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Once upon a time there was a writer who couldn’t think of a creative way to begin the story, so he decided to use a clichéd phrase normally reserved only for childish fairy tales. Then again this story is a little bit of a fairy tale, so I suppose it’s all good. Anyway, our story begins on a Wednesday...or was it Tuesday...on the third or fourth floor of Parker Medical Center in Plano, Texas.
“BING!” the elevator rang, and the doors swiftly swished open. One by one the occupants calmly walked out of the crowded little cube and onto the shiny white sterilized hospital floor. Out from the back of the pack popped a dozen balloons of every conceivable color...well every color the hospital gift shop could produce anyway. The dancing bubbles of helium swayed in the air conditioned breeze and tugged at the strings tied to the hearty hand of a moderately pale old man. He slowly shuffled his polished white shoes down the hall, his body weakly wobbling from side to side. Any passerby would think this was just a tired old man in a powder blue suit and red bow tie. He made his way to the receptionist desk.
“Pardon me, ma’am” he said with a slightly raspy voice, “but can you direct me to the children’s cancer ward?”
“And you are...” the mostly annoyed young receptionist said, expecting the man to complete her sentence.
“Bill Flaherty. I’m here to bring a little sunshine into their lives,” the old man smiled brightly enough to illuminate a small room.
The receptionist, now looking a little more frumpy than normal, didn’t appear to buy this old man’s story. “Visiting hours are from two-to-four,” the woman hardened her heart.
“Oh I won’t be long,” Bill sheepishly grinned.
“No, sir. You cannot go in there right now,” the receptionist snarled in the most polite way possible, as though she wanted to make sure those poor children were as miserable as possible in this sterilized concrete box of doctors and nurses. What is a person who hates children doing working in a children’s cancer ward. Maybe she just had a migraine headache. Bill started to shuffle towards the open doors where the childrens’ rooms were at.
“Sir, you can’t go in there! Sir!” the receptionist jumped from her chair and grabbed Bill by the arm.
Bill softly turned and put his gentle hand on the over stressed woman’s sore fingers. “Please. I won’t be long. I promise.” He smiled as he gazed into her eyes. The woman loosened her grip and smiled softly.
“Okay, just...please be quick about it,” she whispered. Bill resumed his shuffling towards the childrens’ chambers with an extra swift pace and slipped in the door. He took a seat next to the first bed in the room. The frail child couldn’t have been more than five years old.
“You brought me balloons?” the sleepy-eyed child in the first bed asked.
“I brought you all balloons,” Bill smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Billy,” the boy in the bed barked.
“Hey. That’s my name too,” Bill replied. “Now I’m going to tie this green balloon around your wrist so you don’t lose it, okay?”
“Okay,” little Billy said, holding an arm out. Bill’s weary old hands held the child’s wrist as he gracefully tied a little bow on it. One-by-one he gave each of the children a balloon, paying meticulous care to secure it to their wrists. Once each child had a balloon Bill walked to the door, turned and smiled.
“I wish all of you a happy, long, and healthy life; and remember that kindness pays you back twofold,” he said to the children. This was a rather peculiar thing to say, especially with the large amount of hopelessness that hung in the air in the cancer ward. However, he said this to every person he visited in the hospital.
“Are you from the Make a Wish Foundation?” a rather nosy doctor said, blocking Bill’s escape route from the reception desk.
“No no, my good man. I’m just here to make them happy,” Bill smiled.
The good doctor pulled Bill off to the side. “You know they all have some sort of terminal cancer,” he said in a hushed tone. “None of them will make it to see sixteen.”
“Now that’s a rather morbid thing to say,” Bill whispered to the doctor.
“You should go,” the doctor said, pointing towards the door.
Bill shook the doctor’s hand, and handed him the rest of the balloons. “Here, Doc. I’m sure you need these more than I do,” he laughed.
It was the same every Tuesday and Thursday. He had a small number of hospitals he frequented, but he never visited the same person twice. He had been doing this routine for about a year now. Occasionally he would stop by and see some of the adults that looked especially lonely, staying to at least hold their hand for a few minutes. That was all they really wanted; just some company for a brief period of time.
Two weeks later Bill decided to make another stop at Parker Medical Center. He normally doesn’t go back to the same hospital in such a short amount of time, but on this particular day he felt a certain need to come back. He bought a bushel of balloons from the gift shop and made his way back to the children’s terminal cancer ward. The same receptionist was there, however this time she was a little more perky.
“Hello. I’m Bill Flaherty. I was wondering if I could see the kids today.”
“Uh, Mr. Flaherty, there’s no one in there,” the receptionist said.
“Really?...Oh,” Bill’s smile dropped.
“No no. Nothing bad,” the woman smiled. “They all went home last week. Released with a clean bill of health.”
“Really?” Bill perked up. “The miracle of modern medicine. Uh, you wouldn’t happen to know of any other terminally ill patients I could visit while I’m here would you?”
Meanwhile, in a dark and secret boardroom somewhere in downtown Dallas, several powerful men in business suits were discussing important matters.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said a balding beanbag chair of a man in a $4,000 suit. “How does an entire cancer ward just mysteriously get better?”
The rest of the room remained silent.
I want answers, people!” he beat his fist on the table. “Parker Medical Center. The entire children’s terminal illness ward cleared out in two days. Walnut Hill Presbyterian. One week; poof! All the kids are well and sent home.”
“We have good doctors, sir,” a voice meekly said.
The fat old man grabbed an ashtray and threw it across the table. “In the course of six months Dallas Children’s Medical Center went from 95 percent occupancy down to just fifteen percent. Our doctors are good, but NOT THAT GOOD!”
