©1999 by Michale Gabriel
This story was published in
Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body and Soul
edited by Diana von Welanetz and Dan Millman, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
Once upon a time in a not-so-far-away kingdom, there lived a little girl with a true and loving heart. She had been ill for a very long time with a disease that did not improve no matter how many physicians attended her. She was about to celebrate her 6th birthday and somehow she knew it would be her last. So, one night, the child searched the sky for a shining star to wish upon. Placing her tiny hand over her heart, she said, “I wish I could become a Fairy Tale Princess in a Magical Kingdom where all my dreams would come true.” She told no one about her wish. It was to be her secret.
Monday morning, 9:00 a.m. The phone rang. It was the director of the local Starlight Foundation. She had a request. Could I help plan a birthday party and perform a storytelling program for Jessica Hageman, a terminally ill cancer patient? Jessie would be turning six the following Monday. The family wanted to celebrate her birthday that Sunday.
She explained that Jessica’s battle with cancer had been a long one. Diagnosed with leukemia at 18 months, Jessie had received a series of treatments at Children’s Hospital including chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Despite all efforts to cure her, Jessica had relapsed from her transplant in December. The current prognosis gave her only several weeks to live.
Denise Hageman, Jessica’s mother, had called Starlight Foundation that morning, requesting names of volunteers who might create a birthday party for her child. Both Starlight Wish Grantor Kathy and I said “yes” to the request. Our challenge? Six days to create a memorable birthday celebration for a dying child.
As a first step, in determining the direction of the storytelling program, I phoned Denise. We talked at length about Jessica. We talked about the people she loved, the games she played, and the books she cherished. It became clear that stories, especially fantasy, had played an important role in Jessica’s life.
For as long as she could remember, Jessie had known intimately the dark side of the fairy tales she loved. No beast could have been more frightening, no apple more poisonous, and no battle more demanding than the insidious cancer that threatened her. Her mother was convinced that it was Jessie’s love of fairy tales that sustained her.
Jessica’s favorite story was Beauty and the Beast. She announced in pre-school one day that when she grew up she was going to be Belle (Beauty) and her brother Jaecob would be Beast. She was most familiar with the Disney version. Jessie had a home library of Magic Kingdom videotapes. Jessie loved Tales of Peter Rabbit, especially the time Peter got caught in Mr. McGregor’s gooseberry net. She adored The Steadfast Tin Soldier because of his undying love for the paper ballerina. She loved Uncle Wriggly because the story was as old as her grandma. She delighted in hearing the sounds of the silver bells on Santa’s sleigh in The Polar Express. The Three Bears, The Three Pigs, and Hansel and Gretel were just a few of the traditional tales that permanently resided in her head and heart.
After I hung up, I sat quietly at my desk, surrounded by hundreds of children’s books, toys, dolls, teddy bears, puppets, and whimsical hats, the phone still warm in my hand. I was thinking about all the stories I could tell that would have delighted Jessie and her friends. However, as I reflected on my conversation with Denise, a series of word picture images, like video clips appeared in my head. As I watched them, I could feel my heart beat faster. Unexpected tears began to flow. I saw a story yet untold. And then I heard it. The inner voice. The one that speaks to me whenever I am willing to listen. It said:
“Michale, though this child would be delighted to hear most any story, she needs her own voice. You are to create an original story for her, a fairy tale. Jessica is to be the heroine. Create a story that helps her face her fear of death, acknowledges her courage and celebrates the many ways she touches the lives of others. A story filled with the promise of Once Upon A Time and the resolution of Happily Ever After. The Birthday Event will form the landscape upon which to build the tale. The story will reveal itself as you go along. Create a healing memory for her family and friends that will remain in their hearts forever.”
My response? “Oh no,” I said, “I don’t do original.” You will this time. “You don’t understand. I do retellings, and rather well, I might add.” That is not what this child needs. She needs her own voice. Her own story. “I’m afraid,” I whispered. “What if I can’t do it? What if I let her down?” We will help you. The “I” had become “we”. Now it was a chorus. I recognized the voices. I had heard them before. Their guidance was not to be taken lightly.
I called Denise back and told her what I would like to do. I described the pictures of the story I had seen in my mind. She began to cry. “Michale,” she said, “I knew I wanted a very special birthday celebration for my daughter. But it had no form. I did not know what it was to look like. Until now. You are speaking my dream. I think you are speaking Jessie’s dream, too.”
