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Rated: ASR · Fiction · Drama · #2278445
A young girl dying of cancer is comforted by a stage magician

"Now, boys and girls, parents and colleagues," the oncology nurse announced, "here to produce feats of magic for your delight and entertainment is The Amazing Andy."

The girl in the closest chair looked up at me expectantly She was about nine or ten, her bald head covered with a bright durag, her body wasted and skeletal, yet her eyes were bright and her smile was wide.

"Hi. What's your name?" I asked, moving to stand by her.

"I'm Jilly. It's short for Jillian."

"Well, hey, Jilly, did you wash behind your ears? Look what I found back there." She giggled when I produced a shiny quarter and beamed when I gave it to her. The other kids in the room clapped and yelled, "Do me! Me too!".

I obliged by moving from one to another, pulling coins or buttons or other small items from durags, ears, hospital gowns, pyjamas, and IV bags. For good measure, I included the nurses and parents in the audience.

"Now, you greedy creatures, you have all been paid off. May I go on with the show?" My mock stern manner was greeted with more applause and calls of "Yes! More! Do more!"

On then, through the standard repertoire of pulling out impossible lengths of colored silk scarves, magically joining and separating metal rings, cutting and rejoining ropes, all to enthusiastic applause and the oohs and ahs of enchanted children. Jilly in particular watched with keen interest and applauded wildly after every trick.

I love performing for young children, little ones who have not yet become world-weary or blasé. Their willingness to believe is huge, their minds are not yet jaded, and they remain open to wonder, so that the simplest of well-done sleights appear to be true magic. This is the joy of performing for children, anywhere.

Performing magic in the children's cancer ward was both the most rewarding and most heart-breaking of gigs. Because they know, and I know, what being in that ward means. Behind those wide eyes and bright smiles lurks the specter of coming death. Pushed aside for the moment by my act but ever looming in the background, death writhes snake-like around the IV poles, grins over the monitors, hides behind the chairs, and hovers with gleeful anticipation beside every dying child.

"Mister Amazing! Mister Andy!" Jilly called to me as I was packing up, "Can you teach me to do magic?" I stopped packing and went over to her. She had waited behind and was one of the last to leave.

"It's kind of you to ask, Jilly, but a magician never reveals his secrets."

"Oh." A world of disappointment in a single word.

"But if you swear to keep what I show you a deep secret, and never reveal it to another living soul, and promise to practice until you can do it well, I might show you one little bit of magic."

"Yes! Yes! I promise!"

"Okay, then. I have another show to do today, but I'll come back tomorrow and we'll start. Okay?"

"Okay, great! I'm in room 474." She was shaking with excitement. I hoped I hadn't upset her treatment or something.

On the way out of the ward, I stopped at the nursing station. "Thanks, Andy," said the nurse on duty. "That was so much fun, and the kids loved it. Will you be back next month?"

"I will. And if it's okay, I'll come back tomorrow to see Jillian in 474. What can you tell me about her condition?"

"She's been diagnosed with Stage IV Neuroblastoma. Her body is riddled with cancer that attacks the nerves."

"It sounds awful. Will she live?"

The nurse shrugged. "What, am I God? I don't know. With aggressive treatment, she has between a 50% and 95% chance of surviving five years or more."

"That actually sounds pretty encouraging."

"It is, though her particular prognosis isn't. The treatment is rough, too. I can't discuss details with you, but it isn't pleasant."

"Aw, that sucks."

"It does. If you ask me, cancer in a child is one of the most evil things that can happen to a family. An innocent child, a foul disease, emotionally and financially devastating. But we fight it, Andy. We fight for every one of those sick kids. And often, damn it, we lose." She grabbed a tissue and wiped her eyes. "Sorry for the rant. Sure, come in and see Jilly or any of the kids any time you want."


When I saw her the next day in her room, Jillian was wan and listless, her eyes and mood dull. A tired looking woman sat in a chair by her bed.

We introduced ourselves; she was Jill's mother, Marla. She was an older version of Jillian, a petite brunette who was pretty despite the dark under her eyes, her sagging shoulders, her tired slump in the chair. A lady carrying a load of care, and no wonder. I turned back to the girl on the bed. "Wassup, kid?" I asked her brightly. "You look like you've been dragged through a knothole backwards."

A smile curled one corner of her mouth, but she said nothing.

"She's just had her chemo. She'll be really tired for a while."

"Oh. Jilly, I guess our magic lesson will have to wait." I reached out and took her hand, then acted surprised to find a quarter in it. "There you go, hiding quarters again." This earned me another half smile. After a quick check with Marla that it was okay, I promised to return soon.

On the way out I checked with the nurses about her treatment schedule so I could come at a better time.


