The Apple Tart Treatment

A concerned grandmother prayed for help in easing her sick grandchild's burden. The answer to her prayer surprised her.

By Carol Shaw Johnston, Franklin, Tennessee

As appeared in

Lily, my seven-year-old granddaughter, lay in her hospital bed, knees drawn up to her chest, her body coiled in pain. “It feels like my back is broken,” she whispered. Her mama sat by her side, stroking her face. I hovered, wishing there was something more I could do besides worry.

A few days earlier, Lily had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The doctors had outlined an extensive treatment plan and given pages and pages of recommendations, descriptions of the powerful drugs that would be used during chemotherapy, their side effects, advice on how to best cope with pain and nausea.

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The information filled a heavy blue binder that sat next to her bed. Poor Lily. Even if everything went well, she had a long, hard road ahead–more than 800 days of chemo treatments. Nearly two and a half years! An eternity for a kid.

I was used to being Grandma Carol, the lady with all the answers. But now all I had were questions. How sick would the treatments make Lily? What would she be able to eat? How much school would she miss? How would she react to losing her hair?

What about Sophie, her five-year-old sister? She’d be scared...how would I comfort her? How could I possibly make any of this better? That was the one I couldn’t get past.

It was hard to believe that just a month before, our lives had been so normal. Lily and Sophie spent a lot of time with their PaPaw and me. Doing cartwheels in our front yard. Telling jokes to their PaPaw. Making up songs and putting on plays. And helping me cook–that was their favorite.

I’d taught the girls how to make pasta, chili, chocolate-chip cookies and ice cream. Our signature recipe, though, was apple tarts. The last time we’d made them, Lily had been in charge of the cinnamon. She’d sprinkled it into the mixing bowl like it was pixie dust!

“Don’t you think that’s enough cinnamon, sweetheart?” I’d said.

Fine brown powder covered her face and hands–the kitchen counter too. The girls giggled, then added an extra dash or two more. I was sure the tarts were ruined. But it turned out to be the best batch we’d ever made.

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“It’s because of the cinnamon,” Lily said, her eyes twinkling mischievously. That was Lily–full of sparkle and spunk.

It broke my heart to see her now, wan and hooked up to an octopus of tubes and machines.

Visiting hours ended. I kissed Lily good-night and drove home, pleading with God the whole way.

Please, dear God, make the next eight hundred days go by quickly. Let this nightmare be over.

The strangest thought popped into my head. It didn’t come from me. It was like someone else had spoken. Don’t wish this time away. Savor it.

Savor it? How could I savor my granddaughter’s suffering? I wanted to shoo the darkness away, not embrace it. And yet the voice persisted. Savor it. It sounded like something my mom used to tell me when I was a teenager: “Carol, don’t rush your life. Live in the moment, in the present!”

Maybe Mom was right. This time, this chance to be with Lily, was more precious than ever, now that we weren’t sure what the future would bring. Lily and Sophie deserved a childhood beyond stark hospital rooms and grueling treatments.

I would try, the best I could, to make the next 800 days a little bit brighter, one day at a time.