“I will need to interview family and friends,” I explained. “I need to step inside your daughter’s heart if I am to create a story that will serve her at this time of transition.” By that afternoon, Jessica’s father Jim had faxed me a list of names and phone numbers of family, friends and medical staff. As I began to make the calls, taking pages of notes, a picture of Jessica was emerging in my mind. I could feel her in my heart.
Each phone call provided an opportunity for an exchange of stories about the people we loved, our attitudes and feelings about death, our shared human values. These were not easy conversations, though they were enriching, authentic, filled with cleansing tears and sacred silences. In the face of death, we are given the opportunity to speak our deepest truths. Between the calls, the plans for the celebration began to unfold. The fairy tale customarily begins with the line, “Once upon a time.” So I had my opening. Fairy tales need a likable hero or heroine. I certainly had that in Jessica. But for what reason would the heroine set out on a journey? What is the heroine searching for? And just what is the conflict? How does the heroine get herself out of this difficulty? What are her resources, attributes, strengths, gifts? And when she returns home safely, what will be her reward?
I invoked the blessings of the Muse of Story to move swiftly in the creation of this child’s dream. I listened to the voices that were directing this effort. Almost immediately, colorful story threads began to weave their way into my mind from basket upon basket of possibilities. I saw a series of images showing what that event could look like. Castles and carriages, crowns and gowns, regalia and royalty, story and song. And in the midst of it all, a brave and courageous Princess named Jessica, who had a kind and loving heart.
“But where do I go from here,” I thought.
The story will come to you as you do the planning. You must trust.
So, I began to create the setting for her party. First, we needed the perfect backdrop for a little girl who adored playing with her dollies and decorating their houses in all her favorite colors. Solution? We contacted the Rosalie Whyle Museum of Doll Art in Bellevue. The ambiance of the stately building and its exquisite interiors along with its internationally acclaimed doll collection, would provide the magical setting we were looking for. The founder and director, who was a personal friend, not only donated the museum for Jessie’s party (which she agreed to rename the Fairy Tale Palace for the occasion), but she agreed to dress-up as Queen of the Palace. Her staff would be Ladies-in-Waiting.
Queen Rosie had her Royal Signmaker prepare a sign that read,
Ladies and Gentlemen
Of course, all the dolls were informed of the party and they were eagerly anticipating Jessica’s arrival. Indeed, the whole palace was buzzing with excitement. Now that the princess had her palace, I could begin her story.
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom, there lived a princess with a true and loving heart. Her name was Jessica. She lived with her mother and father, the King and Queen, her brother Prince Jaecob and her sister Princess Amber in a golden palace by the sea.
If this was a story about a princess then she had to look like one. I contacted a woman whose specialty was giving fairy godmother parties. Jacqueline agreed to transform Jessica and her 16 birthday playmates into princesses by dressing them in gowns of shimmering satin and adorning them with sequined tiaras, evening gloves, feather boas, and sparkling jewelry. And she thought she had capes and crowns for the princes as well. Twenty minutes after our initial conversation, she called back to say that she wanted to create a custom-made ball gown for Jessica. “This child moves my heart,” she said, “I want to do this for her.” And with a wave of her wand, she did. The gown was made of white iridescent satin trimmed with strands of pink pearls on the bodice and pink satin roses blooming between fabric flower petals, on the skirt.
Princess Jessica loved to dress up in taffeta ball gowns because they made crisp, crunching sounds when she walked. She loved swirling round and round the palace ballroom and then quickly sitting down. If she did it just right, her skirts spread into perfect circles every time. From the moment Jessica left her home in Auburn, I wanted her to feel as if she was entering a Magical Kingdom touched with wonder and fairy dust. For the magic to work, Jessica and her Court of princesses and princes and her parents, the King and Queen, needed to arrive at the Palace in character. That meant they needed to change into their Royal costumes someplace close by. So, I contacted the Bellevue Public Library, which sits on the same city block, and asked if the birthday entourage could change into their Court wardrobe, there. “But, of course,” they said, for they were only too pleased to support a child’s love of “Once Upon A Time.” Interestingly enough, the Bellevue Library Children’s Room is decorated in a palace theme, featuring brightly painted turrets with banners flying and a special child-size entrance to the Story Hour Castle! To transport the Princess and her Court from the Library to the Palace, we decided to create a processional. This way the children could parade in their finery and be admired by all who passed by. Leading the procession would be Princess Jessie riding in a “gilded carriage,” a well-disguised wheel chair covered with yards and yards of gold brocade.
