Playing in the Leaves
“November already,” Anna sighed. “I swore I’d be out of here by June.”
Bob checked his clipboard with a chuckle. “Come on, Anna Banana. You know you can’t leave me. Not only am I terribly cute, but I’m also a good time.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you have way too much confidence for one human being?”
Laughing, he left the nurses’ station to make his rounds. The children’s hospital was a maze of white walls and tacky decorations. Bob had been on the nursing staff for the last five years. Unlike Anna, he liked the work. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a nurse. Nurses got to know their patients more than doctors, he felt. He wanted that connection.
While most nurses wanted to avoid the East Wing, Bob purposely dropped in every day. It was the wing for critically and terminally ill children, which meant that the turnover rate was high. Most nurses found it too difficult to say goodbye when the time came. Bob didn’t let that keep him from his duty. He believed the kids in the East Wing needed him more than anyone.
“Hi, Bob!” a girl of six years waved from her room.
He popped in briefly to check her chart. “Hey, Suz. Feeling good?”
“Living the dream. Take it easy. I’ll see if I can talk the kitchen into sending up that green jello you like so much.”
Smiling, he moved onto the next few rooms. When he reached the room of Mikey Wheat, he found Mikey out of bed. The nine-year-old was at his window. Bob entered with his arms folded. Mikey knew Bob was there, yet he stayed in place.
“Mikey, you shouldn’t be out of bed,” Bob chided.
The boy, a case of aggressive cancer, tapped on the glass. “Look down there, Mr. Bob. At the big tree. The leaves are falling now.”
“It is fall,” Bob said as he joined Mikey’s side. “You know what else comes with fall? Colder weather. That’s not good for you, so let’s get away from the chilly window and under the blankets.”
Reluctantly, Mikey went back to his bed. Bob neatly tucked the blankets around the child, but Mikey couldn’t stop frowning. “Mr. Bob, will they let me go outside soon?”
“We have to get you better first.”
“But I want to play in the leaves. I always play in the leaves every year. I’d give anything to do it again. It might be my last chance.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I might be a kid, but I know what’s going on,” Mikey murmured. “Isn’t there any way you can let me go play? I mean, what’s life without having fun sometimes?”
Bob nodded at the wise words. “That’s true. I’ll see if there’s something I can do, but I can’t make any promises.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bob.”
“Take it easy, buddy.”
For the remainder of his shift, Bob thought about Mikey. He couldn’t let the boy outside. His immune system was shot. Still, he wanted Mikey to experience playing in the leaves. As Mikey said, it could be his last fall. The cancer was advanced. It’d take a miracle for him to survive it for longer than a year or two, if he could even make it through winter.
“What’s that sad face about?” Anna asked when Bob returned to the nurses’ station.
“One of the cancer patients told me he wants to play in the leaves one last time. He said: ‘What’s life without having fun sometimes?’ That’s so true, especially for these kids. They all deserve to have some fun.”
“We can’t let them outside, Bob.”
His gaze fell on the cheap decorations they tacked onto the wall with pushpins. One of the decorations was a strand of fabric autumn leaves. Bob knew they sold individual fabric leaves at craft stores. That was the answer. It had to be.
“Anna, let’s bring fall to the kids. We can get fake leaves from the store. A whole bunch. Then, we’ll fill the halls and playrooms. We’ll have them go at it.”
“I like it. There’s just one problem. You’d have to get permission from Dr. Norton. She’s a no-nonsense type.”
“No problem. I can talk anybody into anything. You’ll see.”
*Fifteen minutes later*
“No,” Dr. Norton said.
Bob blinked, momentarily speechless. “No?”
“You heard me. If we let the kids play like that, they’ll get too worked up. They’re here to get rest and treatment. Not have a good time.”
“That’s exactly why they need this, Dr. Norton. Those kids face hell every second of the day. They’re dealing with things that some adults couldn’t even handle. What’s a few minutes of playtime? Time to be a kid again. We’ll be here. We can monitor them to be sure no one is hurt, and we can keep everything germ free.”
“We can’t be sure of that. The risk to their health is too high.”
“Fifteen minutes. Just give them fifteen minutes. Please, Dr. Norton.”
“The answer is no. That’s final.”
Scowling, Bob promptly left Dr. Norton’s office and stormed back to the nurses’ station. Anna looked up from her coffee at Bob’s angry expression. She sipped her drink, mumbling. “You can talk anybody into anything, huh?”
“She’s an ice cube. I’ll never understand how someone with such little compassion went into medicine. We’re here to help people. She wouldn’t agree to fifteen minutes. That’s all I asked. Fifteen minutes for the kids.”
“Well, you tried,” Anna shrugged.
Bob thought again about Mikey Wheat. He wasn’t going to let that kid down. “Anna Banana, I am going to do it anyway. To hell with Dr. Norton. These children need to have fun again.”
“You do this and you could be fired.”
“I can find another job. The kids might never have another fall.”
Anna grinned and took Bob’s hand. “Count me in. I love a good rebellion.”
“Day after tomorrow. Don’t tell anyone.”
It was agreed. As soon as his shift ended, Bob drove to the nearest craft store. They had bags of fake autumn leaves for sale. Bob bought them all. He knew it wouldn’t be enough, so he went to a second craft store. Eventually, he visited six craft stores and several home stores. He bought every fake leaf he could find. He wound up with several garlands, but he took the time to cut each leaf free from the central string.
