The following account is loosely based on real events.
“Remember,” says one of the workers at the Angels Wings Activity Center, “when you go home tonight, ask your mom and dad to read you the stories before you go to bed.”
“I only have Mom!” exclaims one of the children, happily.
“Then, you can have mom read it to you,” the worker replies amiably.
As death is a taboo subject to many people in China, the idea of a palliative care center may come as a shock to them: after all, palliative care is a concept that exists on the backbone of this forbidden subject—it centers around the death of those with terminal illnesses, such as cancer, leukaemia, and tumors. It is then, not surprising the Beijing Children’s Palliative Care Center is not popularly recognized, since many perceive it as a place where focus is placed on the terminality of the patients’ lives, rather than the golden idea of hope for curing their illnesses.
But to say the palliative care center is a place of death would be not true, because it is a place of incongruity and juxtapositions.
It is a place where children, with heads shaved due to leukemia, masks covering their mouths, learn to draw pictures of houses, bunnies, moons, stars and birthday cakes. A place where children sit eagerly on couches, waiting to be told a story—and that although they may “only have Mom” to read them stories at night, they still sound excited and happy, despite that they are seemingly missing a parent. A place where children watch colored balloons get released—a balloon representing a child that has recently passed away— whilst imagining that their lost peer has become a balloon, sailing into the sky. A place where children, on the brink of death, play doctor with each other, as if they could somehow heal each other, make each other better.
“Have I taken your temperature?” asks a girl as she puts a toy stethoscope around her neck.
Her patient (and also fellow doctoral colleague), a girl in a pink dress, shrieks with laughter.
“40 degrees!” the girl exclaims after “measuring her temperature”, waving around a toy in the air.
“My mom is sick again!” declares the girl in the pink dress.
Her friend loops the wire of another toy around her neck, turns to her, and giggles.
“My mom is sick again, hurry up! Hurry up!”
Urgently, her friend picks up “supplies” from her table. “Okay, I’ll look at it right away.” After a few moments of deliberating, she says, “you need an injection.”
To that, the girl in pink responds, “let me see if you have bacteria,” and picks up a blue toy.
If one were to watch this scene unfold in any other place—daycare, pre-school, a playdate—nothing would seem abnormal. Two girls huddled between toy furniture in a corner of a room, deftly picking up tools and presenting them to each other as if they know exactly what the other needs, toy spoons and giggles in the air. All of this might make a viewer smile and marvel at their innocence. All of this might make one believe, for a second, that everything is normal—except for the fact that the girls are wearing masks, one green and one pink; through all of their medical commands, we never once see their mouths. Except for the fact that their heads are shaved, so that their hair is thin and fluffy, like that of a baby who hasn’t fully grown in their hair yet, instead of thick and black.
Even in the face of their most joyous moments, the children bear hints of their abnormality, their illnesses, their inevitable fates. Because in normal daycares, when volunteers take kids to wash their hands, they won’t tell the volunteers that they can’t, because they’ve just had a shot due to chemotherapy and water will cause an infection. In normal daycares, workers don’t need to sterilize every toy, table, and cubby after the kids leave. But in the Palliative Care Center, even in these moments when kids are bursting with energy, their eyes squinted in a way that you can tell they’re grinning, full-on, like every other child does although you can’t see it through their masks, grinning as if they could never be so in love with life—we are reminded of their incoming deaths, that silently haunt the space.
On the surface, the Palliative Care Center may seemingly reek of death—but upon closer look, you see parents and doctors trying their best to fill their kids’ lives with happiness and meaning. You see that this center is a place of life, and of hope—not hope for a longer life, but a fuller one, that’s surrounded by love and ends with a peaceful, less painful death.
Despite the despair that begs to be let in, to weight upon their shoulders and consume them, the children choose happiness, a bright bubbly shield. Despite the masks they must wear and protocols they must obey, the children come into the center every day, ready to play. Despite the finality of their diseases, the children don’t give up; they dare to hope.
And they dare each other to hope. Every day they challenge each other, through their laughter and their stethoscope-shaped tokens of friendship, to help each other and to not give up.
“My mom is sick again,” the girl had said to her friend. “Hurry up!” Help my mom, she had said. It’s urgent. She’s in trouble.