We decided that the children’s arrival at the palace needed to be heralded by the sound of trumpets. So the search began for trumpeters to announce their coming. By Friday – and 30 phone calls later – my partner Kathy had produced three volunteer music makers! A costume shop donated their courtly attire: red velvet tunics bearing the Royal Crest, jeweled pendants and black breeches.
Next on the list: A royal crown. I saw it clearly in my mind. The crown would become an interactive piece of the story. Family and friends would come forward one by one and decorate it with jewels during the telling of the fairy tale. With the addition of each jewel, the guests could offer Jessica a birthday wish. Symbolically, it would become a crown of friendship and serve as a visual reminder of the love and devotion everyone felt for her.
I called my costume designer. Yes, she was willing to make the crown. Deanna, who was recovering from cancer surgery herself, designed a circular band of quilted rose- colored silk that could rest gently on Jessica’s head. She decorated it with handmade rosebuds, seed pearls, and gold trailing leaves. Small pieces of Velcro® encircled the crown, waiting expectantly to be covered with Velcro-backed diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires by the guests. The veil was made of gently cascading pink net and it formed a billowy cloud around Jessie’s head. I incorporated Deanna into the story as the Royal Crown maker and her nine-year-old daughter Colette became the Royal Handmaiden.
At the King’s command, the Royal crown maker appeared, bearing Princess Jessica’s new birthday crown. A wide band of pink brocade edged in seed pearls and gold leaves formed the circle of the crown. A billowing cloud of pink net cascaded down the back. But strangely enough, there were no jewels adorning it. At the crown maker’s side stood the Royal Handmaiden holding a heart-shaped box. Pointing to the box, the king said, “Dear Guests: Inside this box are the jewels for Princess Jessica’s crown. Each of you may choose a stone to decorate her new crown. Each time she wears it, she will be reminded of your gift of friendship.”
Then the Royal Handmaiden walked among the guests and everyone selected a jewel from the heart-shaped box…
My interview with Dr. Jim Miser revealed he was more than the Director of the Department of Oncology at Children’s Hospital and Jessica’s physician. He was her trusted friend. He was one of her earthly angels whose knowledge and wisdom had given Jessica an additional year of life because of her transplant. Though he often saw her sick, he commented on what an affectionate child she was. She started out each exam expecting to be tickled and never ended a visit without asking a question or two about his family. Dr. Miser’s name appeared at the very top of Jessica’s Birthday Party guest list. I knew he planned to attend, but could he don a costume and assume the role of Court Physician? “But of course,” he said, in the true spirit of make-believe. He even offered to bring along his hospital sidekick puppet, Donald Duck, to share in the festivities.
Then the Royal Cook appeared bearing a magnificent three-tiered birthday cake covered with pink frosting, pink roses, and six flaming pink candles. The Court Musician trilled a tune on her flute and everyone sang, “Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you! Happy birthday, Princess Jessica. Happy Birthday to you! “Now you make a wish,” they all shouted. And the Princess did. She blew out her candles in one breath.
A local market donated Jessie’s cake. When the pastry chef told me she would create a three-tiered cake fit for a Princess, I incorporated her into the story as the Royal Cook. She wore a chef’s hat, made herself a chef’s apron and with puff paints and glitter, and inscribed the words “Royal Cook” on the front.
Everyone was participating in the magic of Jessica’s day! The Seattle Repertory Theatre donated a royal throne. Local stores donated bouquets of balloons, and the local cable television station donated video coverage of the entire party so that the family would have a keepsake of the day. All the pieces were coming together. Kathy and I felt as if we were riding on angel wings.
