Well this past weekend was absolutely incredible and again puts our lives into a different perspective (remind me to get to that statement later!). When Lucas was diagnosed we were handed a piece of paper that had Operation North Pole on it. The person who gave us the sheet was a volunteer of the hospital. I don't even remember exactly who it was! So we looked it over and filled it out. I remember the description reading something like a little train ride and some gifts and breakfast for the day. Rina and I said it would be nice for the boys to get out for a day and we signed the paper and turned it in. Of all the charities and helpful information, this was the one that we didn't look into very much AT ALL!!! Crazy, I know, but we just didn't. So Rina started getting emails about the upcoming day and we had to fill out some more paperwork and so on. No big deal. The author portrayed himself as one of Santa's helpers and he needed to remember to do this and do that. It was fun, but AGAIN, we didn't put alot of energy into it. We did what they asked and went on with our lives.
Well as you know, the week prior,we were back in the hospital and worried that we may miss this outing for the boys and some sense of normalcy in life. We made it, obviously!!! So Saturday morning rolls around and we are at home getting ready to go and head out in the midst of "small" temper tantrum from the Bear!!!! Sure to think it was the tell tale sign of the day to come. We were greeted with very little traffic after leaving the house and heading to the Donald E Stephens Convention Center. Upon arrival, a fire fighter greeted us and sent us up this huge ramp INTO the building with signs that said Valet Parking. This wasn't just valet, it was gold star!!!! We were parking IN the building!!! Not some bumpy parking lot, THE BUILDING!!!!
So we loaded up the stroller (as ALL parents do!!!) and headed to the doors. Again, we were greeted by fire fighters and some volunteers that brought us to registration. Rina and the boys took some pictures with the fire fighters while I signed us in. (Still no clue what we were in for!!) We were escorted to a hall where there were tables and chairs and some buffet lines being set up. About 100 or so families were sitting and chatting and talking and smiling. Kids were playing and running around a little. We were escorted to our table and waited patiently. Shortly after, Ronald McDonald himself stopped by for a visit. We ate breakfast: Bacon and eggs, sausage, fruit, pancakes, toast, donuts, bagels, danishes, coffee, tea, and juice. All for us!!!
After breakfast, we were greeted by Fireman Richie. He was our designated Santa's helper and would escort us on the bus to the train and so on. He was a very friendly guy and Lucas took a liking to him as well!
Ronald McDonald put on a magic show for the kids and then we headed to the buses. Once we got on the bus we had to wait for 20 minute or so because we were early, i guess. Once we got the green light to go, fire trucks and police cars escorted us into traffic and toward the train to the North Pole. We didn't stop for a single red light. The police blocked traffic at EVERY intersection from Rosemont to Des Plaines!!!!
Upon arrival at the train station (and after singing TOO many Xmas carols) we got out and stretched our legs and waited for the train. What a surprise when the train arrived!! Two huge Metra cars were completely wrapped with Operation North Pole stickers and signs!!! It was amazing. When the train stopped, Mrs. Claus herself greeted us!!! There was a magical spark in the air that I just can't explain. Maybe for a moment, I was a kid again. Believing again that everything was good and happy and the evil of the world didn't exist. Thank you Mrs. Claus for that tiny little moment. We were ushered onto the train and took our seats. More helpers were there to hand out goody bags, coloring books, stickers, and of course, CANDY. We sang more carols and played Simon says. The conductor came around as well and stamped our tickets. About halfway to the North Pole we stopped for treats. The fire fighters from Crystal Lake boarded the train and gave the kids meal boxes with water, cookies, trail mix and other snacks. Parents got water and watched the smiles on the faces of the kids. I will leave out the part where Rina got car sick and Franco and Lucas were cranky!!! It was a long ride, but we were going to the NORTH POLE for heaven's sake!!!
AS we arrived back at our destination, tension grew and Rina spotted Santa first!!! He was perched on the ladder truck with a bull horn waving and talking to us. We got back onto the buses and were escorted back to the convention center. This time we followed a huge a semi that Santa brought with him!!!
