"He's always been my best friend."
He reached an intersection about 10 minutes from the hospital, affectionately known as “John’s Corner”. John was a homeless man who worked that corner, day in and day out. John approached the car as Jeff rolled down his window.
"Good morning, John. Looks like rain is coming”.
As John leaned against the door, he looked up at the sky and shook his head. Jeff smiled and gave him a breakfast taco he picked up earlier.
“Take care, John. See you next time.”
“God bless,” whispered John, as he winked and turned away.
Jeff reached the parking lot but found it difficult to find a space. He made several loops until finding one. Jeff started volunteering at the hospital several weeks ago – spending time with children suffering with cancer. It was court ordered after he plead guilty to an altercation at the local Wal Mart. He physically fought over a parking spot.
Jeff grabbed his backpack, slammed the car door, and jogged toward the main entrance. He abruptly stopped, sighed, and turned back. Jeff forgot his volunteer badge. With badge in hand, he entered the building, 20 minutes late.
“Glad to see you made it,” smirked the receptionist. Jeff jogged passed her desk toward the elevator.
The doors creaked and slowly opened. He stared ahead, took a deep breath, and entered the 4th floor. This floor housed many children afflicted with various forms of cancer. In addition to individual rooms, there was a lunchroom, library, and entertainment room. The favorite room by far was the entertainment room. It had a big screen and a ping pong table.
Jeff reached the nurses’ station to check in. While signing the log, a nurse greeted him.
“Good morning, Jeff! We have a new patient in 4F.”
Ruby was a seasoned nurse. She worked the cancer wing for nearly 12 years, always smiling and upbeat.
“Waiting in the library,” asked Jeff?
“No. She pretty much stays in her room.”
With a concerned look, Jeff explained, “I’ve never really spent time in the patient's rooms, I just read to them in the library.”
“I’m sure she would love you reading to her,” smiled Ruby, as she pointed down the hall. “Her room is third on the right.”
Jeff turned and slowly walked down the hall, stressed about the upcoming encounter.
He reached her room. Beside the door was the name “Johnson”. The door was decorated with several, colorful drawings. Some with flowers, some with trees, and one with a unicorn. Jeff stared at the drawings for a moment, smiled, and quietly knocked on the door.
There was no response. He knocked harder but still no answer. Jeff opened the door, peering through the dim lit room at a little girl sitting up in bed.
“Hello there,” he said smiling with nervous anticipation. “Miss Johnson?”
He walked toward the bed and noticed the girl was wearing ear buds. She had her head down reading a book.
Jeff stood there a moment, then waved his hand to grab her attention.
“Hello there, Miss Johnson.”
The girl tilted her head, raised an eyebrow, and looked up toward Jeff. A moment later, she looked away and removed her ear buds.
“Hello, sir,” she said quietly while lowering her head.
“I’m Jeff. Nice to meet you.”
After a bit of awkward silence, Jeff asked, “Whatcha reading?”
She sighed and held up the book “The Old Man and the Sea”.
“Wow. Nice read there. How do you like it?"
“Good. I found it in the library.”
That put smile on Jeff's face. “I love libraries. I like to read.”
The girl gave a partial, forced smile and then looked away.
“I’m sorry, Miss Johnson. I am a volunteer here. I usually read to the kids in the library.
She nodded her head and opened the book. “My name is Nicole.”
With a smirk on his face, Jeff waved his hand in a semi-circle in front of the girl and said, “You will smile and like me.” And again, “You WILL smile and like me…”
After a quick glance, she looked down and said, “Your Jedi mind tricks will not work on me.”
With wide-eyed excitement, Jeff yelled aloud, “YES!”
That startled Nicole. She quickly looked up and began to smile.
“There’s that smile, Nicole. I knew it would work! So, you’re a fan, huh?”
With a gleeful look, she announced, “Yes, I am. Pure Rebel Scum…”
“Nice! We have something in common,” smiled Jeff. He grabbed an old wooden chair, placed it next to the bed, and sat down.