Every day I called Denise at home and Jim at work to tell them the miracles that had occurred since our last communication. I also told them fairy tales: for nourishment and for strength. Later, they would describe this time of enchantment as if they were “wrapped in a nurturing and protective cocoon, a safe place where the pain could not touch them.” They kept me posted on Jessie’s prognosis. Her condition was fragile but holding. The thread of this event emerged as a lifeline for the family. A light in the darkness of the reality that was ever present. Often, I would listen deep into the night to a mother’s grief, a father’s pain, a relative’s anger. No part of my own heart was allowed to go untouched by this experience. To truly serve Jessie, I could not hide behind a mask. I could not separate myself from her. I thought of her throughout the day. With each idea that emerged, I asked the question, “Is this right for you, Jessie?” And I always received an answer through the stories her loved ones had shared with me and through the connection I felt to her.
It was 11 p.m. Saturday. Everything was in place for Jessica’s birthday celebration the next day. Except, that is, for the story I was to tell. It wasn’t quite finished. I had the setting (Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom) and a likable heroine (there lived a beautiful Princess who had a kind and loving heart). I had a happy ending (the birthday celebration at the palace where I had been investing most of my time because it involved other people). What I was missing was the middle of the story. I needed to identify the conflict that was to occur and come up with a hero-inspired way out. Jessica was certainly living this reality every day of her life, but what was metaphor that could express it in fairy tale form?
I sat quietly; windows open, listening to the sounds of the creek rounding the bend outside my house. The pages of notes that I had been taking all week surrounded me. I could feel this little girl’s presence in my heart. I wanted to create something that would truly serve her, a healing metaphor that would help her face her death with courage. I sat, waiting for the voice of my Story Muse to speak to me. Then I saw him in my mind’s eye. A hairy, misshapen Giant, living in a cave overgrown with mosses and ferns. A giant whose need to be understood causes the princess to overcome her fear and go to him. The middle of the story was finally coming! I picked up the story where I had left off and I began to write… In the same Kingdom, there was a deep, dark wood, overgrown with brambles, mosses and ferns. A terrible giant lived in that wood. No one had ever seen him, though everyone feared him. No one ever ventured into this wood, for fear they would never return. The people could hear the giant’s thunderous footsteps by day. But by night, they could hear him weeping. No one in the kingdom knew the reason for his tears. Each and every night the Princess would sit at her bedroom window, listening to the Giant. She felt his sadness in her own heart.
One day, the King announced there was going to be a grand party in celebration of Princess Jessica’s sixth birthday. Invitations edged in gold were sent to the 18 princes and princesses who lived in the neighboring kingdoms. “Dear Jessie,” said the King, “what gift would you like the Queen and I to give you for your birthday?” The Queen added, “You may have whatever your heart desires, my dear.”
The Princess thought and thought. Finally, one night as she sat at her window listening to the sound of the giant’s crying, Princess Jessica made her decision. She searched the dark sky for the first star of night. When she found it, she placed her hand over her heart and said, “Starlight, star bright. First star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might have the birthday wish I wish tonight. I want to go into the woods and make friends with the lonely giant who lives there.” And then she crawled into her feather bed and fell asleep.
The next morning, Jessie went into her parent’s bedchamber and told them what she wanted for her birthday. “Why, that’s impossible!” protested the King. “Make friends with the giant? Totally out of the question!” cried the Queen. “It cannot be done.” But the Princess insisted. “It is my birthday wish,” she declared. And so, with heavy hearts, the King and Queen, accompanied by all the members of the kingdom, took Princess Jessica to the edge of the deep, dark wood. Everyone watched as Princess Jessica entered the woods, her moss-colored blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
The brambles closed in behind her. As Princess Jessica walked along she sang a song to give her courage. (Audience joins in singing “On top of Spaghetti,” which was one of Jessie’s favorites.) Two night fairies came to light her way as she walked deeper and deeper into the wood. Then the Princess heard crackling sounds beneath her feet and dark whispers all about her. She felt her fear returning when, suddenly, she saw Belle from Beauty and the Beast coming toward her. Belle took Princess Jessica’s hand and began to sing a song as she walked along beside her. home health workers who had asked if she could sing “A Dream is a Dream Your Heart Makes” at the party. This was the perfect spot. With her dark hair, porcelain skin, and yellow ball gown, Ellen looked like she had stepped out of the pages of a storybook. I incorporated her into this scene.
As she listened to the song, the Princess began to smile. She felt not quite so afraid. She waved goodbye to Belle and continued on, alone. Finally, Princess Jessica came to the deep dark cave that was home to the giant. It was overgrown with mosses and ferns. “Giant, are you there? “she called, “It’s me, Princess Jessica!”
