- THE DAY THE CIRCUS CAME TO TOWN
Willow watched from her living room couch as the circus wagons passed by on their way to the Fairfield County Fairgrounds. The festively painted carts carried the animals and performers, enticing the public to come see what the fuss was all about.
When she was four years old, her grandmother had given her a picture book about the circus and promised her she would take her the next time she was in town. But then Meemee Sally died, and Willow was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL.) For the last three years, she had endured all the normal treatments: chemotherapy (which left her so sick there were days she couldn’t even lift her head off the pillow, and which caused her beautiful blond curls to fall out); radiation (which had burned her milky alabaster skin and turned it sallow); even a bone marrow transplant from a cousin which had eventually failed.
The doctor told Willow's parents to prepare for the worst, and warned against taking her to such a large public place.
"In her weakened condition," she told them, "picking up a cold or infection could be fatal."
But if Willow had only a few weeks left to live, her parents decided to make them the best weeks of her young life.
They contacted the Make-A-Wish-Foundation, who handled all the arrangements.
When they told her she was going to the circus, Willow screamed with excitement and didn't sleep well that night. In the morning, her mother came into her room to find her seven-year-old daughter already dressed. "Wow. Look at you. You're all ready to go."
"I couldn't wait," the sick girl responded.
Rita sat down next to Willow and gently laid her head in her lap. Stroking her baby's peach-fuzzed head, she said, "What do you like best about the circus?"
"The clowns. I love the clowns."
"Me too. What else?"
Willow thought a moment. "The animals."
Rita smiled. "Which one in particular?"
"The elephants. No the lions….no, I think I love the little monkeys the most. Yeah. The little monkeys. They're just so cute; don't you think so, Mommy?"
Rita didn't answer immediately, so with great difficulty, the little girl sat up and looked at her mother, who had tears rolling down her face.
"Don't cry, Mommy. It's okay. I know I'm going to die. Really, it's okay. I'm tired of fighting. I just wish you and Daddy weren't so sad."
Rita pulled her daughter closer. "You're so brave my little one. Okay no more tears. Look, the clouds are gone and the sun's come out. It's going to be a beautiful day.
"But before we leave, you have to eat some breakfast. How about a little oatmeal and a glass of milk? Besides, the show doesn't start until 2:00, so we have plenty of time."
"I know. But I don't want to be late."
"Don't worry, I promise we won't be. Now come on, let's go eat some breakfast."
"Okay." Willow struggled to follow her mother into the sunlit kitchen. It's not that Rita didn't want to help her, but the doctor told her that the more Willow did on her own, the stronger she would be and the longer it would take for the cancer to completely destroy her body. So she winced in pain with every step her daughter fought to take, wanting to help her, but knowing she shouldn't.
Finally, it was time. Her daddy pulled the Chrysler SUV out of the garage and honked the horn, indicating he was ready.
Rita helped Willow put on her baby blue ski jacket and gloves. Although it was close to 70° outside, her frail body could not fight the constant chill that encompassed her.
Walter, Willow's father, got out of the car and walked to the house. He easily lifted his thirty-six pound daughter in his muscled arms and carried her outside, while Rita locked the door.
Ten minutes later, they parked at the entrance to the big canvas tent.
Mrs. Sampson, a representative from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, greeted them pushing a colorfully decorated wheelchair. "Oh look, Mommy. It looks like a circus wagon," Willow squealed in delight.
Walter lifted his daughter from the back seat and gently placed her in her chariot.
"Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Foley. And a big welcome to you too, Willow. Won't you follow me?" The first thing Willow noticed was the large red and yellow flags flying over the top, waving gently in the wind as if to hail her arrival. The smell of popcorn from the black cart with the yellow wheels parked by the entrance filled the air.
Willow looked at her mother with pleading eyes. "Please, Mommy."
Rita looked at Walter. "Sure. What's a circus without popcorn," he said.
She held onto the giant bag with both hands as her father wheeled her into the tent. Yellow, blue, and red ribbons streamed out behind the chair, and Willow giggled. Her parents looked at each other and smiled. They hadn't seen their daughter laugh in quite some time and they realized how much they missed it. The Mrs. Sampson led the trio to an area cordoned off from the bleacher seats. "Up here," she said, pointing to a ramp that led to a raised platform.
Walter parked the wheelchair and sat down next to her. Rita took the seat on the other side.
"Enjoy the show," Mrs. Sampson said and disappeared into the masses of people entering the tent and scrambling to their seats.
The lights dimmed, a spotlight came on, and standing in the middle of the center ring, on a large raised, black stool, stood the Ringmaster. Willow pointed and giggled. "Look Mommy. He's dressed funny."
"That's his magical circus clothing," Rita whispered. "Now shhh. Be quiet and watch the show."
"Ladies and Gentlemen and children of all ages. Welcome to the Santini Brothers Circus. My name is Ben, and I will be your guide today through the mystical kingdom of circus acts and magic. Before we start today's show, I'd like you all to join me in saying a big hello to one of our audience members."
The spotlight turned on Willow in her colorful wheelchair and red dress. She giggled when she saw herself on the big jumbo screen hanging down from the center of the tent.
"On the count of three, I'd like you all to say with me, "Hi Willow. Welcome to the circus. One….two….three…."
A chorus of voices filled the tent and Rita and Walter cried with joy. Willow, with all the nonchalance of a seven-year-old, waved to everyone, turning in her chair the best she could to see all around her. Walter stood and released the brake and wheeled Willow in a circle so she could see and hear the crowds cheering for her.
"And now, on with the show," the Ringmaster said. One spotlight became three as the clowns entered the arena. Dozens of them, running, skipping, tumbling, jumping ropes, and throwing balls and balloons into the crowd. Willow giggled and laughed at their antics.
Two hours later, the show was over. As the audience filed out, those who passed by her said, "Goodbye Willow. Good luck, sweet pea. Bye, Willow." She waved to each of them, a big smile on her face.
Finally, Walter rose, wiped tears from his eyes, and released the brake. "Ready for some ice cream, honey?" he asked.
"No, daddy. Not tonight. I'm tired. Can we please go home?"
"Sure, baby. Whatever you want."
Later, as her parents tucked her in, Willow thanked them for the beautiful day. "I'll always remember it."
They kissed her goodnight, dimmed her bedside lamp, and sat down on the couch they had put in her room to be close to her - in case she needed anything in the middle of the night. They held hands and watched their daughter fall asleep. Without either uttering a word, they both believed Willow would be gone by morning.
An hour later, the rising full moon shone through the window onto their baby girl, and they knew that as it moved across the sky, Willow had hitched a ride on its beam and was no longer part of their world.
Two days later, on a cloudy, rainy day, in a church filled with family, townspeople, schoolmates, and circus people, Walter and Rita said goodbye to their little girl. As aggrieved as they were, they took solace in knowing that the day the circus came to town was the happiest day of Willow's young life - even if it was for only a couple of hours.