“What’s your favorite Star Wars character, Nicole?”
With a bit of hesitation, she replied, “Umm… I like a lot of them, don’t really have a favorite. What about you”?
“My favorite is C-3PO. He always seems to be nervous and is funny. He was my first Star Wars figure. My mom bought him after the first movie came out. I played with him so much, his arm fell off,” laughed Jeff.
“Wow, you’re old,” Nicole smirked.
“Ha, true. But I was only seven then. How old are you?”
She raised her eyebrows and said, “I’m 13 years old.”
“Wow, you look much younger, my young Padawan.”
Nicole slowly shook her head no. Jeff smiled and corrected himself.
“I’m kidding. You look very mature for your age.”
She smiled and continued to read the book. Jeff sat quietly for a bit, reflecting on his childhood.
“I loved that C-3PO. He was my best friend. I gave him to my daughter.”
Nicole looked up with interest. “What’s her name?”
Jeff smiled. “Trace, my little girl.”
“Does she like Star Wars too?”
Jeff’s smile went away. “I don’t know. Haven’t seen her in a long time...”
“Oh, sorry.” Nicole paused and asked, “What happened?”
“I… uh, well, I got into some trouble and had to go away for a while. Her mom couldn’t handle losing me and raising a child by herself. So, she gave her up for adoption. She was only one.”
“That’s really sad.” Nicole looked down at her book. “My parents died when I was little. Never really knew my mom or dad. I’ve been living at Winding Creek Orphanage.”
Jeff sighed with warm, understanding eyes. “Looks like we’ve both had crappy lives, huh?”
“Yes, sir. Been kinda lonely, I guess.”
Jeff stood up and extended his hand. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Nicole. Maybe we can be friends. I sure could use one.”
Nicole smiled and firmly shook his hand. “I would like that, sir.”
“Great! I’m gonna head to the library. Wanna come?”
“No, thanks. I’m going to keep reading my book.”
“OK. See you next weekend?”
With a smile on her face, she nodded, then whispered, “Sure thing.”
A week had passed. Jeff left the house and headed back to the hospital. But first, he stopped for tacos and then to “John’s Corner”. The traffic seemed unusually light that morning. Jeff made it to the hospital 10 minutes early.
After signing in, he went to the lunchroom for a sweet tea. Jeff sat there and reflected on last week’s visit with Nicole. He decided to swing by her room before heading to the library. He had something special in store.
Jeff reached the room and again, admired her drawings on the door. He knocked and patiently waited.
He slowly opened the door and saw Nicole, sitting on the edge of her bed, with book in hand.
Jeff entered the room and sat in the wooden chair. “Good morning, Nicole.”
“Good morning, sir.”
He smiled. “Are you still reading that book?”
“No. I finished that one. Started a new one.”
She held up the book. “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Another classic. And a weird one at that.”
Nicole glanced up with an impish grin. “I like weird.”
Jeff nodded his head in agreement. “What do you like to do besides reading?”
“I don’t know,” as she shrugged her shoulders.
“Do you like music?”
“Sometimes. I don’t listen that much.
Jeff lifted his arms with excitement. “Well, today is your lucky day. I have a karaoke machine in my car and we’re going to visit the 80’s. Be right back…”
Nicole mouthed the letters, OMG, as Jeff left her room.
Ten minutes later, the door opened, and Jeff entered the room. He placed the karaoke machine and two microphones on the wooden chair. Standing by her bed, he explained how it worked.
“This machine can play karaoke songs from a tape, CD, or even through Bluetooth from your phone.”
Nicole had an unsure look on her face. Jeff continued explaining.
“The words come out on this little screen. Once you get the melody, it’s pretty easy to sing along.”
Jeff took a phone out of his pocket. He pulled up a list of songs and gave suggestions to Nicole.
“What would you like to sing with me? Van Halen, Beastie Boys, Duran Duran?”