When the day after tomorrow arrived, Anna met Bob at his car to carry in the bags. They stacked them under the desk at the nurses’ station until they were ready. Naturally, the other nurses started to notice that the fake leaves were there. Interest grew. Eventually, Bob had no choice but to explain what they were up to.
“We need you to be quiet about this. Anna and I are going to take these leaves to the playroom. We’re going to let the kids play for a few minutes like they’re outside. Dr. Norton told me I couldn’t do this, but I’m doing it anyway. Anyone object?” Bob asked.
The nurses on duty exchanged looks. Shandy, one of the long-time staffers, stepped forward. “How can we help?”
“Maybe some of you could help us spread the leaves. The rest of you can round up the kids,” Bob suggested.
“You got it,” Shandy spoke for them all.
Bob, Anna, and two other nurses gathered the bags. They cleaned the playroom and hallway before scattering the leaves. The leaves were sterilized as well, just in case. When they were finished, they signaled Shandy and the other nurses. They got the children on that floor to head towards the playroom. Bob was waiting in the hallway, and he was ankle deep in the leaves.
When Mikey made his appearance, joy filled his young face. “What’s this, Mr. Bob?”
“Well, I couldn’t take you to the leaves, so I brought the leaves to you. All of you. Fifteen minutes of playtime. It starts right now,” Bob explained.
The children rushed into the leaves, giggling and cheering. The nurses watched them act like carefree kids again. Mikey glowed with happiness, and Bob’s chest swelled at the grin on that boy’s face. Moments like that were exactly why he became a nurse.
“What’s going on here?” Dr. Norton demanded.
Bob gestured to the kids in the playroom. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“I specifically told you that you couldn’t do this,” Dr. Norton spat.
“Look at them, Dr. Norton. They’re happy. Isn’t that an important part of medicine too?” Anna asked.
“This is between me and him,” Dr. Norton hissed. “I’m going to have to fire you for insubordination. I expect the rest of you nurses to get the patients back in bed and clean up this mess.”
Shandy glared. “You can’t fire Bob.”
“Fire Bob? You can’t do that,” the other nurses said.
“He’s the best nurse in this hospital. You can’t get rid of him for doing the right thing for the kids,” Anna argued.
Mikey overheard their conversation. He fled the playroom and wrapped his arms around Bob’s legs. His glare cut into Dr. Norton. “You can’t fire him. Blame me. I asked him to do it.”
“I’m sorry, young man. This is a grown-up conversation,” Dr. Norton said.
“I just wanted to play one last time. That’s all any of us want. We’re kids, you know. We don’t want to forget that before the end,” the boy replied. “Mr. Bob helps us remember.”
Dr. Norton paused. Mikey’s words had an impact on her. She glanced at the other children as they laughed, and she started to understand where Bob and Mikey were coming from. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. She met Bob’s gaze.
“They have five minutes. I want everyone in bed after that. I better not find another leaf around here either. Don’t ever go against my orders again.”
“Yes, Dr. Norton. I won’t,” Bob agreed.
On that note, Dr. Norton left. Bob and Mikey returned to the playroom and joined the others. They dove in the leaves and tossed them at each other. Bob hated to end the fun, but the kids needed their rest. The nurses put the children back in their rooms and then picked up their mess. Bob took a pair of orange leaves to Mikey’s room.
“A reminder,” Bob said as he gave them to Mikey.
Mikey smiled. “Thank you so much, Mr. Bob. Fall is my favorite time of year. You know why?”
“It shows that changes can be beautiful.”
With a somber smile, Bob embraced the fragile boy. “You’re going to be okay, Mikey Wheat.”
“If I get to grow up somehow, I want to be a nurse like you.”
“When you get to grow up. When.”
“When can I get out of here?” Bob asked Dr. Blueford.
The doctor grumbled. “Doctors and nurses make the worst patients, I swear.”
“Seriously, I have to get back to work. They need me at the hospital.”
“You have a terrible infection, Bob. If we don’t bring down this fever, you’re in big trouble. Just relax and let us take care of you.”
Dr. Blueford left Bob alone in his hospital room. Bob huffed in frustration. He still worked at the children’s hospital, and he knew he was leaving them shorthanded. In his head, he was never off duty. He couldn’t stand taking a rest no matter how terribly his body needed it.
“I have some food for you,” the nurse announced.
Bob stared at the tray as it was set down in front of him. “Delicious. Juice in a plastic cup and jello. Got to love hospital fare.”
“I know. I ate it a lot when I was a kid.”
A fabric leaf floated onto Bob’s lap. He looked at the orange color, and then he looked at the name tag on his nurse. Michael.
“Mikey?” Bob asked.
The man smiled. “I told you I’d be a nurse if I grew up.”
“And you did! I always wondered what happened to you, buddy.”
“I went to Europe for an experimental treatment after the hospital discharged me. It worked. Obviously. The doctors say I’m a walking miracle. I never stopped fighting. People like you kept me going.”
“You kept the leaves after all these years?”
“Of course. They’re a reminder of who I strive to be. A man as good as you.”
Bob fought his overwhelming urge to burst into tears. The crackle in his throat persisted. “Thank you. I do what I do for kids like you. I’m proud of you and so glad.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bob. When you get better, I’d like you to come by my house. You can meet my wife and daughter. She’s barely three, but she loves the leaves. There’s a whole mess of them in my backyard. Perfect for playing. What do you say?”
“I’d like that. I mean, what’s life without having fun sometimes?”