So here is where this post takes a turn:
I told you about Richie the fireman who was with us the whole time. Well he and Brian (the other fireman on the bus) got off the bus and another guy got on. He said we would be a minute. Well the buses started emptying and we gather at the front door. Took a quick picture with Santa and then silence. Santa said a few words and then opened the doors. Upon entering we were all greeted by firemen and policemen on one knee. Clapping and cheering and giving high fives to EVERY SINGLE CHILD. It felt like there was 1000 of them!! Richie was there as well. Although I didn't cry that day, the emotions have hit home for the symbolism of that walk for me. These brave men and women are willing to risk their lives for us every day doing their jobs. And that day, they showed the kids that they were the real heroes. The gratitude, the love, the compassion from these complete strangers was amazing. Lucas loved it, he high fived damn near every one of them!!!
Down on one knee, unified. They did this for the kids, for the families, for the smiles and joy on their faces. Volunteered, not paid. For strangers. It was incredible for me. Tears continue to roll down my face....
Back upstairs where we had breakfast. Tables and chairs now gone, stands a simple podium. Hold on, let me get my composure....
Okay. We gathered around this podium. (this is where I figured we would get a little gift and some candy and the day was over, boy was I wrong!!) Santa gave another little speech and recognized some people for their help. Then he said, through these doors awaits a Christmas Celebration. Enter and Enjoy!!!
HOLY COW!!!! We were again greeted by elves, gingerbread men, angels, ballerinas, princesses and other characters. Rescue dogs as well. Xmas trees, and snow and decorations filled this hall. Music and lights were everywhere. IT was total overload. To the right tables overflowing with candy and chocolate and fountains of chocolate and more candy and cookies and cupcakes. Did I mention the candy??!?!!! There was pizza, and ice cream, and drinks. A beauty salon for the girls and trains for everyone. A station for popcorn, cheese puffs, etc. A photo booth and face painting. I was absolutely blown away by what we just walked into. No charge to us. NOTHING. No money needed, take all you want. All you can carry and then come back for more was the slogan of the day!!! Richie, again back with us, filled at least 4 bags full of candy as Lucas and Franco went into sugar comas!!! WE did everything there was to do and enjoyed ourselves until it was time to go.
The display of generosity, sincerity and love from everyone involved with Operation North Pole was indescribable. We didn't have to do anything. Someone was always there to help us do something, get something or just smile. Even the darn walking Xmas tree!!! Before we left a young lady approached us and asked if knew a certain family. We started talking and of course we have some things in common, CANCER. However, Sue and her son Matthew made me realize how much we should cherish our time on this planet, in this life, doing this thing we do. Matthew is 11 months old and has a SUPER rare brain tumor. Most kids with it, go home to die. Not Matthew and not his mom!!! They are helping to write the future protocol for treatment. Matthew's experience may actually save the life another kid down the road. With all of that going on, both mom and Matthew can still smile. Still laugh, still talk about IT. I said to Rina on the way home. I don't feel the need to complain about cancer today. We are dealing with leukemia and a fever here and there. These issues are life changing for US, but when you meet other people that have BIGGER challenges every day life is given a different perspective.
I cherish the moments I have with my family and I didn't have time to clean out the garden or rake the leaves or put the hoses away. But I did find time to sit with my family and watch a movie. Put decorations on the Xmas tree and set up the train that goes around. They won't remember a clean yard or tidy garage when I am gone, but they will hopefully remember the feeling of love and compassion, safety and security that I try to give every day to my entire family. I won't stress over visiting or not. Last minute notices of traveling visitors are ALWAYS accepted. I am a cancer dad now and life has changed. I cry every day for one reason or another and Lucas smiles and laughs and goes on as a little boy.
Thank you for the life perspective. Thank you for the memories that will be cherished forever. Thank you for caring about my family even though you don't know who we are. Thank you Operation North Pole.