gently in the breeze. Everyone was standing watching her when over the speakers came the national anthem sung by this extraordinary young girl, whose childhood experience is mirroring that of Aria's. We had front row seats and as we watched and listened I turned to my right and looked at Doc. There he was standing with his hand over his heart, holding Rianna with tears streaming down his face. I watched him for a moment as I too was in tears. He began to sob and looked behind him for the little girl's mother. He reached over and embraced her and told her how proud he was and how inspired he felt. He then turned to Aria and said, "Aria, I love you so much!" It was almost too much. Doc is a very sensitive and private man. He has been rock solid for months and has shed a tear or two but if he's had any real emotion, which I'm sure he has, it has been out of my sight. I was completely moved to see him so touched and so free to allow his emotions to bubble over for any and all to see. Doc is an exceptional man.

As we collected ourselves a little and as the applause was fading, suddenly Suzy's daughter who was carrying the flag came thundering at a full run down the field right in front of us. It was awesome! She and her horse looked like they were flying and it got the crowd cheering with a roar. This is how the match began.

The announcer was so wonderful to explain the rules of polo and how the game is actually played. I knew nothing about it and was fascinated. It was enormous fun and excitement. During one of the breaks I wandered over to where the polo players were gathering in search for Suzy. I spotted her instantly as my friend said I would and went to introduce myself. She greeted me with an enormous breath-taking smile and immediately asked where we were sitting and said she'd ride over and meet Aria. She was indeed nothing like how I imagined her. She is a petite, gorgeous blonde who is solid muscle. Her arms are as weathered and as powerful as I imagined them to be but she had a confident grace that I didn't see in my mind's eye. I have no idea how old she is and she is definitely the rare kind of person who could be 25 and 65 years old at the same time. She struck me as no-nonsense and I liked her immediately.

We sat and watched polo. We drank wine and wandered around. It was so much fun. There was one point in the game where the entire crowd went out onto the field to stomp the divots of grass back in place. It was here that I took Aria to meet Suzy. She wasn't able to ride over to where we were sitting, so I decided to find her instead. She was absolutely thrilled to meet Aria and before I could blink, she was on top of a horse reaching for Aria to go for a ride. In another blink they were off with me chasing behind trying to ready my camera! They walked out onto the field in the middle of crowd and you should have seen the look on Aria's face. It was bliss. She was in heaven. It was magical.

They attracted quite a crowd. People wanted to pet the horse and at the same time were very curious about the little girl riding with Miss Suzy, who is a sort of celebrity in this crowd. Aria was having the time of her life! Shortly after this, all of the kids were lined up on the field holding their signs indicating the cost of housing for families at the Ronald McDonald House. People could donate a week's stay for a family or a month or whatever they wanted to do. The point was to highlight the expense. Both Reo and Aria were introduced to the crowd. I stood with them because Aria didn't want to be out there by herself. The announcer mentioned that Aria has leukemia and you could hear the gasps in the crowd and she received a good bit of applause when she held up her sign. It was really something else. At the end, Reo raced back to where Doc and Rianna were sitting while I was chatting with a young couple, who approached us. The man wanted to take our picture while his wife couldn't stop staring at Aria and wanted to know all about her. She wanted to hold Aria and have her picture taken with her. I have no idea why and I've been wondering about it since. They were from Venezuela, which made me wonder about them even more. We were sitting on the ground and Aria wasn't interested in being held by a stranger and I didn't push it but instead sat very closely next to this woman. Aria then decided it would be ok and she climbed onto her lap. This woman gave her a big hug and kiss and looked at me with an expression that was sympathetic and something else. I don't know what it was about her. Something.

We had been at this party for over 3 hours! It was such a blast for us! I was floating. We left the party shortly after and both Reo and Aria exclaimed, "That was so much FUN!" I wore my dress and head piece the entire day and was tempted to wear them to bed! I didn't want the energy of this day to end and as it turns out it hasn't. I'm still carrying it with me as I sit here and write. I look back on this day and the memories made and feel so, so, so,.....heavens, I don't even know what the word is. It is more than joy. It is more than gratitude. It is more than relief. As I look at this picture of Aria and the clouds floating above her head, and her brilliant flush cheeks and rosebud lips, I have this tremendous sense of light. The light that was but a pinprick in my gaze only a few months ago is almost blinding when I see it so radiant in Aria now. The light, the promise, the hope, the strength, the perseverance, the trust, the Life, the mystery, the beauty, the wonder and the magic of this journey have come together in a single sublime Spirit. Aria.

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