“You’re lucky,” Annika Johnson tells her son, Bo.
He has been diagnosed with leukemia. He’ll be stuck in the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin for the next six months, undergoing four rounds of chemotherapy. He’ll miss his seventh grade football and basketball seasons, and he can only hope he’ll be out of the hospital in time for Cal Ripken baseball in the spring.
But the 12-year-old, she says, is lucky.
“You have all these people who care about you, Bo,” Annika tells him when he asks her why so many people are sending him cards and gifts. “What if you were the kid that nobody cared about?”
It sounds impossible, the idea of a boy and his family going through hell, alone. But Annika says she has knows that not every community rallies like her hometown of Sister Bay.
Bo was diagnosed Oct. 8. By the following weekend the village was flooded with GO BO! ribbons, hats, and signs. His classmates were raising money to help out the family, and thousands of people had visited his CaringBridge website. At Al Johnson’s, the family restaurant where Annika Johnson works with her brothers Lars and Rolf, former employees showed up at the door.
They tell Rolf and Lars that they can’t fit into their dirndl anymore, but they’ll work in their regular clothes.
“We’re very fortunate with this family business that my sister can be there with Bo,” Rolf says. “Everybody else is picking up the slack.”
Meanwhile, at the hospital they’ve met many kids spending their days alone.
“I meet some of these other parents, single parents who don’t have the option to be here all the time,” Annika says. “Parents who don’t have insurance or have other kids at home or that have to work. I’m lucky.”
A father from Milwaukee told Rolf that in the city, your own neighbors might not even know you were sick.
“Up here,” Rolf says from a table in the corner of Al Johnson’s, “the whole community knows right away, and they all show up. It’s hard to describe, but even if they’re not, they just seem like family.”
On Oct. 23 an estimated 700 people turned out at a benefit for Randy Pluff, a Sister Bay father of two who found out last May that he had a brain tumor. One man was overheard at the event saying: “There were 53 people in my class. Fifty-two of them are here, and the other one is dead. That’s a pretty good turnout.”
You see it often on the peninsula – people often no better off than their neighbor giving their time and money to help him or her through the toughest of times. It is so common that one could be forgiven for believing it happens everywhere. That every child would feel the world behind them.
But Rolf has visited the webpages of other kids on Bo’s floor who have become an inspiration for Bo. Kids who have been in the hospital for years, kids who have been dealt one debilitating blow after another, kids who don’t have nearly the support network that Bo has found in just three weeks.
“I gotta think it’s just where you live,” Rolf says.
On Bo’s floor, everybody is going through their own hell, Annika says. “I’ve only been here three weeks, I’m just a newborn.”
Young children walk the halls with medicine bags and poles for IVs, a scene that can’t help but humble you, Rolf says.
“You’re dealing with your own issue, and nothing’s worse than your own issue when you’re going through it,” Rolf says. “But after a while you start looking around. For crying out loud some of these kids, they’re taking their first steps dragging along a bag of medicine. Their first words are the words the doctors are exchanging back and forth. Their first words aren’t baseball, or doll. It’s leukemia.
“Their spirit is unbelievable,” he continues. “They’re chipper and I’m walking in there all glum. And I see them, and I think, I gotta change my attitude.”
Annika never thought she would be the one dealing with a child with cancer. The experience has already changed her.
“When I see a child with cancer now, I wonder if that family needs something right now, or if that kid needs something,” she says. “It’s totally different. I can’t imagine being a kid here alone.”
Bo isn’t, not in the hospital, and not back home. And that’s why she can tell a 12 year-old boy in the fight of his life that he’s lucky.