Brave girl emboldened in cancer fight |

Brave girl emboldened in cancer fight

Last week, we drove to a Phoenix mall under the guise of gift shopping, but what we were really looking for was a little Christmas spirit and a few words with Santa Claus.

Amelia was between chemotherapy treatments, and the daily Neupogen shots administered by Tricia had kept her white cells strong. We had been so busy focusing on our 8-year-old’s recovery that it left us with little time to consider something that was on her mind.

Not the brain tumor surgery. Not the chemotherapy or impending radiation treatment. Not even the other sick kids in the St. Joseph’s Hospital pediatric ward.

What Amelia really wanted to know was whether Santa came to malls in Phoenix, and whether she would be out of the hospital in time to see him and put in her request.

Now, you’re probably thinking that by age 8 many kids have stopped believing in Santa. That’s sad but true. These days, thanks to the all-pervasive adult nature of pop culture, some young people get the kid squeezed right out of them by the time they’re in kindergarten. When little girls are encouraged to dress like Britney Spears or some other pop tramp du jour, there isn’t much room left for childhood. And the Santa ritual is all about childhood.

Amelia at times has been skeptical, what with the world being so big and sleighs being so small.

She’s also had a fair number of classmates recount the twisted and terribly inaccurate tale of how Santa isn’t real, but just something parents tell their kids to keep them in line until the end of the year.

If Santa came in June, kids could feel justified messing off the remaining six months. But with Santa conveniently arriving at Christmas, they have that big S hanging over their heads the whole year.

There have been moments Amelia showed the ratiocinative reasoning of Lt. Colombo as she interrogated her parents about the minutest details of the Santa story. For Tricia and me, the tension was palpable. Even the slightest wavering in our explanation would nail us, and we’d be crapped out at Christmas. She’d sweated us pretty good, but we stuck to our story.

Then Amelia got sick and life got complicated. Her surgery and treatment consumed us, but we knew we couldn’t let this trouble run our lives. That’s how we wound up wandering around the mall in search of presents and a little Christmas spirit.

We picked up a few things and stopped at the Dippin’ Dots concession. Amelia laughed at the strange face I made at the sight of the bowl of tiny ice cream pellets that looked more like bits of Styrofoam than her new favorite flavor, chocolate chip cookie dough.

While her mom was shopping in secret, we walked through the mall, Amelia’s baldness concealed beneath a blue beret. We talked about one of our favorite movies, “Mulan,” the story of the Chinese girl who defies tradition, cuts her hair, goes to war in her father’s place, and saves her country. She was very brave, that Mulan. I know a girl just as brave, I tell her.

Amelia sings a lyric from the movie, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?”

I tell her my favorite line, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.”

Then it was time for Santa.

We’d been to the mall a couple times and had missed the big guy, but this time we were in luck. Not only was he in, but the line was short.

Usually Amelia and Santa have their picture taken together and share a few confidential moments.

This year, her parents crowded into the photo as she whispered her request.

“What did you ask Santa for Christmas?” Tricia said later.

“I asked him to have my treatments go well,” Amelia said.

“What a coincidence,” I said. “That’s what Mom and Dad want for Christmas, too.”

n n n

Amelia’s back in the hospital now, finishing a chemo treatment. She endures all the ugly side effects with few complaints and is happiest when she can wheel down to the playroom for the chance to make a craft or talk to someone her own age.

At night, the pin-sized lights on the little Christmas tree in her hospital room flash red, green, blue and yellow.

Thanks to Amelia, we found our Christmas spirit.

John L. Smith’s column appears Thursdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at or call 383-0295.