There they were. All in a bright red row.
I walked past them every day as I started my shift for work. As a young college student completing my required clinical rotations, I rarely gave them a second thought. Except perhaps to note how bright and cheery they looked early in the morning as the hospital was just waking up for the day.
I would breeze past them, my long white coat flapping behind me as I snagged a bagel from a coffee cart on my way to a day that already had me on the run.
Except once. Once I stopped.
Once I saw a young mother all by herself. She was attempting to to heft a cumbersome bag filled with medical equipment into one of the cherry-red wagons with one hand while cradling a tiny chemo patient on her opposite hip. Not chemo patient, I corrected myself, her baby. A baby girl, judging buy the pink fuzzy blanket the little one was clutching.
And no one was stopping to help.
I walked up reaching a hand out for the bag, smiled and said, “You look like you could use a hand — I’ll take the wagon and you take care of Miss Cutie Pie.”
She choked out a sob in the bend of her elbow of her free arm and nodded. I didn’t have to ask where we were going. I just turned and pulled the bright little wagon in the direction of the pediatric chemo ward and she followed, hugging her baby girl tight.
I wish I had known that day what I know now.
I wish I had been able to fully comprehend the depth of her muffled half-embarrassed sob. I wish I had understood then, as well as I know now, what that woman was feeling on that day.
I would have done more. I would have sat down. Offered to fetch her some coffee. Sat with her a while. I would have done so much more than offer to pull a little red wagon.
But I didn’t know then, what I know now.
I didn’t know that in just five short years, I would be pulling a little red wagon of my own. That I would come through that very same door, my heart in my throat, catching sobs in the bend of my elbow.
Trying to co-exist with a fear that I didn’t dare name.
I didn’t realize how lonely it would feel to pull a little red wagon with a tiny uncertain life tucked inside.
I didn’t know how empty, how desolate, how desperate I would feel tugging a little red wagon of my own through the echoing expanse of a hospital lobby.
I didn’t understand then, that no matter how many times I pulled one of those little red wagons, the load in my heart would never get any lighter. That it never became easier. That the ache and fear never lessened.
Five years earlier, I didn’t comprehend how a smile, a kind word, or the smallest thoughtful gesture could become a life-line to sanity in a world where only the most tenuous form of hope could exist.
But I do now.
After countless nights of sleeping in straight-backed vinyl hospital chairs.
After surgeries, surgeries, and more surgeries.
After collapsing on the cold beige-flecked tiles of the hospital floor in grief and exhaustion.
After untold hours of pacing and watching black-rimmed utilitarian clocks.
After endless nights of holding a tiny child tight when pain medication failed to bring relief.
After helping to hold my child down for yet another blood draw.
After watching helplessly while she screamed in terror as I swallowed unshed tears and unvoiced screams of my own.
After hearing the words, “There’s nothing more we can do…”
After heartache and the scent of iodine scrub became so tightly entwined that the tiniest whiff brings a wave of nausea — to this day.
After pulling a little red wagon, loop after loop through the pediatric intensive care unit just to give my surgery-ravaged child a reason to smile.
After standing just outside her door and weeping bitter tears, wishing that a ride in a red hospital wagon had not been the source to bring her such a rare moment of joy.
I understand now what I didn’t back then.
And I’ll never forget.
I’ll never forget that young mother from my college days. I’ll never forget that every morning, in hospitals all over the country there are mothers and fathers pulling little red wagons, their hearts filled with grief, and worry and the most tenuous of hopes.
We have a little red wagon of our very own now. One that transports nothing but joy and laughter.
It seats two and clatters down sidewalks and bounces over grassy slopes instead of gliding down linoleum-encased hallways. It’s never stored next to abandoned IV poles. It never smells of iodine scrub.
Its winters are filled with warm quilts and hot chocolate. Its summers are consumed by giggles and butterfly nets. Bright red and cheerful, it reminds me of what we have. Of what we almost lost. To be grateful. To take nothing for granted.
And to never, never forget.