A sly-looking minor executive, who previously had his face buried in a laptop, perked up. “Sir, I believe I may have something.”
Two days later Bill was back to his routine. He stepped off the green line at the station in front of Ellum University Medical Center and slowly made his way to the hospital gift shop.
“A dozen balloons, please,” Bill softly said to the cashier.
The cashier frowned. “I’m sorry. We don’t have any balloons anymore.”
“Not anymore?” Bill asked. “You sold out?”
“No. The hospital administration said that the balloons were unsafe for children. They’re afraid the balloons can get lodged in children’s throats. They said they already had some cases where children died from choking,” the cashier said. She was just as clueless as everyone else about why they could no longer sell balloons; she was just given a script to read.
“That’s terrible,” Bill said. “Well...how much for the stuffed tigers?”
“Those are four dollars each,” she said.
“No I mean the little stuffed tigers,” Bill corrected himself.
“That is the price for the little stuffed tigers,” the cashier clarified.
“Oh...that’s going to put a damper on my budget, but give me a dozen. How much for the plastic bags?”
“You’re buying the tigers. The bags are free,” the cashier smiled as she handed Bill two large plastic bags.
Bill’s hands brushed upon the cashier’s as he took the bags from her. “I wish you a happy, long, and healthy life; and remember that kindness pays you back twofold,” he said.
Bill took the elevator up to the fifth floor and headed for the terminally ill children’s ward. The receptionist had a wary look on her face.
“You don’t have balloons, right?” she asked.
“Oh no. Gift shop didn’t have balloons, because of some safety issue. I have stuffed animals instead,” Bill said, pulling a little tiger out of the bag.
“Oh, well, just sign in and you can see the kids in a minute, Mr...”
“Flaherty. Bill Flaherty. Pleased to meet you!”
The receptionist smiled and buzzed Bill into the rooms. Bill gave each child a little stuffed tiger, and then patted them on the head.
“I wish you all a happy, long, and healthy life; and remember that kindness pays you back twofold,” Bill said before he walked out to the waiting room. But something was wrong. He couldn’t place his finger on what it was, but it was probably the fact that there were suddenly three friendly police officers in the room.
“Mr. Flaherty, please come with us,” one of the officer said.
“Now what’s the problem, Officer...Officers?”
“You’re under arrest for practicing medicine without a license.”
“I think there’s been some misunderstanding,” Bill said.
“Please come quietly, or there will be trouble.”
Bill dutifully complied, as they cuffed him and escorted him out of the building.
Normally, due to the frivolous case backlog of the American legal system, this trial wouldn’t take place for several months. However, thanks to the magic of the human imagination and a greedy bureaucrat's desire to see justice done, we get to cut to the tense courtroom drama right away.
“How do you plead?” the booming voice of Judge Brian Lewis asked.
“Not guilty, your honor,” Bill’s raspy voice puttered out.
The good judge shuffled some papers around. “Bill, I’m looking at your record, and this can’t be right. How old are you?”
The judge sighed. “Yeah, that’s what this says...I mean...you just look much older than a normal forty-four-year-old person would. If I saw you on the street I’d say you were in your eighties. Do you spend a lot of time in the sun?”
“You do drugs?”
“You worship the devil?”
“So you got any explanation as to why you look the way you do?”
Bill smiled. “I’ve been visiting people in the hospital for ten years now. It started with one person once a week, then it went to two, then three, four, five. Pretty soon I was visiting entire wards twice a week. And you know...every time I see them I leave a little bit of myself with them there.”
The judge cleared his throat. “And after you visit them they mysteriously get better a few days later. Are you sure you’re not giving them pills or anything?”
Bill sighed. “I’d give them balloons, flowers, stuffed animals, get well cards. One time I got some apple juice for an old woman who asked for it. But I’d never give them pills. I just spend some time with them...and then they get better.”
Now despite coming from a very religious family Judge Brian Lewis was a logical and down-to-earth man. He slept in on Sunday, didn’t believe in supernatural things, and certainly didn’t believe in magic. So this story about an elderly man mysteriously curing people just by spending a little time with them just seemed too far fetched to him.
“Mr. Flaherty, could you come up to the bench please?” the judge beckoned him. Bill shuffled directly up to the judge’s bench and stared up at the mountain of a man like a scared child.
“I have instructions from the prosecution that they will drop their charges if you promise never to practice medicine again,” said the judge.
“But I’m not practicing medicine, your honor! Haven’t you ever heard about the power of compassion?”
“The power of compassion,” Bill pleaded. “It can heal all wounds.”
“Okay, okay! Whatever you want to call it, if you stop doing it then they’ll drop the charges.”
“But this is my whole life, your honor!” Bill put his palm on the judge’s stern fist. “Please. I need to do this.”
The judge furled his brow and sighed as though he just felt the repercussions from a bad breakfast burrito. “Uh...I think we need to take a short bathroom break. We’ll reconvene back in fifteen minutes,” said the judge, as he slipped out the door rather quickly.
Exactly fifteen minutes later the judge called the courtroom to order.
“Okay, this is going to be brief. I’m throwing this case out. YOU!” said the judge, pointing at our elderly hero. “I just had a very weird experience in the bathroom. I’ve been circumcised for the last fifty years, and now all of a sudden I’ve got a foreskin again! I don’t know how you did it, and I don’t care, but I want you to get out of here and promise me you’re going to get some sort of medical degree or SOMETHING...just so I don’t have to see you in my courtroom again!”
“Yes, your honor.”
And so Bill, doing his very best to abide by the good judge’s wishes, enrolled in Seminary and became a priest in the Roman Catholic church. He continued to heal the sick, because he was just a man of the cloth doing the work of the Lord. And who’s going to question the Lord’s work?