UCLA Medical Center was a big, scary place to an 11-year-old who was away from home for the first time. The sounds and smells seemed foreign as white shoes squeaked on the highly polished floors, people were being paged over an intercom, buzzers could be heard, and the faint odor of alcohol seemed everywhere. In the bed next to me, and closest to the window, was a young girl about my age. The first thing I noticed about her were her beautiful eyes and bright smile. I wondered how she could seem so happy in this strange place. She had gone through the glass of a sliding door and had bandages covering the stitches. I knew she had to be in some pain, but
she was friendly and a welcome companion.
It was the late 1950's and a tumor had been discovered in the bone marrow of my right ankle.
My foot was discolored and swollen to the point of not having anything that even resembled an ankle. I went through a battery of tests, and during that time my roommate and companion was released to go home.
Without her to take my mind off my fears, I became quiet and retreated into books or watching television.
One afternoon, a few days later, a rather frail looking, freckle
faced, red haired boy peeked in to say "Hi!" He hopped on the empty bed near the window and began to chat like we were old friends. He talked about places he wanted to visit, favorite games, television shows, and how sick he was.
His eyes sparkled, and other than being very pale, he didn't seem sick to me. He loved to do small skits and kept those of us in the children's ward laughing.
His father would come to visit us, too. He was a taller, older,
broader version of my friend Richard, and just as funny.
He had a kindness about him that made you feel warm and comfortable around him. We all enjoyed his visits and the humor and laughter he brought with him.
The day came when I was told surgery was necessary. The doctor was as gentle as he could be when he told me there was a good chance I had something that would mean amputating my leg. I remember crying for hours that night.
The night before surgery I was very scared. My mother was at home with three small children and I had a difficult time falling asleep. When I finally gave in and allowed sleep to take over, it wasn't for long.
I awoke to find my friend Richard's father asleep in the chair next to my bed. He woke up soon after I did, and in a very gentle voice kept telling me
it was going to be "OK." I just had to believe.
He stayed for most of the night.
I would sleep and waken, and he would sometimes be asleep, other times he'd smile and comfort me.
Surgery went well, and my leg wasn't amputated, but I was in and out of surgeries, casts, and the hospital for the next two years.
Richard passed away from leukemia the second year, but has lived on in my heart and memory.
His father became my hero, then and in later years. For during the time I knew Mr. Skelton, and his son Richard, I only saw their courage, compassion, and tender hearts.
I saw a man who was "in character" to make the children laugh and forget their illnesses, but I also saw a very gentle man who was not in character as he sat by the bed of a fatherless 11-year-old girl.
Setting aside his own fears or sadness, "Red" Skelton, the clown who entertained millions during the early days of television, made sure that I was able to face a scary situation with the hope it was going to be OK.
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