“Who’s there?” he thundered. “It sounds like a child. Why have you come?” he bellowed.
“I came to make friends with you.” Jessica answered. “It’s my birthday wish.”
“What?” he yelled. “No one wants to make friends with a giant! Everyone is afraid of me!”
“I’m not,” she answered boldly. “Please come out of the cave so that I may see you.”
“I am afraid I will frighten you,” he cried.
“Perhaps at first,” she replied, “but once we get to know each other, I will not be afraid.”
“And how do we get to know each other?” He called out from deep inside the cave.
“We can play games together,” answered Jessie.
“Games?! Games?!” he said. “I do not know the meaning of the word ‘games.’ ”Come out and I will show you,” Jessica laughed.
|Suddenly the giant came lumbering out of his cave and the earth trembled beneath him. He was more frightening than the Princess had ever imagined. His long black hair was tangled and tousled, his eyes were the size of saucers, his nose was shaped like a cucumber and his long fingernails were filled with grime.
When she saw his face, the princess gasped. She had to look away. Just for just a moment. Then she remembered the sound of his tears. The Princess took a deep breath. She turned and faced the giant. With a smile in her voice, she said, “Please come over here, Giant, so we can play.” The giant moved closer. “The game I want to teach you is called ‘Hiding Under the Blanket.’ I play it with my mother and my father.” (This was Jessica’s favorite game.)
“How do we play this game?” he asked.
“Well, first thing I do is get under my blanket and hide.” she said. Then you walk all about calling, ‘Jessica, where are you?’ I will cough like this, ‘Heh, heh, heh,’ but you will act like you don‘t hear me. And you will call out, ‘Jessica where are you? I can’t find you anywhere!’ And I will laugh, like this, ‘Ha ha ha ha,’ but you must still act like you don’t hear me. Then all of a sudden, I will throw off my blanket and say, ‘Here I am, Giant!’ And you must act very surprised and say, ‘There you are!’ O.K, are you ready, Giant?” she asked.
“Ready!” he shouted. And the Princess crawled underneath her blanket. The giant called out in his big giant voice, “Jessica, where are you?” And from underneath the blanket came a little sound, “heh, heh, heh.” “Jessica where are you? I can’t find you anywhere?’ Suddenly, Princess Jessica threw back her blanket and cried, “Here I am!!” And the giant laughed and laughed.
“I love this game,” the giant said. “Now it’s my turn to get underneath the blanket and you can look for me!”
“Giant!!” the princess laughed. “You are TOO big for my blanket. It would not even cover your big toe!”
“Ohhh, it wouldn’t?” he sighed. “What a shame. So, what should we do next?” “Let’s sing and dance together,” she said.
“Sing? Dance?” he exclaimed, “I do not know these words, sing and dance.”
“I will teach you my favorite dance. It’s called the Hokey Pokey,” she explained. “Now, put your right hand in from of you.”
“Will this hurt?” he asked.
“No,” she laughed. So the giant put his right hand out in front of him.
“Now, you must do what I do,” she instructed. The Princess began to dance and sing. And the giant did the same. The giant danced so hard the trees shook.
“I love this singing and dancing!” he shouted. “When you sing and dance, you do not feel like crying.”
When they finished, he held Jessie’s tiny hands and said, “Dear Princess what a brave and courageous little girl, you are. To come all this way to be my friend. It is your birthday and yet look at what you have done. You have given me a present! You have given me the gift of your friendship. Now that I have a friend who understands me, I do not have to cry anymore.”
The Princess smiled, happily. “It was my birthday wish,” she said proudly.
“And I thank you for it,” the giant said. “Now I am going to make you a promise in return. Should you ever return to this wood, I want you to remember this. I will be here waiting for you. I shall protect you and keep you safe and be your friend forever.”
And with that, the giant hugged the Princess and she hugged him in return. Two little night fairies perched on her shoulders and guided her back along the path leading to the edge of the wood. Jessie turned and called out, “Friends?” And she heard in the darkness, the giant’s voice reply, “forever!”
With that part of the story finally in place, I said a prayer for Jessica and went to bed for a few hours.
