I can’t tell you why she affects me so. I only know that if I let my guard down for but a moment, there’s a tightening in my gut and a wave of panic and helplessness comes over me.
I need to be cautious. I must focus. I must keep it together.
I don’t even know this ten-year-old girl. Not personally anyway. I have never met her. I only recently found out about her existence.
She is the daughter of a friend of a friend of a friend. That’s 4 degrees of separation. Research suggests that every one of us on the planet is separated by an average of only 5 steps. Which means this little girl of 10 – Fanny – is one of a few billion people in my network.
That’s a large number of people. So Fanny can’t be the only one in my network being treated for advanced stage leukemia. There must be many, many others. I know someone personally right now – just one degree of separation – going through chemo.
Why has this adult friend not affected me like Fanny?
Fanny lives in France. Word had gotten to my part of our network that she loves postcards and requested some to cheer her up. Her treatments have left her bed-ridden. Postcards represent a spirit-lifting daily surprise. A reminder of life beyond the four walls of her room.
The request for postcards came with a picture of Fanny. In it, she lies on her back, staring at the camera. She wears a vibrant pink patterned scarf on her head. She had long hair and the hair was falling out because of the initial cancer treatments and the little 10-year-old girl decided rather than watch her hair fall out, to have it shaved off all at once and be done with it. Just shave it off, thank you very much. Let me wear a scarf.
That tells you a lot about Fanny right there. Braver than any man who ever contemplated a comb over. But it is not a decision that a child should have to make.
It is profoundly unfair.
I don’t know why her picture haunts me. You can see a silk-screened horse’s head on the pale pink shirt she wears. That makes sense. For young boys, it’s often dinosaurs. For young girls, it’s horses.
I ride horses. I wonder if she’s ridden trail-style or in an equestrian ring. Then I wonder if she’s ridden at all. Perhaps she can only dream about riding one day. When she is stronger.
My stomach tightens. It hurts to look at her picture.
Fanny lies in her bed. On her back. Staring up at the camera.
I wonder what goes on behind those eyes in the still of the night. When all is black and darkness. Does she stare at the ceiling and wonder about her future? No child should have to feel alone with thoughts like that at night.
My friend told me Fanny requested postcards with a snow theme. Apparently she dreams about being in a snowball fight when she can leave her bed and, once again, be active.
It’s almost too much for me to bear. One so young should not have to dream about walking again.
For reasons I don’t understand, I have a need to send her some postcard cheer. But I’ve already failed the mission: postcards in Los Angeles don’t contain a lot of snow. I’ll track down some cards with magnificent snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains eventually. In the meantime, I go to the Norton Simon Museum and raid their racks.
I choose postcards with impressionist paintings. The museum is full of impressionists and there are many from which to choose. Between the pastel colors and images of ballerinas, I think that Fanny might forgive the lack of snow.
Some of the cards have bright flowers on them. Hope and rebirth, right?
I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It would have been enough to send a single card. Instead, I walk out of the gift shop with fourteen. My initial inclination is to bury the memory of her picture under a deluge of nineteenth century French paintings. Mail a card a day for two weeks.
Then it occurs to me this would be cruel. Having a flood of postcards coming in will build Fanny’s anticipation only to make the inevitable end of the stream more obvious. The crash after the high. It’s wrong to cause Fanny additional pain to salve mine.
I’m not sure from where my pain is coming. In my professional life, I’ve intersected with the random cruelty of life many times. There was the early death of a young firefighter from causes associated with his line of work. There were the EPA discussions over the poisoned water in a small, poor Southern California city. There were the impoverished four-year-old children who had already developed asthma as a result of being stuck living next to a busy diesel truck depot that services a double-digit percentage of the nation’s economy.
So I’ve seen the unfairness of life. When you can’t turn away.
I’ve dealt with that.
And yet, here is this little girl. The penetrating gaze of Fanny’s dark blue eyes. Her lips drawn tight.
She does not quite smile in the picture.
I’m broken. She breaks me in a way that defies logic. Why this little girl? Why this 10-year-old, stricken by cancer, who goes by the name “Fanny Princesse Courage” on the postcard address?
I will space out the postcards over a period of weeks. I’ll use round stamps in the shape of a Moon map to secure the international postage. And I’ll try not to cry each time I hand a card to the postal worker behind the counter.
I’m not always successful in controlling my tears. More than once, I’ve rushed out of the post office to the privacy of my car.
Fanny reminds me of just how limited my abilities are. How my heart exceeds my grasp.
I’d like to think this is a selfless act, that I’m helping. But I’m not sure anymore. It might well be a selfish act – an attempt to assuage my own horror of what this child is experiencing. Of pushing the basic unfairness of the child’s situation away from me.
I can’t tell anymore.
But, through the tears, I continue to send the postcards. For Fanny Princesse Courage has made me feel. I am made raw. I am alive. And so I am obligated to hold a line against an indifferent universe.
This is what connects me to Fanny. This is what connects life to life.
I will allow myself to be affected by Fanny. I wish I could do more.
Originally published January 25, 2017 in Footlights.