“Can we go on a walk, Papa? Just me and you?”
The kids had been on the edge of their seats all day, looking out the window for any sign that the storm had abated. Every flash of light was “definitely the sun!” and any amount of silence in the hotel room was a sure indication that the storm clouds were done drenching the streets of London. But Mother Nature didn’t let up, at least not until the kids were fast asleep for the night… all the kids but one.
Sami had been like Winnie-the-Pooh all day, going with the flow, enjoying even the mundane — “We’re actually really in London, Papa!” — but she isn’t immune to boredom… and time was ticking fast! Turns out, too, that it was a small window of opportunity earlier in the day that precipitated her ambition to get out of the hotel. The rain had let up that afternoon just long enough for us to check out the souvenir shop up the road and to eat some delicious Indian food around the corner from the Premier Inn London Waterloo Hotel where we were staying. It was freezing cold and the light rain was irritating on the face but we needed to get out, and we needed lunch! But it wasn’t the Public School English, the £s or pence, or even the streets cluttered with “Look, Mr. Bean’s car!” that got her excited to wander. No, it was our fleeting pass by the Coca-Cola London Eye, and that’s what she wanted to see, like, yesterday!
After a flurry of getting dressed & ready, grabbing my Navy-issued pea coat along with Sami’s Doctor Who scarf and blanket, the two of us were out the door and into the darkness of London nights. The streetlights were all lit up as the sun sets right around 4 p.m. Greenwich Meantime (GMT); and the hustle & bustle of cars and cabs hadn’t slowed down one bit since we ate lunch! People were walking around everywhere, chatting it up, eating at well-lit (and warm!) restaurants, even smoking hookah. All of this was done within a maze of ancient structures built of stone and of brick, constructed with an obvious preference for pedestrians — cars weren’t invented yet. Then, after a quick left, a cool (and instructive) London crosswalk, and a mad dash to the right, we arrived at The London Eye… or at least the gardens surrounding it.
By this point The Eye was closed for the night but it was still lit up, reflecting beautifully over the River Thames; and the Frostival ice-skating rink was also winding down. Large tour boats were done for the evening, moored to grungy, river-tried docks. The skyline was stunning, though, with Elizabeth Tower (aka Big Ben) just to the other side of the Thames.
“I heard Big Ben ring 11 times!” Sami said, “that means it’s 11 o’clock!”
11 o’clock! It was getting late, and we hadn’t eaten dinner yet! We decided to look around for somewhere to eat, preferably somewhere warm, with a good menu, and with reasonable prices. Turns out, that’s a tall order in London, especially when you’re playing with American dollars — the exchange rate sucks! Place after place was either too costly or the wrong kind of food, so we made our way through Jubilee Gardens — where we’d later see some fantastic street performers! — to the bridge that would take us across the river.
It seemed like a great idea… until the rain began to fall.
We were naive when we left the hotel room; we were sure to grab our coats and scarves but we hadn’t put a moment’s thought into buying an umbrella! The bridge wasn’t far and the wheelchair was going as quickly as it (safely) could, but the winds and the chilly rain were a force to be reckoned with! By the time we made it to cover, we were drenched from head to toe, laughing nervously that while we just enjoyed some good old-fashioned heart-racing fun, we were playing with fire. Sami is on chemo and getting sick would slam the brakes on her trip, probably even landing her in a local hospital for monitoring. I was terrified but Sami was insistent: “We can’t stop! We have to eat dinner!”
Our elevator opened to the Golden Jubilee Bridge, revealing an entirely new perspective on what we’d be oohing and ahing at down below! The bridge was wide, running parallel to a passenger train whizzing by every now and again, and there were a lot of people walking it. Business people, love-drunk couples, teenagers and tourists, all walking briskly, all talking rapidly, and all dry under their umbrellas! We listened to catch the different languages and accents — there were tons of them! — and we took note of different fashion trends, styles familiar and unfamiliar to the American eye. About halfway across the bridge, shivering with smiles on our faces, we admitted the obvious: the Golden Jubilee Bridge is a pretty long bridge! So after swaddling her up nice and tight in a blanket and giving her my pea coat for protection from the cold & rain, we turned back to settle on a restaurant we’d passed 15-minutes before.
The walk back was more intimate, no longer so focused on what we hadn’t seen before. We talked about what this trip meant to us, what we hoped we’d gain from it, and what we longed to do with our lives. She told me that she loves Grand Rapids but that she wishes she had more friends to spend time with on a regular basis; that she’s happy with our new home but longs to see cities around the USA and the world; and then she said:
“Please never leave me, Papa. I know that I’ll never leave you.”
I stopped dead in my tracks; the misty rain and everyone walking by seemed to be in slow-motion! All of a sudden London wasn’t so big; in fact, it was really small, made up of no more than the space surrounding her & I on that beautiful bridge. She listened with trustful eyes as I promised I’d never leave her or the family, that I’d always remain by her side; I reminded her of the frightful nights at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, of those difficult days at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, and of the tumultuous times where I advocated with all my might for her, for her dreams and for her dignity! Then I got down on my knee, looked her in the eyes, and told her what I’ve felt for so long now: “Samantha, you are better than Papa. You are greater than me in almost every way. I would die for you! I would jump in front of a bullet to save your life! Because Papa will die one day, but you are the future! You’re going to change the world, sweetheart, and that’s something I can’t wait to see, even more than all the beautiful and majestic things in London!”
With a quiver in her lip and tears welling up in her eyes, she looked at me and said, “We don’t need God, Papa; all we need is friends, family and love.”
After another 10 belly-grumbling minutes in the cold, we finally decided on an Asian eatery… which just so happened to be the first restaurant we passed after leaving the hotel! The food was expensive and not too good — “They don’t have that thick, red sweet & sour sauce like in the United States!” — but we were warm, and our stomachs were finally full of food! (Mission accomplished!)
Retracing our walk, we made it back to the Premier Inn, excited to get out of our soaking wet clothing — I never did get my coat back, btw! — and into the warm hotel room with a Hypnos bed awaiting our arrival! On the elevator ride up to our floor, Sami said, “Thank you for the walk, and thank you so much for talking to me. I really love you with all my heart — more than you’ll ever know; and even though we didn’t get to go on the London Eye today, I had the best night. It really is like a dream come true.”
To which I replied, “I wouldn’t have changed a thing, baby.”
(To be continued…)
Standing proudly in her shadow,
Email TeamTinyDancer@gmail.com for all interviews and speeches! And help Sami and her family to “Never give up! And keep on smiling!” this Christmas by visiting their GoFundMe page today!