The next morning, while I was practicing telling the story, I knew that 26 pink and purple balloons (Jessie’s favorite colors) were being filled with helium at the local Ben Franklin store. The trumpeters were practicing, the princess gowns were being loaded into the Fairy Godmother’s van, and the dolls at the Fairy Tale Palace were lining up for review. Even the sun, so long hidden from view, was coming up over the rim of the world. It was a day for making a little girl’s dreams come true.
And then came a phone call that shattered the morning stillness. At 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning, Jessie suffered a stroke. She could not focus her eyes. Her speech was slurred. She could not sit up. Her left side was not functioning. There could be no party.
We could not believe what we were hearing. This little girl had suffered so much. It didn’t seem fair. It was to be her special day. Her chance to touch magic. How could such a celebration of love come to this end?
The Hagemans were devastated. We were bewildered. Our heads were filled with questions for which we had no answers. All we could do was reach out to Jessie and her family through our thoughts and prayers. With heavy hearts, we began calling everyone involved. People asked, “Will it be re-scheduled?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “A new chapter of her story is being written, even as we speak, but it is not available for us to read yet. We must wait until the ink dries.” I believed in my heart that a Master Plan was at work, even though I could not comprehend it. And there was only one thing we could do. Trust.
Kathy and I exchanged hushed phone calls as we waited for news. A health care team had been dispatched to the home. Dr. Miser had been reached by pager. Denise and Jim were planning to move Jessie to Children’s Hospital by late afternoon for tests. And all I could think about was that giant in the wood.
Finally, around 4 p.m., I called the Hagemans. Jim answered the phone. I could hear the pain in his voice. “Jim,” I said, “I know you are leaving for the hospital in a few minutes but I feel it’s important I tell you Jessie’s completed fairy tale. Should you want her to hear it, I will come. Anytime. Anywhere. Day or night.” And then I told him Jessie’s fairy tale. There was silence on the other end of the line. Then I heard the sounds of a father weeping. Through his tears, he said, “Thank you. That story is not just for Jessie. It’s for me, too.” We said goodbye.
I sat quietly, for a long, long time, the final threads of Jessie’s story flapping loosely in the wind. And inside my head, on automatic rewind, I could hear the words, “Not my will but Thy will be done” playing again and again and again.
9 a.m. Monday. The phone rang. It was Jessie’s mother. Jessica had returned home from the hospital. She had slept peacefully during the night. Upon waking, she had only one question. “Can I still have my party?” she asked. So, what did we think? Could we modify the plans to accommodate her condition? Secure the castle? Refill the balloons? Salvage the cake? Enlist all the volunteers? Call all the guests? Create the enchantment? Our answer? “Absolutely!” And we began to rally the troops.
The party could not be held until 6 p.m. because of the fairy godmother’s scheduling conflict. That worked perfectly because the doll museum closed at 5 p.m., which meant we could have the space to ourselves. Rosie had already said she would keep the museum open for us and all of her staff volunteered to stay and help.
The library was closed because of President’s Day. No problem. The walking processional needed to be dropped from the program, anyway. It was too taxing. The trumpeters were unavailable due to a prior engagement. No problem. We no longer needed their triumphant sounds, given Jessie’s fragile condition. What we needed was the gentle beckoning of the flute to accompany her journey through the castle. I called a musician friend, who donned a medieval beret, tunic and breeches to become our “Pied Piper of Music.”
A portable daybed was secured from Children’s Hospital for Jessie to lie upon. We plumped it with soft pillows and then wrapped the bed in yards of purple silk. Arrangements were made for the Hageman’s and their nurse to arrive before the other guests. This way Jessie would have time to dress and adjust to her new surroundings before her guests joined her.
The parents told me Jessie was crying in pain as they drove away from their home in Auburn enroute to Bellevue. Were it not for their child’s resolve to celebrate her birthday, they might have turned back. But once they arrived at the Palace and were greeted by Queen Rosie in her crown of pink shimmering stars, the spell of Once Upon a Time embraced her. Jessie stepped into pages of her very own fairy tale and her pain was left behind.
As the children arrived and began to dress-up as princes and princesses, wonder and laughter filled the room.
“Look mommy, look at me!” cried Princess Amber, Jessie’s sister, as she swirled round and round in her purple taffeta skirt, waving her glittering bracelets for all to see.
