My Friend “Dodger”

I remember…I remember sitting in my bed at ‘Hotel’  Valley Children’s Hospital (VCH), when who should walk in, but my elementary school best friend’s brother.  He was wearing a hospital volunteer outfit, and brightened my day as soon as he entered the room.  I had been in the hospital about a week, feeling terrible the entire time, but when Matt walked in, I somehow felt 100% better.  We talked for a while and he convinced me to get up and go down to the class room.  Down to the class room we walked (I.V. stand and all), talking the entire way.  After playing on the computer for a while, I began to feel sick, back to my ‘hotel’ room I went.  After throwing up for a while, Matt rejoined me and we talked some more;  I thoroughly enjoyed his company.

That was fall of ’95, soon after Matt relapsed for the third time.  He was determined, though, to make it to one of his favorite places on earth, Camp Sunshine Dreams in August of the next year.  August finally came, I did not have any way of getting to Huntington Lake, where camp is held, so I called on my good friend Matt who was delighted to give me a ride.  I arrived at his house early Saturday morning, all packed and ready to go – but he wasn’t; he still had a few more things to cram into the back of that little pick up of his.  About a half an hour later, we were ready to make our way up to camp.

Matt had so much ‘junk’ in his truck that I had to ride up in his mother’s van, also full to the brim, with his mom.  Because he had so much stuff in it, and the fact that it had not been running well lately, his truck overheated once we got to the mountains.  Moreover, we became forced to wait with it until it cooled off enough to drive again.

The counselors, staff, and I arrived at the camp site around lunch time.  The campers would not arrive for another two days; we had a lot of preparations to make.  After we ate, Matt let the staff through some confidence building activities.  Being an Olympic year, Matt, and others, decided on decorating the camp like the Olympics.  The most important thing about the Olympics, the torch, which I and a few other gentlemen built.  The one restriction we had on the production of the torch – “build it according to Matt’s orders,” that we did.  Construction proved to be fairly hazardous.  First, the use of power tools, and secondly, power tools in the rain!  Working, though, through the rain, and whatever else nature threw at us, we eventually completed the torch.  Matt’s specifications created the “best torch of the summer,” said the camp’s care-taker, and the rest of us agreed.

The torch took longer than expected to build, late to bed and early to rise, in order to finish it by the time the buses arrived.  After the children exited the buses, they looked for their luggage.  After finding their luggage they needed to find their counselor.  Matt stood by helping to unite camper with counselor, making sure everyone was taken care of.  After all of the campers finished settling into their cabins, and had a little time to relax, the lunch bell rang;  within a minute everyone was silent and in straight lines. Cabin groups only waited for Matt’s “okay” to enter the cafeteria.  Group by group, Matt let people inside, the straightest and most quiet group went in first.  Before everyone ate, Matt made some announcements.  For all of the new campers, the rules of the cafeteria were set forth.  Some said a prayer, then we ate.

At the campfire later that evening I learned of a camp tradition called “spirit stick;” each cabin group finds a stick, and cabin members carve on it while the others listen to their story about cancer.  Each camper carves on the stick, letting the shavings fall into a bandana.  On the last night of camp everyone gathers around the fire, throws their shavings and stick into it, and lets all of their feelings go free.  Each year the ashes are saved in a can, and at the first campfire they are thrown back in, so to preserve the spirit from the very first campfire to infinity.  Because cancer is deadly, some campers don’t make it from one year to the next; through this camp, spirit stick, and the ashes, their memories live on forever.

Today I repaid Matt for the support he gave me a year ago; today Matt lay in the hospital bed instead of me.  I went to the Hospital, after enduring my chemo from the clinic, to say hello.  I wrote on a dry erase board, since he had lost most of his hearing due to the tumors.  I wrote “hello.”  He smiled and practically yelled, “hello” back to me.  Then he showed me his picture and autograph books: full of pictures of movie stars, professional ball players, famous people, and much much more.  I stayed for about a half hour, we watched some TV, and talked a while, but then I had to go;  I hope he enjoyed my company.