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Thursday December 9, 2010 5:14 PM

The Master Plan


Rockets visit Ronald McDonald House for holidays, end up on receiving end

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - This is the holiday image no one would ever wish to see: a fragile-looking wisp of a teen girl, wearing a respiratory mask over her mouth and a fuzzy green beanie on her bald head, hunched over on the couch, arms crossed tightly to her chest in an apparent effort to prevent even the slightest hint of heat from escaping her delicate, vulnerable body. She sits alone, barely moving, head occasionally bowed, other times staring straight ahead.

All around her are the remnants of the Rockets’ holiday visit to the Ronald McDonald House of Houston: a towering, fully decorated Christmas tree, a glowing menorah, gift wrapping all over the floor and several dozen still-buzzing children and adults giddy following their opportunity to hang out with a handful of their favorite Rockets players.

Half an hour ago, this massive living room was teeming with life, laughter and perma-smiles as Chuck Hayes, Chase Budinger, Ish Smith, Courtney Lee, Jermaine Taylor and Jordan Hill handed out presents and posed for pictures with the kids and families who call this place home while receiving treatment for the critical illnesses they are attempting to overcome. It’s calmer now – some clans quietly converse over cookies while others busy themselves with clean up duty – the earlier electricity fading like the last hint of sunlight on the horizon.

Seemingly unaffected by the scene sits this solitary figure, alone with her thoughts. Alone. That is the word which keeps resonating. Alone, alone, alone. How much horror lies entombed within that word, eager to escape at a moment’s notice to feast and prey upon our deepest, darkest fears and insecurities; its power to haunt only heightened during the holiday season. Such demons do not belong here but surely make themselves right at home in places such as these. In fact it’s probably among their favorite feeding grounds given the infinite supply of uncertainty and angst which inevitably reside here.

Is that what’s taking place now within the mind of this child? A faceless fear and loneliness doing their best to consume a fragile psyche? Looking at her languid form, it’s impossible not to fear the worst.

Until, that is, she begins to speak, shattering every single preconception in the process.

Her voice is weak; so weak, in fact, you have to lean in close to hear clearly while her mask is still on. But that first impression, too, is immediately smashed to smithereens by the sheer force of her words which positively crackle with power, conviction and life. This is no wilting wallflower. Perish the thought. Even the gargantuan, illuminated evergreen nearby was dwarfed the moment she opened her mouth.

Her name is Harley Davidson. Seriously. Because, she quips, when you’re last name is Davidson, what else are you going to call your child? The real story behind her name is slightly more rational but no less outlandish. Prior to the birth of his first and only child, Mr. Davidson was apparently desperate for a motorcycle but his wife wouldn’t allow it. So they reached an acceptable compromise: he received naming rights, allowing him his special edition, one-of-a-kind Harley, a model with more horse power than anything else on the road.

Understand this about Harley: she’s 13 but speaks as if she’s 33 – minimum. She’s straight out of Hollywood central casting. There’s none of the typical teenage vernacular; instead she uses words like “irk” and “appalling” to describe her feelings toward the disrespectful way other teens tend to treat their parents. What’s more, she’s self aware enough to realize that she’s prone to the occasional bout of parental teen torment herself.

When she was 9-years-old, Harley and her family knew something was wrong when she returned from a fun day out with her father looking like she’d participated in an NFL game without the benefit of pads or a helmet. She had bruises all over her body despite having done nothing of consequence. For two years she was misdiagnosed, receiving treatments that were ineffective against the particular blood disease she had developed. Knowing a different course of action was required, Harley’s parents took her to Houston’s MD Anderson Center where the medical staff there identified the real issue and recognized the need for her to receive a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. The procedure took place this past September.

Harley discusses her month-long stay in the hospital and current residence at Ronald McDonald House with the same nonchalance a typical person would use while recalling a routine checkup. But though she speaks like an adult, the truly captivating thing about this girl lies in the childlike enthusiasm that permeates her very being. It’s jarring to see someone appear so frail, only to find a lighting bolt within which doubles as their personality. Indeed, listening to Harley tell story after story is akin to the experience of touching one of those plasma nebula balls which respond to your every touch with mesmerizing bursts of electricity.

