As nurses, we all have patients who stick with us. I’ve thought of Henry many times since we transferred him six months ago from Dublin to an American hospital to undergo groundbreaking treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia.
His prognosis was poor—a fact he was well aware of. He’d told his father he wanted to “be done.” He’d had enough of hospitals and the medicine that didn’t cure him and only made him feel worse. He was ambulatory and stable from a medical standpoint, but had the drawn and haggard look of the chronically ill. Most disturbing was his reticence. There was none of the enthusiasm I’d expect from a 12-year-old riding across the Atlantic in a Learjet—he couldn’t even be coaxed to lean into the cockpit.
The only time he perked up was when we landed for fuel in Keflavik, Iceland. He sat up and gazed out the window on our approach, looking interested in his surroundings for the first time. I found out from his dad that he’d missed a school trip to the island due to his cancer, and I started telling him all I knew of Iceland, which wasn’t much. At that time, I had never left the airport. My Icelandic experience was not much more worldly than Henry’s . . . I’d seen some geothermal pools from the air and wondered at a landscape that looked lunar.
The airport gift shop, though, was wonderful. Besides the usual airport kitsch, it was filled with handmade sweaters, pottery, and references to Iceland’s folklore and the mystical—statues and paintings of the elves and gnomes believed to make mischief at night, and jewelry and etched rocks featuring Nordic symbols from Viking times. I had read up on and grown to love the Viking legends, and acquired a good number of gift shop treasures—pricey polished lava rocks with Nordic symbols on them. I collected several each time we stopped for fuel, until the gift shop supply dwindled and then there were none.
I gave one of these stones to Henry as we sat on the tarmac, bundled with blankets and watching the trucks fill the wings with jet fuel. He gripped the smooth rock for most of the journey. It bore the Helm of Awe, a symbol meant to convey strength in battle and invincibility. When I got home I sent him a book of legends. My own superstitions aside, I hoped the tales would shore him up and give him hope.
And now half of a year has passed, and we’ve been called to take Henry back to Dublin in time for Christmas. He’s 100% cancer free at this moment and won’t require much medical care, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on him, making sure he’s cozy on the stretcher, not letting him feel one bit of discomfort as we speed him home.
The joy I feel in his recovery is overwhelming and possibly unprofessional, but I can’t help it. I’ve been buying him gifts since I learned of this trip—a puzzle, a soccer ball, and another Nordic symbol, this one a pendant on a black leather cord. This time it’s the Vegvisir, a symbol used as a signpost or compass, guaranteeing safe passage in storms and bad weather, even when the way is not known.
In a few days now I’ll see him. I hope to hold myself in reserve and perhaps muster even a small amount of the reticence that marked his initial journey, although I’m afraid I’ll hug him and embarrass him with my enthusiasm—I’m so happy for him that it’s difficult to even write this without the bane of exclamation marks! And although I’m part of a profession that recognizes death as a natural stage of life and comes face to face with it often, I still feel an inordinate amount of defeat when battles are lost. And I feel an equally inordinate amount of triumph when they’re won.
Because of that, taking a victorious Henry home to his family in time for Christmas will be one of the most incredible gifts this season.
(Names and other identifying information have been changed.)