Nicole smiled. “Oh my God. Really? I don’t think so…”
“C’mon, Nick. It’ll be fun.”
“Nick,” she laughed. “My new NICK-name?”
Jeff smiled. “I guess. Ok, pick a group.”
“Well, let’s see. How about Beastie Boys?”
“Good choice, Nick!”
Jeff plugged in the karaoke machine and connected the microphones. From his phone, he synced a song to the machine. Nicole climbed out of bed and positioned herself in front of the little screen. Jeff grabbed a microphone and handed one to her.
“Ok, Nick, just listen to the music and sing the words with me. It’ll be great!”
The words “Fight for Your Right” flashed across the screen. Then the song played and showed the following lyrics:
You wake up late for school, man you don't want to go
You ask you mom, please? but she still says, no!
You missed two classes, and no homework
But your teacher preaches class like you're some kind of jerk
You gotta fight for your right to party!
You gotta fight for your right to party!”
They sang together and stumbled along the way. But in the end, they rocked it.
With a gleeful smile, Nicole said, “That was awesome! Another one?”
So, the two rock stars spent the next hour jamming together.
Nicole was tired and pretty week. “I’m going to lie down now, I’m exhausted.”
Jeff turned and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Ok, Nick. I needed this. I had so much fun.”
Nicole walked to her bed and slowly slipped into her covers, smiling and content.
Jeff picked up his empty tea bottle. “Nick, do you want a drink from the lunchroom?
“No, sir. I’m fine.”
Jeff started to grab the karaoke, then stopped. “Hey, I think I’m gonna leave this here. So you can practice, ok?
“Ok, that’s cool.”
He walked over to her bed, leaned over and shook her hand. “Until we meet again, my young, Padawan learner.”
Nicole smiled as Jeff walked toward the door. As the door opened, he heard her faint words. “Bye, bye.”
Jeff had car problems. A computer module failed which left his car in the shop for nearly two weeks. He missed the last weekly visit to the hospital. The car was now fixed and early Saturday morning, he found himself heading back to the hospital.
He didn’t stop for tacos or visit “John’s Corner.” Jeff wanted to get the day over with. There were only two more visits required, then he would fulfill his obligation with the court. He had much on his mind and battled reoccurring depression.
Jeff reached the nurses’ station. As he signed the log, he saw Ruby leaving Nicole’s room. Jeff stopped by the lunchroom to get a sweet tea. On his way out, he ran into Ruby.
“Good morning, Ruby. How ya doing?”
Ruby gave a forced smile and said, “Doing fine. But Nicole isn't doing too well. She started her chemo. She asked for you the other day.”
Jeff walked down the hall toward Nicole’s room. He noticed how quiet and still it was. Lonely. He stood in front of her door and again, looked at her drawings. He saw something new. A picture of man and girl standing together, both of them holding what looked like light sabers. Jeff smiled and took a picture of it with his phone.
He knocked on the door and asked, “Hey Nick, may I come in?”
There was no answer but soon after, he heard Nicole crying for help.
Jeff rushed into the room. The bathroom door was open. Nicole was on her knees by the toilet, throwing up and crying. He knelt down to hold her.
“I’m here, Nick. I got you, baby.”
He flushed the toilet and kept the hair out of her face. Then came the dry heaves.
“Breathe, baby, breathe. It’ll be over soon.”
After she finished, Jeff slowly helped her up. He stood with her as she washed out her mouth. Nicole leaned on the sink for a bit, weak and exhausted. Jeff took a cool wash cloth and gently wiped her forehead. He whispered over and over, “It’s gonna be ok.”
They carefully walked to the bed and he helped her climb in. She was cold and wanted to bundle up.
With a sad, tired look, she asked, “Where you been? I’ve been practicing some songs…”
“I’m sorry. My car died. Had to put it in the shop for a while.”
“That’s ok. I started this treatment and I hate it. Um, I thought… just that, that you would be here, that’s all.”
