From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

What’s a Big Brother?

Ward LeHardy was first paired with my son, Phil Reedy, in May 1990. There was no way that Ward could know his first match would be an opportunity to not only influence a boy and prepare him for life, but also to help him deal with sickness and eventual death.

In 1989, a family counselor recommended that I seek a Big Brother for my thirteen-year-old son, Phil. Reluctant at first, I eventually contacted Big Brothers and initiated the preliminary process. By December, we received word that a match would be forthcoming, as soon as the final background check had been completed.

In January 1990, my son was diagnosed with leukemia. Thus began our journey into a frightening world—a place of uncertainty and fear, where many bald children lived out their brief existence attached to intravenous poles.

When I called the organization and told them about Phil’s illness, the match was put on hold because of the emotional impact it might have on the Big Brother. “I believe that decision should be made by the prospective Big Brother, not the organization,” I countered.

Shortly after that conversation, the coordinator called me back. “Ward LeHardy of Arlington, Virginia, wants to be your son’s Big Brother. He’s excited about meeting Phil.”

When Phil and I first met Ward, I scrutinized, examined and cross-examined him with downright invasive questioning. In the end, I knew in my heart this man was right for my son.

Phil had to have a bone-marrow transplant in June 1990. Because of his fragile immune system, few people were allowed to enter his isolation room. Ward had a contagious skin condition, but that didn’t prevent him from driving thirty miles so he could stand outside the glass door and let Phil know that he was there for him.

I stood lookout for nurses while Ward donned a mask and opened the door a crack so he could converse with Phil. A cherished photograph shows a smiling Phil communicating through this crevice with his Big Brother.

In late July, Phil was allowed to go on short passes from Children’s Hospital to the Ronald McDonald House, where I stayed. Ward came over and played Nintendo with Phil, who delighted in beating Ward’s socks off.

After Ward discovered their common interest in art, he enrolled in Phil’s private art classes, which gave them the opportunity to enhance their artistic skills and their relationship on a weekly basis.

In time, because of severe organ rejection and resultant lung damage, Phil had to be hospitalized frequently. Ward arranged their outings around Phil’s medical needs. No matter what they did together, from sharing a favorite sandwich to art projects, they both enjoyed just “hanging out.” They were comfortable with one another and talked about everything. But some of their most difficult discussions involved God and death.

On May 5, 1994, Phil turned eighteen, the age at which the role of Big Brother typically ceases, but Ward remained his close friend. When Phil was unable to receive the lung transplant that would have ensured his future, his friend stood by his side in the ICU. Ward prayed for his “Little Buddy” to pull through after an episode of near-fatal respiratory distress.

As Phil survived crisis after crisis, his Big Brother remained one of his main cheerleaders. Nurtured by consistency and commitment, they shared a special relationship.

Ward captured the excitement of Phil’s high-school graduation, in June 1995, on video. After Phil’s death, Ward, who also owned his own production company, produced a video tribute to his Little Brother.

As the single mother of a very ill child, Ward’s commitment to Phil meant the world to me and to my son. I don’t know whether Ward fully realized the awesome responsibility he had accepted, but I do know that he took his commitment seriously, regardless of the circumstances.

I witnessed the transformation of a thirteen-year-old boy into a man. Even though Phil’s mission on Earth was drawing to a close, he was unafraid of death—partly because of the dedication, love and commitment of his Big Brother.

If Big Brothers held an essay contest asking their Little Brothers to write about “Why my Big Brother should be National Big Brother of the Year,” Phil probably would have written something like this:

My Big Brother’s a gnarly kind of guy. He picked me, knowing that I might go and die on him. I was an uncouth, angry, snotty-nosed brat. He lectured me about everything from treating my mom better to taking my medicines. When I was bald, “The Wardmeister” treated me like I was normal. He played Nintendo when he knew I’d whip his butt. And when I was sick, he’d clean up after me. When I was puffed up because of the strong medication, he acted like I was just as good-looking as ever. (Smile!) And when I went down to eighty pounds and was on life support, he acted like he didn’t even notice.

    Though I rarely let him know how much I loved him, he taught me how to love and give to others and not be so selfish. He did this by example. If you ask me, he’s earned the title “National Big Brother of the Year”!

Norma Reedy

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, contact 230 N. 13th St., Philadelphia, PA 19107; 215-567-7000; fax: 215-567-0394; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.bbbsa.org. For information on Ronald McDonald House Charities, contact One Kroc Drive, Oak Brook, IL 60523; Web site: www.rmhc.com.]

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