When my daughter was born, she was flown to St. Louis, which had the closest Level 4 NICU for her needs. The next day, my sister drove my son and me to St. Louis, where we would end up staying for 10 days. Being a college student, I couldn’t afford a hotel, but my wonderful friend/birth coach made arrangements for us to stay at the St. Louis Ronald McDonald House.
We got to the hospital mid-morning and flew to her side. My son had to stay in the waiting room with his cousin and aunt, a long wait for a four year old boy who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. The hospital was wonderful to both boys, entertaining them with Santa visits (it was Christmastime) and games. I talked to doctors, stroked my little girl’s hair, sat by her warming bed and cried. I was allowed to hold her on a pillow, and needed help managing the tubes and cords attaching her to life, but for as long as I could manage, I sat with my china doll baby on my lap, rocking both of us into some sense of calm.
It was a home, a warm, safe place to go in the midst of the panic and confusion of my new life. We dropped into bed, where, for the second night in a row, I cried myself to sleep.
For 10 days, my son and I stayed at the Ronald McDonald House. Every morning we were greeted with fresh baked goods from the St. Louis Bread Company, and every night someone had prepared a meal for the residents of the house. There were games for my son, books and TV for me, and as much space as I needed to grieve and ponder.
That house was part of my transition into being a parent of a child with a disability. Without that stability, I would never have managed the pain and fear that threatened our whole family. Without a place to rest every night, I would have come apart, and my son would have had no one to turn to, no one to make him feel safe.
Since then, I’ve wanted to contribute to a Ronald McDonald House (or Ronald House, as my son called it) to pay back in a very small way the kindness that was given to me. I finally have the chance here in Portland, with a volunteer position at one of their two Ronald Houses.
There are a host of volunteer opportunities available at the Ronald House. I chose a few that were easiest for me to access quickly; baking, cooking and gardening. My first shift was on Valentine’s Day, and I arrived at just the wrong time: lunch. The quiet kitchen was suddenly flooded with families unpacking groceries and preparing their food. Four refrigerators’ doors were opened, four dishwashers accessed, sandwiches grilled, coffee brewed, and I stood in the middle of the enormous kitchen smack dab in the way.
Nobody seemed to mind the stranger at the counter stirring shortbread dough, striving to look unconcerned at being the oddball in the room. Everyone went about their business, chatting to each other about where they found rice vinegar and which store had the best produce. One mom asked what I was making, and we fell into a conversation about comfort food and Tillamook cheese. She shared her pear and cheese slices without comment, a gesture that reminded me of the comfortable familiarity of the Ronald House in St. Louis. Strange circumstances bring people across your path who become family, bonded by kindness.
Being in the Ronald House again put me back in touch with the pain that filled my life after my daughter was born. That delicate time, perforated by the unknown, by fear, crept back into my consciousness when I walked in. I looked at the parents as they prepared their lunches, and held a thought for the precariousness of this normalcy, a moment in the day when they’re not shuffling therapy appointments or surgery plans, holding puke buckets or helping position their child so the doctor can have a better look. This kitchen, with its comfort food and healthy food, with its abundance of materials and equipment, represents what the families have lost in their search for the best medical care for their child. The house offers predictability in insanely unpredictable circumstances.
For those 10 days when my world had capsized, the Ronald House was more than simply a refuge, it was bracing support, the warmth of comfort, and the ease of unquestioning love. The 300 Ronald McDonald Houses around the world give that same kindness to people every day. There is no way I’ll ever fully repay what the Ronald House did for me, but once a week, I will bake bread or muffins or cookies. It’s just a loaf of bread to me, a couple of hours. It means giving the families a little bit of the warmth of the homes they’ve had to leave behind, I can do that.
While the bread was baking, one of the residents commented on how comforting it smelled in the house, even down in the basement. Secretly, I smiled; mission accomplished.
Thank you, Ronald McDonald Houses, for giving all of us a home in our times of need.