Cait Richards’s parents are the co-Executive Directors of the Boston Ronald McDonald House. Cait wrote this story when she was 15 years old.
Lots of people ask, “What’s it like living at the Ronald McDonald House?”. What can I say? It’s all I’ve ever known. As a toddler I played patty-cake with worried mothers and fathers and dressed up in satiny mermaid costumes with other little girls whose parents took Polaroids so they could show their friends back home. I’ve grown up with kids with bald heads and kids in wheelchairs with IV poles. My parents love telling the story about how excited I was when I spotted a bald girl in a wheelchair at the airport. I was convinced she was my friend, Elizabeth. I was three then.
I know that some people think of this place as a charity. I guess it is in some way, but it’s so much more. It’s not just a place you give your money to—it’s a home for real people—for real families who have children with cancer. And there are some families I’ll never forget.
I’ll always remember Li Ping and Kaiwen. The first time I saw them I was with my brother, Dan. We were headed for the kitchen when we heard this wispy giggle coming from the living room. I turned around to see who it was. There, peeking out at us was this tiny boy in red overalls with pudgy cheeks and wise eyes. He got real happy when he saw us, the way little kids do when they can play. Then I noticed the young woman with long dark hair and shining eyes. At first I thought that she must be the little boy’s sister, but I was wrong. She was Kaiwen’s mother. Though we didn’t really talk that much (she didn’t know much English), I knew she was someone I liked to be around.
Li Ping and Kaiwen stayed at the House for a really long time, about nine months, while Kaiwen was getting treatment for cancer. Dan and I played with Kaiwen whenever we saw him, and I’d always be sure to say hello to Li Ping. I’ll always remember when Kaiwen turned two. Li Ping invited the whole House to the birthday feast she prepared, complete with the most delicious homemade dumplings I ever tasted. When I told Li Ping I loved her dumplings, she said, “I’ll teach you.” She was kind like that, and persistent, too. She kept asking, “Today? Make dumplings today?” I don’t know why, but I kept putting it off.
The night I finally said “yes,” I headed to the kitchen in my pjs, ready to work. I loved watching Li Ping as she carefully stirred the batter, using her spoon from Hong Kong. And Li Ping was patient, showing me each step, so I could follow along, stirring and pinching the dough right along side of her. I asked my dad to take a picture of me and Li Ping—I always wanted to remember that night, the two of us making dumplings together.
After that night, I didn’t see Li Ping or Kaiwen for a while. Our hallway visits became scarce, but I didn’t think much of it. I was caught up in the craziness of friends and dances, which were only tainted by nonstop homework.
And then I saw them. Kaiwen looked so much bigger. But there was something in his eyes—he looked tired and so sad and so did Li Ping. Later, I saw my dad talking to Kaiwen’s dad. Then my dad told us that Kaiwen was leaving, they were going back to Hong Kong. “Then he’s better?” I asked, hopefully. “No,” Dad told me. He didn’t say anything more, but I could fill in the blanks. Before they left, Li Ping came to say goodbye. I gave her a huge hug, and though it’s not the custom in Hong Kong, she hugged me back, hard. “Good luck,” I whispered in a shaky voice. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then she held out her Chinese spoon, the one we used to make dumplings. It was the only spoon she ever used. “This is for you,” she told me.
Li Ping and Kaiwen left the next morning. For awhile, talk of Li Ping and Kaiwen became less frequent in our family, because it made us too sad, and I would never use the spoon, as if someone’s touch would wipe away the spirit of Li Ping. But now, on very special occasions, I use the spoon to make dumplings and, as I do, I think of my friend in Hong Kong—the one I only saw in hallways or in the kitchen—the one to whom I never spoke more than ten words at a time. I never realized how strongly I could feel for a person I barely knew. But I will always treasure my friendship with Li Ping and my memories of Kaiwen.
When I was little, I thought all the kids who stayed at the House made it. I just thought kids didn’t die. The House was just a happy place. But now I know it’s a place of sadness and courage and kindness, too, all mixed together. When I think about it, I realize how amazing the people are here. If I can add something in my own small way, I’m grateful. Living here makes me feel so much hope and love for people. Here I see the best of people. I guess I have to say that this House is a part of me, as much a part of me as my own mom and dad. It has made me who I am.