The Apple Tart Treatment

She prayed for help in easing her grandchild's burden. The answer she received surprised her.

Posted in , May 27, 2014

Carol Shaw Johnston with her kitchen helpers, her granddaughters Sophie and Lily

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.

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 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.

“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.

The next morning, as I scrambled eggs for my husband and me, I had an idea: Grandma Carol’s Café, a full-service diner for two very special customers. I made out menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner and, of course, dessert. At the top I wrote, “Open 24 hours a day for Lily and Sophie.”

I took the menus with me when I went to the hospital and gave them to the girls. “Anytime you’re sick of hospital food, just call in your order. I’ll bring it right over.”

Lily smiled weakly.

A few days later the phone rang. “Hello,” I heard a small, soft voice say. It was Lily. “We’d like to place an order for lunch.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “What can I get for y’all?”

“We’ll have the chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas and–oh!–apple tarts, please. Don’t forget the extra cinnamon!”

“You got it,” I said. “Your order’s on its way!”

I got to work. Chopping, whisking, baking. When it was time to make the apple tarts, I sprinkled in lots and lots of cinnamon. Then I packed everything up in a picnic basket and took it to the hospital.

“Special delivery!” I announced, walking into Lily’s room on the sixth floor. The girls’ eyes lit up. I spread out a picnic blanket on the floor and we feasted.

In that hour, it didn’t matter that Lily was battling leukemia or that she had an IV hanging out of her chest. The three of us chatted about school, their bulldog and the TV movie High School Musical, just like old times.

“Thanks, Grandma Carol,” Lily said. “That was great.” But minutes later she was sick. After the nurse had come and gone, Lily slumped against the pillow, all the color drained from her face. And here I’d thought I was brightening her day. I drove home feeling lower than ever.

Lily was fighting for her life. Did I really think apple tarts would solve anything? But I couldn’t give up. Her parents and her doctors had the big stuff covered. Maybe there were other little things I could try.

I knew Lily missed school more than anything. Her teachers had arranged for her classmates to write her some get-well-soon cards. I put in a special request for funny stories and jokes too. Lily, Sophie and I would read the notes aloud and crack up.

Not only did those visits cheer Lily up, they also gave her mama a much-needed break from the hospital.

Lily couldn’t leave her hospital room. Her low blood counts made her vulnerable to germs. So I scoured the aisles at the craft store, then showed up in Lily’s room armed with cabin-fever-fighting activities.

We beaded bracelets. Lots of them. Played round after round of Yahtzee Turbo. I did bedside manicures and pedicures that were the envy of the entire sixth floor. Designed Final Spinal T-shirts for her last spinal chemo treatment. Helped her with homework so she wouldn’t fall behind.

And at Lily’s request, had more picnics with food from Grandma Carol’s Café, with extra helpings of apple tarts. The doctors and nurses developed a taste for the cinnamony treats too!

One night, the entire family put on a musical in Lily’s room. Lily wasn’t ready to return to the stage just yet, so she took on her favorite role–director. Even her PaPaw got in on the act and did a goofy dance. We raised such a ruckus that the on-call nurses poked their heads in. “Is everything okay?” they asked.

“Couldn’t be better,” Lily said, laughing, that sparkle in her eye once again. Maybe the crafts and manicures and apple tarts didn’t cure her or take away the pain. But they’d given her a different kind of strength, a strength of spirit.

Today Lily is in remission, finishing up seventh grade with her trademark pizzazz. Playing volleyball and performing in school plays. Savoring every moment. Just as I learned to do during those 800 days of treatment.

Try Carol's Apple Tarts for yourself!

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