34: Live Every Minute, Love Every Second

34: Live Every Minute, Love Every Second

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Live Every Minute, Love Every Second

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

~Mark Twain

When my daughter Audra was fifteen, her best childhood friend lost her fight with leukemia. My husband and I watched as Audra entered one of the darkest seasons in her life. My heart felt like it was being torn out as I sat helplessly watching her navigate the tidal wave of grief.

The first thing we noticed is that she began stifling anything that brought her joy; her reasoning was that her friend Ryleigh could never have fun again, so she shouldn’t either. She withdrew from her normal activities and friends and spent most of her time in her bedroom. She was overwhelmed with guilt that she was still alive and her friend wasn’t. She was also deeply remorseful for being too afraid to go to the hospital when she was given the opportunity to say goodbye to Ryleigh.

A month after the funeral, I received an e-mail from our local chapter of the American Childhood Cancer Organization asking for volunteers for their annual Christmas party. It was something our family normally would have jumped to volunteer for, but this year I wasn’t sure if the timing was right. Within days, I received two more invitations and could see that they were desperate for volunteers, so I signed us up.

The party was designed to celebrate childhood cancer patients, survivors and their families. It was an entire day of food, gifts, crafts and dancing.

The day of the event we all walked into the venue tentatively, but Audra was the most reluctant and on the verge of tears when we entered the room with all the bald and pale kids. She stood in the background observing and pouting. She was angry with me for making her face these sick kids and she was making sure I knew it.

There were many volunteers that day who handed out presents to the kids, led group games and served food and drinks, but the special surprise at this party were the many costumed characters that roamed the room bringing smiles to the kids’ faces.

Halfway through the event the party coordinator came to my daughter, a little frantic. The volunteer that was supposed to dress in the cuddly panda costume had gotten sick and couldn’t come, so she asked my daughter to put on a giant panda costume and visit with the kids. With a little coaxing, Audra agreed, and I watched in awe as that amazing costume transformed her. She walked out of the room a sulky teenager and walked back in with the enthusiasm of a college mascot.

As a panda, Audra went from table to table inviting the children onto the dance floor. She coaxed the shy ones and jumped up and down cheering for the excited ones. When she made it to the dance floor the DJ began playing the funky chicken song and she led the whole group of chicken-dancing kids.

She danced for hours with the kids. The children were mesmerized by the giant panda and took turns holding Audra’s hand while they danced. A sea of bald heads and ones with newly grown hair surrounded the panda.

As everything was winding down and the parents were gathering their sugar-filled Christmas miracles, one little girl came running back up to Audra. She had a princess crown atop her bald head and fake jewels dangling from her ears and neck. Her big brown eyes were sparkling with delight as she gestured for the panda to bend down to her. Audra squatted down to her new friend’s height and the little girl wrapped her arms around her, squeezing her tight, and said “I love you, Panda.”

Our family stood watching this healing moment and feeling so grateful that Audra was able to experience something so special. All of us felt like something big had happened for her — and it had. Hiding behind the costume allowed her to let loose and have fun with the kids. She watched as the sick children forgot their medical problems and played like normal children again.

It was while in the costume that something clicked for Audra. She realized her friend would have wanted her to live — and live fully!

After the party, Audra began volunteering for other childhood cancer events, and she has truly enjoyed each chance she’s gotten to help the kids. With Audra’s insistence, we have made volunteering for the Christmas party an annual tradition.

Ryleigh’s motto was “Live every minute, love every second!” Audra has embraced that now, and we know Ryleigh would be pleased.

~Jennie Bradstreet

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