“Look!” squealed another, “My crown is made of diamonds!” As excited as they were, when the children approached the bedside of Princess Jessica, they spoke in hushed, lullaby tones. Their hands reached out and gently touched hers. And their hearts connected.
Then children began to take turns standing next to her, giving the appearance of little sentinels, whose duty it was to protect this day of enchantment for their special friend. When the Pied Piper sounds of the flute beckoned everyone to travel to the wings of the Palace where the dolls were housed, the children waited patiently as Princess Jessica’s royal bed made its way down the marble corridor. Then the processional of children, parents and friends fell into place behind her.
Hundreds of dolls called out their greetings as Queen Rosie guided Princess Jessica from one hall to the next. Every now and then, the dolls gave Jessica quite a knowing look and when they did, her father, King Jim (dressed in a royal robe) would smile and whisper the doll’s message in her ear. The Princess was entranced.
After the tour, and some twirling practice guided by the Fairy Godmother, the entourage returned to the Throne Room for the storytelling. I started with an audience participation tale, “The Turnip,” which I adapted to a palace setting with a king, queen, princess, dog, cat, and mouse. Jessica’s eyes opened wide, as she joined in on the vocal refrains. Her father gently guided her hands in the accompanying movements. Then I sat down and moved in closer to Princess Jessie and began to speak the words of her story:
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom, there lived a princess with a true and loving heart. Her name was Jessica. She lived with her mother and father, the King and Queen, her brother, Prince Jaecob, and her sister, Princess Amber, in a golden palace by the sea…
The story unfolded like a flower, petal by petal, and was adapted and adjusted in the moment to meet her needs. There was a hush in the room as everyone, lent their imagination to the creation of the tale. The children were awed by Beauty’s singing, and joined me in dancing the Hokey Pokey while Jessie looked on in wonder. Each of the children came forward to place a jewel on Jessie’s crown and offer her a birthday wish. The children spoke directly from their hearts.
“Thank you for sharing your dolls with me,” exclaimed Princess Victoria.
“Whenever I make funny fish faces, I will remember you taught me how to do it,” laughed Princess Natasha.
“I like it when you wipe my tears away if I cry,” said Prince Robbie.
When the Royal Cook presented the birthday cake aglow with six pink birthday candles, Jessica sang “Happy Birthday” to herself! Then, with the help of the King and Queen and her brother and sister, she blew out the candles with one collective family breath. The story continued with the opening of the gifts. With the Queen’s help, Jessica tore the paper from the packages. She let everyone know that she would open her own packages, thank you very much. Later, the Princess sat on the Royal Throne, in her mother’s lap, eating birthday cake. First, she gave herself a piece and then she gave one to her mother.
As Dr. Miser and I stood bearing witness to this heartfelt scene, he said, “Never would I have believed that this little girl, who could not even take her medication yesterday, would be opening packages and eating birthday cake today. It is a miracle.” And indeed it was.
Jessica’s fairy tale told itself. Indeed, even in that short time because of the intensity of the circumstances and because of the intent of the gift, it had developed its own soul.
The spell lasted until the last guest left. We watched as the Hagemans made their way out the door, with little Jessie tucked securely under her green blanket, her dog Tasha cradled in her arms (whom her grandmother had slipped past the “guards” when they weren’t looking) we stood quietly. Reverently. Deep in our own thoughts. Acknowledging the miracle of this day, each in our own way.
Through the language of the human heart, we had come to know her story. By stepping into Jessica’s life, we looked through the window of her soul. She had touched us deeply with her magic. It was her birthday, yet she had given us a gift. In a Once Upon a Time place where time stood still and all our dreams came true.
Over the next three weeks, I went to Jessica’s home and told her all her favorite stories: The Three Bears, The Three Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, The Polar Express. She asked me to tell her Robin Hood, too but my memory failed me. I had to refer to the book! I also created stories to help her with her transition. During each visit, I told stories to Amber and Jaecob as well.
I was there the day Jessie slipped into her coma. Jim came to me and said, “Michale, what can I do for her?” I said, “Jim, she can hear you. Do what you have always done. Read to her.” One of the most precious memories I have of this family is that of Denise, lying on the bed with Jessie and Jim sitting next to them with a child on each knee, reading aloud the Lady and the Tramp.
Jessica Hageman died at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 10, 1994, at home, cradled in the loving arms of her parents.