Only in my wildest dreams could I rattle off one amusing anecdote after another the way Harley does. She’s got a million of them. Like the one about her grandmother who, upon learning of Harley’s condition, wanted the family to move to Seattle and live with her because, “she’s the type of person who thinks anything can be cured with 6 cups of tea and a plate of kale.” Or the young child at RMH who’s so enamored with Harley’s lime green wig (note: she’s got a purple one as well, naturally) that he approaches her with nothing but innocence in his eyes, sweetly asks her to lean in closer, then suddenly snatches the hair off her head so he can run around the house waving it and squealing with delight.

As the party continues to die down and the surrounding people dissipate, Harley takes off her mask – a necessity only among crowds, she says – so she can be heard more clearly. Her smile, like everything else about her, is undeniably infectious. I think back once again to my laughably incorrect initial impression of Harley, feeling more than a little like Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber” (Samsonite – I was WAY off!). I sheepishly reveal my mistake to her and follow it up by commenting on how floored I am by her maturity. She takes it all in stride, saying she’s always been this way: preferring to sit back, observe her surroundings and take everything in. I tell her she has all the qualities necessary to be a great writer. Harley informs me that her dream is to be an architect.

And it’s at this exact moment, right around the time we start discussing Frank Lloyd Wright, that a lump begins to form in my throat. I’ve been here before. Literally. Two years ago I made my first visit to the Ronald McDonald House and befriended a girl by the name of Marissa Pino. She was 16 and battling bone cancer. She possessed a spirit similar to Harley’s. We’d speak of her hopes and dreams during my too infrequent follow-up visits, which came in between her myriad chemotherapy and radiation treatments. After awhile, the doctors told her they needed to amputate her leg in order to ensure the complete eradication of the cancerous cells in her body. Like the warrior she was, Marissa fully embraced the procedure – anything to be free of this insidious disease. Afterward, she went home to New Mexico with a smile on her face, ready to resume her life. One month later, she was back at Ronald McDonald House and so was the cancer – this time worse than ever before. Less than two months later, she was dead.

All these memories come flooding back as I listen to Harley regale me with one story after another. Her tale has to have a different ending than Marissa’s. It just has to. So many of us spend our lives fussing and fretting over the most inconsequential things, and in the process end up wasting the days which are guaranteed to no one. How cruel, then, to witness a premature end to the lives of those precious few souls who dare to dream big and live with the zeal of someone bound and determined to maximize every second of every day.

The good news is that all signs currently point to Harley’s 4-year struggle culminating with a happy ending. If her blood count reaches a high enough level, she might even be back home in Corpus Christi by Christmas. In fact, she’s already planning on reuniting with her friend Katherine and playing without the fear of coming away with a body full of bruises from the slightest touch (as Harley tells it, in years past “Katherine was a bulldozer and I was a tree”). And her face shines with the most ethereal light when she discusses plans to meet her mystery donor in two years, a person about whom her only knowledge at this point is that he’s a man from somewhere in Europe.

In the meantime, she takes joy from the little things, like her day to day progress and the fact that her gift from the Rockets is a lime-green iPod, a holiday miracle of sorts since her previous iPod, along with many other possessions, had been stolen from her home while her family was in Houston for her treatment.

Incredible, isn’t it? How one person, so seemingly frail and forlorn, could actually possess more than enough strength to help cleanse the heart of cynicism and heal a few old wounds in the process. You come here to help and to serve, and suddenly the tables get turned and you’re on the receiving end of everything. That always seems to be the lesson in these situations, yet somehow we have to learn it over and over again.

After awhile a voice rings out over the intercom announcing it’s time for dinner. Harley’s mother comes over to accompany her child to the table, where they’ll sit down for pizza, to be immediately followed by the construction of ginger bread houses. Harley slips on her mask, says goodbye and ambles toward the dining area – the sure to be superstar architect of the future anticipating her next project, blissfully unaware of the master plan she’s already designed.

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