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Dear A Mitch: Memphis and Me

April 19, 2010

Alex Mitchell
Dear A Mitch: Memphis and Me

On a plane back from Memphis, Tennessee, I am thinking how to formulate an answer to a rather general Dear A Mitch question: a boy did this, a girl said that, mayhem ensues. It feels trivial. In fact, it is. After a three-day check up at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, school seems inconsequential, and the twenty-five pages of screenplay I have due on Monday leaves the forefront of my mind. This article feels more important. More substantive. More emotionally satisfying. Please forgive my selfishness. You probably already know I had brain cancer. If not, I had brain cancer. Every three months I return to St. Jude, the place I called home for nearly a year. These are, undoubtedly, the most humbling moments in my life.

This part of Memphis is a hard slap in the face. One ride on a rickety hospital shuttle is telling. Rich brick estates quickly melt into the broken streets and dilapidated housing of West Memphis – a perfect resting spot for America’s best children’s cancer hospital. Two blocks from St. Jude sits the notorious Shelby County Jail, and subsequently, roughly thirteen jail bond businesses. Not to forget the liquor stores, pawn shops, and a surplus of loiterers living bleakly on a malt liquor and Wendy’s Dollar Menu diet. West Memphis often feels like a poverty-ridden-hellhole of crime and anguish, a dead end for aspirations.

Within this sadness, St. Jude strives to be the happiest place on earth. In a way they are successful. From the doctors, to the nurses and the janitors, they are among the most genuinely nice people I have ever met. The walls are painted into playground scenes, the ceilings glittering with stars, a contrasting environment to the stark white walls of standard hospitals. To be quite literal, St. Jude is the best place you could ever take a kid with cancer. Its treatments are revolutionary (my doctor designed my protocol, SJMB03). Though in all its glory, St. Jude is full of cancer-laden children.

When you’ve been in the cancer world a while you start to get a sense of who has a high survival rate, and unfortunately, who doesn’t. In any given waiting room there are two Southern folks comparing their children’s diagnoses. No matter how sweet the drawl, fourth stage neuroblastoma cuts deep. Glioblastoma steals all the air from your lungs. Thanks for trying, life, better luck with your next religion. The kids never really grasp the concept their parents fear. If they can walk, they run, zipping by you screaming enthusiastically. At St. Jude, ignorance is a child’s bliss, and knowledge, a parent’s nightmare. Say the prayers. Keep the hope. I am sure miracles happen every day, but sometimes they take breaks in Memphis.

I don’t want you to be upset. I want you to take a deep breath and reflect on the life you live here in Southern California. Think about all the privileges and freedoms you have to lead a healthy life. Think about your family and friends and how much they mean to you. Take a step back from the drama that is thesis, your final papers, your summer internship – whatever is consuming your every thought. Our dining halls are repetitive, Dean of Students is infringing, a boy did this, a girl said that. You will be successful. Call your family, they miss you.

At some point in your life someone told you not to sweat the small stuff. Not everything is small, but most of it is not worth worrying about.

If you are feeling like your pockets have a little too much cash in them. If your momma doubled that fat allowance and you need to drop some of those dollars before the summer, send a little St. Jude’s way. They’ll appreciate it.

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