On a scale of one to that video of the kid who gave his lunch to a homeless man and totally restored your faith in humanity, the story that I am about to tell you scores at least a ‘16 Heartwarming Photos of Lost Dogs Reunited With Their Families’.
It’s a story of wrongs righted and of justice served. Of tropical beaches and brutal chemotherapy regimens. Of the cruelty of children and the kindness of strangers. An 18-year-long epic that in the words of one friend “made me bawl my eyes out in a Savers.”
This is the story of how Faye got to go to the Maldives.
Back in 1997, when I was 11 years old, I was diagnosed with an osteogenic sarcoma growing out of the back of my left knee. For those owning up to their pulp-reading habits, yes, it’s the same one that Gus had in The Fault in our Stars. Treatment in those days was almost incomprehensibly vicious: a full year of relentless chemotherapy delivered in infusions that lasted for three to five days, matched with a seven-hour limb-salvage operation that left me in a wheelchair for more than a year. The names of my chemotherapy agents remain etched into my brain to this day – Adriamycin, ifosfamide, methotrexate, cisplatinum, and MTP-PE, all delivered in the same telltale blue-covered bag, each with their particular ravages and flavours and colours. They shifted in and out of favour, these five, the ones I tolerated well in one cycle becoming enemies in the next. I had two external lines inserted into my chest and a feeding tube put into my stomach; I lost my hair, vomited incessantly, grew ulcers down my throat, shed a fifth of my bodyweight and had to learn how to walk again. One night I woke up and the top layer of my lips just fell off, like half-melted butter. It was, to put it mildly, not a great year.
But, on the other hand, I did get my own Make-A-Wish, so it wasn’t all bad.
So, let me tell you about my awesome Make-A-Wish. Being told that I could wish for anything – or at least anything that would cost less than $10,000 – filled me with a great sense of solemnity, and I approached the whole thing in a very methodical way. I started quizzing the other kids on the ward to see what they’d wished for, and I discovered that they basically fell into the same three categories:
- A visit from your idol.
- A new pet.
- A trip to Disneyland.
All of these were useless to me.
First, a visit from your idol. Back then the only idol I had was my older brother Liam, and he already visited me for free. In your face, Make-A-Wish.
Second, a new pet. We already had a pet – a lovely wire-haired fox terrier named Monty to whom I was 100%, undeniably, allergic. But this was the kind of unspoken family secret that nobody wanted to face head on, because as Liam once told me, “Look, if it came down to a choice between you and the dog, we’d probably pick the dog.” Thanks, idol.
Third, a trip to Disneyland. This didn’t help me either, because we’d already been to Disneyland, a family holiday when I was five that also served as the single most traumatic event in my life to date.
A few months before our trip, Saturday Morning Disney had done a story about the Ghost Train, and I had been counting down the days until I got to ride it ever since. After queueing for more than ninety minutes, we were ushered into a bare, circular room, and I had joy etched in every feature: the sort of unbounded joy that probably makes a mother think that, yes, perhaps this was worth those 24 hours of labour. The floor started descending – the room was an elevator – and on one of the walls a portrait appeared of a man decked out in full Reanissance garb. But he was holding his head under his arm and there was blood spurting from his neck, and on seeing this I started bawling my eyes out in absolute terror. I didn’t stop crying for the next thirty minutes – because you can’t get off the Ghost Train – while my mother frantically tried to distract me from the ever-escalating cavalcade of horror right in front of my face.
With the three usual options exhausted, it was clear I needed to find something different.
At the time I was being treated, there was a lovely nurse called Faye, whose role was essentially to make life easier for the children on the ward. I realised early on that this extended to the giving of massages, so for that year Faye pretty much became my personal masseuse. She wasn’t quite on call, but these massages became an almost daily occurrence. We would talk as Faye rubbed my feet or gave my back a going-over or massaged my temples, and I ended up getting a bit of an insight into her life. One day she arrived at my bedside with a pile of brightly coloured travel brochures for the Maldives.
‘What are they?’ I enquired.
She let out a wry laugh. ‘Just a bunch of brochures for a holiday I’ll never be able to afford.’
My well-travelled middle-class upbringing had kept me insulated from the idea that adults might not be able to afford to go on holiday. While she was rubbing oil into my soles, I picked up a brochure and started flicking through it. Page after page of paradisal beaches, palm trees, resorts on stilts and well-toned women in bikinis leapt out at me. Faye started telling me how much she dreamt of lying on a sun-drenched beach for a couple of weeks with no responsibilities and no obligations. I closed my eyes and could almost feel the sun on my face. Faye, I thought to myself, I am going to make your dreams come true… for me.
In retrospect, I cannot overstate how bad I feel about this.
I told Mum that this looked like a fair option, and – despite her pathological fear of the ocean – after glancing through one of the brochures that Faye had left behind, she agreed. We submitted our application to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They promptly hit us with a request to interview the child who had made the decision, to ensure that said child had been operating without undue parental influence. Who knows, perhaps their suspicions were triggered by the fact that an eleven-year-old had just asked to take his family to a favourite holiday destination of the retiree set. (They also talked to Mum and Dad, who had to explain to Make-A-Wish that the Maldives actually wasn’t their dream destination; they had just managed to raise a child with the recreational tastes of a man sixty years his senior.) I passed the interview – they became convinced when I took them through the brochure page by page, pointing out my preferred resorts – and in the middle of 1999 the four of us jetted off to a small island in the Maldives for ten blissful days of sun, sand and drinks served in coconuts. No responsibilities and no obligations. As a coda to the familial trauma of the previous two years, the experience could not have been better.
Faye would have loved it.
In February I performed a show called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo at the Perth Fringe Festival. Based on my book of the same name, it was an hour-long comedic odyssey through the non-stop hilarity that only two life-threatening cancer diagnoses can provide. The above Make-A-Wish material was getting a full rinsing.
As I ran through my lines outside the theatre before my second to last show, an unfamiliar woman in her sixties came up to me.
“Luke? Do you remember me?”
A dimly remembered picture swam into focus: a woman sitting at the end of my bed, rubbing oil into my feet.
“Holy shit! Faye!”
Eighteen years later and there she was. The kindly figure who had carried Mum and me through so many of the worst times, here to see a show in which I cackle madly about the time I stole her holiday dream for myself. I noticed that my palms were suddenly very clammy.
When I finished telling the story during the show, I pointed Faye out in the audience and thanked her for everything she’d done for me and for all the other kids of Ward 3B. The crowd gave her a huge round of applause and I moved on to the next bit.
At the end, as I was leaving the theatre, a man lunged out of his seat and grabbed me by the shoulder. “Did Faye ever get to the Maldives?”
I was a bit startled. “Uh. I don’t know. I don’t think so?”
That was it. He wheeled around and I never saw him again. Ten minutes later, though, I saw Faye leaning against a wall, her eyes brimming with tears. This stranger had found her and announced that he wanted to send her to the Maldives.
“I told him he was being ridiculous. But he just said he had more money than he knew what to do with, and this seemed like something small he could do for someone who deserved it.”
I don’t know who this man was, or why he did what he did, but now, eighteen years after the fact, and after enriching the lives of hundreds of children with cancer, Faye is going to the Maldives at Christmas. I hope she sends me a picture.
Luke Ryan is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and comedian. He has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, Smith Journal, The Lifted Brow, The Vine, Crikey and Kill Your Darlings, and performs regularly with a sketch-comedy outfit called The Lords of Luxury. His first book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo, was published last year by Affirm Press.