"Mr. Amazing! You came back!" Jilly greeted me with a huge smile and her arms wide for a hug. This was one of the up-times between treatments. "Teach me magic, please, you promised!"

"I did indeed. Let's start with some easy card tricks that will astound the nurses."

"Please, will you show me how to make coins appear from thin air? That is so cool."

"That one's pretty hard. It takes a lot of practice. Are you sure you're up to it?"

"Absolutely. I'll practice lots. I promise."

So we began meeting two or three times a week, largely just to visit, but also for lessons in sleight-of-hand, various techniques of palming and distraction, the art of the reveal. Perfecting those things had taken me months and it saddened me to think that she might not live long enough to achieve her goal. But I had to admire her spirit and determination and, frankly, her courage.


"Dad, can you help me with my math homework?" Jilly asked, frowning at her textbook. We had decided that homework came before magic, but I was surprised by the honorific.

"Jilly, I'm not your father."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sorry. But I'm your girl, right?"

Oh, Jilly, how I wish it were so. "Yes Jilly, you're my girl. What math are you working on?"

Our visits continued over the next two weeks, though every one broke my heart because on each occasion she seemed a little weaker, a little thinner, tired a little more easily. But always I was greeted with a big smile and the demand for a hug, which I gladly but carefully gave.


One evening I came to find Jilly quiet and Marla somber.

"Hey guys, what's the deal?"

"Jillian's treatment is over, but the tests--"

"I like it when you and mom come at the same time," said Jilly interrupted, "because it's kind of like a family, you know?"

I'd been visiting for a month now, and we'd become friends. But family? I raised an eyebrow at Marla. Was Jilly trying to set us up? The thought had some appeal. Marla motioned me out into the hall.

"Her father left when she was a baby. Seemed he couldn't quite tolerate fatherhood. His loss. But to his credit, he has faithfully paid support. Every month without fail. We couldn't have survived otherwise. And he sends gifts on her birthday and at Christmas. But he's never once come to see her. Jilly has come to accept her father's absence."

I looked in Marla's eyes for anger or hate but saw only calm acceptance. Life was what it was, whether it was a missing father or cancer.

"Perhaps that's why your visits mean so much to her. And me too. As we both know, not every man will give his time to visit a little girl, especially one with cancer. Possibly terminal cancer. The treatment is over but the tests last week were positive for cancer."

"Oh, no. No." I gathered her in my arms and cried with her.

"The oncologist says it's really too early to tell, but I'm so afraid." She sighed and eased away from me. "Your visits have worked magic on her mood and spirit and cheered her so much. Please stay with us, Andy, until the end."

"Of course. I will." Now I understood Jilly's slip in calling me "dad", and realized that my visits satisfied needs unrecognized by both of us. She had indeed become my girl.

"Speaking of child support and finances, if you'll forgive me, Andy, how is it that you are free to come so often to visit Jilly?"

"It's okay. Besides the free shows I do at hospitals and care centres, I also do birthday parties and community days and sports dinners and corporate events, and all that pays well enough. And I have some investments and things."

We dried our eyes and went back to see Jillian, who had been waiting more-or-less patiently in her bed. Well, mostly less. She was restless with eagerness.

"When do you think I can show Mom the magic trick we've been working on?"

"As I've told you, nothing spoils a trick like a fumble or a drop or a premature reveal." I winked at Marla, who knew every detail of the "secret" magic we'd been practicing. "If you think you're ready, go for it."

"Mom, sit here on the chair facing me." With an impish grin, Jilly held the palms of her hands towards her mother, then turned them one at a time to show the backs, looking pointedly at each as she did. I caught the coin pass during the distraction, but I doubt Marla did. Jilly reached around Marla's neck, under her short hair, then pulled her hand back and flipped it open to reveal the coin. "Mom, you're growing quarters under your hair!" Marla clapped with delight, and I clapped and smiled with professional approval.

A woman in a white coat had come in during the trick, and she also applauded.

"Andy, this is Dr. Shelbourne, our oncologist." Marla's voice was flat with fear.

"Marla, Jilly, I have something to tell you. Is it okay to share with your friend here?"

"Yes, that's fine."

"I have good news. Jillian's treatment has been successful. This morning's tests show her as cancer-free. She's gained a little weight, and her hair should start to regrow soon. We'll hold her a few days for further observation, but if everything looks okay, she should be able to go home next week."

We threw our arms around the startled doctor and whooped and bounced and bobbed and danced around the room, all of us full of joy for a little girl whose body had been riddled with cancer, yet who had survived.

After the doctor left, Marla and Jill and I stayed in our hug, crying and laughing. I was filled with wonder that through love and caring, and the magic of modern medicine, evil is sometimes defeated, and life left full of hope.

Words: 1926
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