Jeff brushed the hair from her face. “I know.”
He paused for a bit, starred at the wall. He tried to keep his emotions in check. With a forced smile, he asked, “Well, so tell me. What songs are you singing?”
Nicole perked up a bit and answered. “I watched this old movie last week. Footloose. I really liked the songs. I’ve been singing those.”
“Awesome!” Jeff gave a thumbs up. “One of my top ten movies. We can jam to those songs when you feel better, ok?”
“Ok.” Nicole began feeling queasy again. “Can you please get me some water? There's some bottles in the little cabinet.”
As Jeff walked toward the cabinet, she stopped him. “Never mind. I have to throw up again.”
He rushed to her side and helped her into the bathroom. On her knees, she started to dry heave again with horrible cramping. She pleaded with Jeff to help her. “Oh my God... help me. It hurts!”
“I know. I know it hurts, sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere.”
Jeff sat beside her on the bathroom floor. The spasms finally stopped. She carefully shifted, sat on the floor, and lowered her head into Jeff’s lap.
Tears ran down her cheeks. “I don’t wanna die.”
Jeff remained quiet and slowly brushed her hair with his fingers.
“Why is this happening? Does God hate me?”
He looked down into her eyes. “No, baby. He loves you so much.”
Nicole took a deep breath and continued to watch Jeff.
“Nick, bad things happen. They always have, and they always will. I used to blame God for losing my little girl. I was mad for a long time. But I met this old, homeless man. We spent many days talking about all sorts of things. And one day, he told me the truth.
This world is full of good and bad. And that won’t change. But God wants to help us through the bad stuff. Wants us to find peace and joy in this world of hurt and sadness.”
Nicole wiped the tears from her eyes. “What do I do? How can He help me?
Jeff raised her up. They sat across each other on the bathroom floor. “Ok. Listen. A long time ago, Jesus came to this world as God. And He died, to pay for all the bad things everyone has ever done or will ever do.
If we believe this, we will live with Him in Heaven after we die. No more pain. No more sadness. And until then, we can live here and love Jesus and talk to Him. He will give us peace and love and joy like we’ve never felt before.”
Jeff reached into his back pocket and pulled out a tiny New Testament.
“Nick, this was my little girl’s Bible. I got it for her when she was born. She never had a chance to read it. When I had to go away, I kept it with me and read almost every day. I want you to have it."
Nicole smiled as she reached for the Bible. “Thank you, sir.”
“I think you’ll like it more than “Alice in Wonderland.”
Nicole slowly rested her head in Jeff’s lap. They stayed there for a while, very still, while Jeff read the little book to her.
Jeff sat behind the wheel, thinking. This was the last required visit. He hoped he could continue to see Nicole. Jeff pulled out of his driveway and drove straight to the hospital. No tacos, no John.
The elevator door opened. Jeff walked out to see Ruby near her desk. She stood there with a blank stare and swollen eyes.
“Jeff. We need to talk.”
Together, they walked to the lunch room. Jeff bought a sweet tea and they sat down. She grabbed Jeff’s hand before she spoke. “Nicole’s treatment isn’t working. She’s dying.”
Jeff’s mouth opened with disbelief. “What? What happened?”
“The cancer spread. She won’t last much longer. I’m sorry, son.”
Jeff looked up at the ceiling, praying that the doctors were wrong.
“Jeff, she doesn’t know. Please try and act normal and positive. She needs that from you. Ok?”
He took a deep, quivering breath and looked at Ruby with tears in his eyes. “I know.”
Jeff walked down the hall to the guest bathroom. He washed his face, blew his nose, and did his best to dry his swollen eyes.
He reached her room, once again staring at her little drawings. Jeff quietly knocked on her door. He heard a faint “Come in”. As the door opened, he looked across the dark room at the frail, little girl wrapped up in bed.
Jeff smiled. “Good morning, Nick. How ya doing?
“I’ve been better,” she sighed. “You gonna drink that?”