At the request of Jim and Denise, I told Jessie’s life story at her funeral. To my right was a table filled with her favorite books and toys. In the place of honor was Jessie’s favorite teddy bear bearing her royal crown from her party. The church lectern held her ball gown and a single red rose rested on her casket, I began the story.
Once upon a time there was a child, who was about to be born, The child was invited by the angels to choose the gift she wanted to bring with her to the earth. Suddenly, there appeared in the heavens before her, an array of magnificent golden tablets. Each tablet bore the name of a gift. On one was the word: truth. On another: compassion. On yet another was inscribed the word: laughter, “Which one do you choose, dear child?” they asked. As the child looked, one tablet shown more brightly and spoke to her more clearly than all the others. Inscribed on its face were the words: unconditional love. “That is the gift I choose to bring to the earth,” said the child. The Angels looked at each other knowingly and said, “It is yours.”
I then chronicled Jessica’s life upon the earth. I wove together specific stories from my many interviews with family, friends, and health care providers of how she touched lives through the power of her love. It was no wonder that Beauty and the Beast was her favorite fairy tale. In her own personal mythology, Jessie’s pure heart, steadfast love and extraordinary courage transformed everyone who came to know her.
My funeral message celebrated Jessie’s return to heaven, where her favorite storybook characters bid her farewell as she made her way down the darkened corridor toward the light.
Charlotte the spider spun a beautiful web and at its center were the words, “Some Terrific Princess.” Just as he had done for the child in the Polar Express, Santa Claus ordered his elf to cut a silver bell from his sleigh for Jessie. She shook the bell and it was the most magical sound she had ever heard. Peter Rabbit gave her the golden button from his blue jacket that he had caught in Mr. McGregor’s gooseberry net. Uncle Wiggly composed a long poem for her filled with the big words she loved so much.
When Jessie made her way across the threshold into heaven, the Littlest Angel was waiting for her. And in his hands he held the shining star of Bethlehem. The heavenly host escorted Jessie before the throne of God. And God said, “Many of my children have gone to earth and not realized their gifts, even though they lived a lifetime. You dear child, in your few short years, realized your gifts to the fullest.” God took Jessie by the hand and said, “Look, dear one.” He then showed Jessie all the people whose lives she had touched. And all the lives those people would touch because of her.
“But my parents, dear Lord,” she said, looking concerned. “Will they be all right? They were so sad to see me go.” “Look, dear one.” God answered. Then God showed Jessie the golden tablets bearing the gifts of her mother and father. Her mother’s tablet bore the words: truth and wisdom. Her father’s tablet bore the words: love and family.
“Your parents discovered their gifts because of you,” God continued, “And now they will express their gifts each and every day of their lives.”
“And my brother Jaecob and my sister Amber.” Jessie asked, “what about them?”
“They will remember you and love you in their hearts forever, He answered gently. “Just as you will always love and remember them. So my child, this calls for a great celebration. How would you like to mark your return to heaven?”
“Well, dear Lord,” responded Jessie, “While I was on the earth, I celebrated my 6th birthday. But I wasn’t feeling very well. Now, that I’m feeling wonderfully, may I celebrate my birthday again? Here in heaven? With the angels?”
God said, “So Be It.”
“And dear Lord, at my party,” smiled Jessie, “my friends and I dressed up like Princes and Princesses. My friends bowed and curtsied to each other. Can the angels dress up like princes and princesses? Can we bow and curtsey to each other?”
God said, “So be it.”
(I then asked the Congregation to imagine themselves as angels, and invited them to rise and bow and curtsey to each other. They did.)
“Then the storyteller told my story about making friends with the giant in the woods,” continued Jessie, “everyone danced and sang the Hokey, Pokey. But I wasn’t feeling very well. So I didn’t get to join in. Now that I’m feeling wonderfully, I’d like to do it here. In heaven. With the angels.”
God said, “So Be It.”
(The whole congregation then joined me in singing and dancing the Hokey Pokey for Jessie!)
I then told Jessie’s family and friends how my life had been forever changed by knowing her. In giving her a voice, I had found my own voice. In giving her my heart, I reconnected with my own heart. Such was the transforming power of her love. She created a legacy that will live on into eternity.
“…and that is the story of Angel Princess Jessica Belle who is now living Happily Ever, in the Ever After.”