He looked down at his tea and smiled. “I’m not that thirsty.”
Jeff walked over to Nicole. She looked pale and lifeless. He opened the drink and gave it to her.
“Thank you, Jedi Master.”
“You’re welcome, my young Padawan learner.”
As Nicole took a drink, she noticed Jeff’s red, swollen eyes and smiled. “What are you so sad about?”
“Allergies. Horrible today.”
She tilted her head and said, “Oh, ok.” She paused for a moment. “Well, I have some good news. I made some friends here. I went to the library and started talking about Jesus. Two kids wanna know more about Him. Very cool.”
Jeff smiled and sat next to her. “Yes, it is!”
Nicole reached for his hand. “I don’t feel so good. I feel pretty bad." She looked up at the ceiling and smiled. “But I’ve been talking to Jesus, and I feel better about this… this thing I’m going through. Everything with be ok.”
She slowly squeezed his hand. “I wanna to tell you something but don’t know how… I don’t know.” She stared at Jeff in a deep and loving way.
Nicole sat up and reached under her pillow. She pulled out an object of her affection. In her little hand was a worn out, one-armed C-3PO. “I’ve had him for as long as I can remember.”
She handed the figure to Jeff, “He’s always been my best friend."
With a look of desperation, she asked, "Are you my daddy?”
Jeff paused for a moment. “Trace?”
“I’m Tracey Nicole Johnson. I was adopted when I was one. But my parents died in a car accident a year later.
“My God, Trace…”
I’ve been in and out of foster homes and living at the orphanage for nine years.”
She coughed while holding her chest, then squeezed his hand harder.
“I wanted you to be my daddy. I was scared if I told you, that you wouldn’t come back.”
Jeff became overwhelmed with emotion.
Tears filled her eyes. “Daddy, I’m not mad that you left me. You came back.
Jeff placed his hand over his mouth and listened.
“When I get better, I can live with you and you can show me things. We can do lots of cool stuff. I wanna grow up like you.”
Jeff softly touched his daughter’s face. “Of course, Trace. May I call you Trace?”
She smiled. “That’s my name.”
They sat together, held each other for a while. “Daddy? Do you wanna karaoke with me?”
He stood up and walked over to the machine. “What song shall we do?”
Trace answered. “Something from Footloose. I know…”
She took her phone and synced a song. “Ok, here we go.”
They stood in front of the wooden chair, waiting for words on the little screen. Together, they sang their final performance.
I thought that dreams belonged to other men
'Cause each time I got close
They'd fall apart again
I feared my heart would beat in secrecy
I faced the nights alone
Oh, how could I have known
That all my life I only needed you?
Oh, almost paradise
We're knockin' on heaven's door
How could we ask for more?
I swear that I can see forever in your eyes
While holding each other, they received words they’ve been waiting to hear their whole lives.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, Trace.”
Jeff hopped out of the shower and got dressed. He left the house with Trace on his mind. Light rain fell as he pulled in the drive thru. 10 minutes later, he reached “John’s Corner.” Jeff looked around but no sign of John. Soon after, he drove away.
Rain fell hard as he reached the funeral home. He jogged to the door with a jacket over his head. He stopped abruptly, sighed, and turned back. Jeff forgot something in his car.
He entered the funeral home. Once inside, he noticed how quiet and still it was. Lonely. Jeff asked the receptionist where Miss Johnson was. She said, "Her room is third on the right.”
He slowly walked down the hall and reached her room. Beside the door was the name “Johnson”. The door was decorated with several, colorful drawings.
Jeff walked to the casket and grabbed the rail. He looked down at Trace and almost collapsed - desperately asking God to give him strength through this.
Jeff softly touched his daughter’s face. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an object of his affection. In his hand was a worn out, one-armed C-3PO. Jeff whispered, “He was your best friend.”
He placed the figure on her pillow, next to the pale, lifeless face. Jeff kissed her forehead and walked away.