For a long time I’ve wanted to tell Max’s story. But in order to do so, I must also tell Ivan’s. The publishing industry says Ivan’s story cannot be told. When they say this they mean it cannot be sold. Ivan is the wrong sort of protagonist. According to the publishing gurus, readers will not read a story told through Ivan’s eyes because he is a black gay male. To make matters worse, he was adopted at age two by a white conservative Christian couple who still love him dearly even though they felt they had no choice other than to disown him. They call it tough love. So, because of his race, gender, sexual preference, awkward social upbringing, and uncomfortable religious background, the marketing experts predict most fiction readers won’t make it past this paragraph. I should probably just stop typing now.
But I can’t. Ivan’s story must be told.
Don’t worry about Max. Everyone will love Max. Max’s story could sell a million copies. No problems there.
Ivan Alpert stepped off the bus and headed towards the medical center. He had ten minutes before he needed to clock in—more than enough time to grab a quick coffee from the shop next to the cafeteria. Although he was only two weeks into this job, he had already established a routine.
“Good morning, Ivan.” The barista flashed him a friendly smile. She must have read his name badge on one of their previous encounters.
“Morning, Sarah.” Two could play this game. But if they were going to be on a first name basis, he needed to clarify things. “Please call me Ivy. Ivan sounds like it needs to be followed by The Terrible.”
“I promise to remember that.” Sarah smiled even wider. She took his order and he shuffled aside to wait.
Yes, he preferred to be called Ivy. Ivy could be beautiful. It could transform a stark, cold, gray façade into a living thing of color and warmth. Over time it could even tear down walls by gradually working its way into cracks or by finding areas where the mortar had weakened or by simply overcoming the weight of the stones with its own living mass as it spread and covered and claimed the substrate of the walls as its own. But ivy could also be considered a weed. An invasive species that might choke out an entire forest. In many places it was an unwanted plant—in fact banned in several states—due to the threat it would pose if it were permitted to take root.
Most of his life Ivy had felt like he didn’t belong. Not unwanted. Unwanted is not the same as Outsider. Sure, Unwanted had reared its ugly head on more than a few memorable occasions, and those memories would not soon be forgotten, but Outsider was in his DNA, his skin, his identity, his soul.
He wasn’t unhappy. He found joy on a daily basis and in the most unlikely places. Mostly because he looked for it, but also because sometimes joy breaks in whether or not you are seeking it, and when you least expect it. Joy can be absurd. In fact, that’s when it’s most potent.
“All right, Ivy,” Sarah called from behind the counter. “One large caffé mocha with no whip and I hope you have a blessed day.”
Ivy couldn’t expect to encounter many blessings or much joy on a pediatric cancer ward. Suffering children, parents tortured by uncertainty and helplessness as they watched their children endure the merciless impulses of one of nature’s cruelest maladies, a war zone where battles both visible and invisible were waged between pathogens and weakened immune systems, cancer cells and vital organs, and ultimately death and life. In the midst of all this pointless sorrow, suffering, torment, and pain, Ivy did hope against all odds he would manage to find something that didn’t belong. But the odds were long.
He rode the elevator to the third floor and started down the long hallway toward the playroom. They had put a lot of thought into designing the interior of The Matthews Children’s Hospital. Yes, Matthews. When you donate seven-hundred-million dollars to an institution, you get to name it after yourself—never mind that the very industrial complexes which you control and which made you so rich are spewing untold quantities of carcinogens into the environment and nobody can stop you because you own half of congress. Build a fabulous children’s hospital in downtown San Diego, recruit the best pediatric oncologists the country has to offer, slap your name on the building, and you’re a hero.
MCH was about to turn ten years old, but the place still seemed brand new. Ivy couldn’t find a ding on the wall, stain on the ceiling, or scuff on the floor. The place was remarkably pristine. Bright and cheerful sights met him at every turn. Whimsical mural here, Disney character there, cute furry baby animal there and there and there. If anything it was too friendly, too nice, too perfect. It was dishonest. And he wasn’t just being cynical. He had actually seen a young patient with brain cancer roll her eyes when a wheelchair pretending to be some sort of hybrid carriage from Cinderella arrived to whisk her off to the interventional radiology department for her lumbar puncture. She knew she wasn’t going to a ball. Some eight-year-olds don’t like to be patronized.
And that’s why Ivy mattered. As a child life specialist, it was his job to figure out ways to help these kids and their families somehow cope with all the tests, pokes, therapies, treatments, studies, and in many cases, the unthinkable and unimaginable final march to an early death. For some, a Cinderella carriage did the trick. They wanted to pretend they were in a magical place with a fairy tale ending just around the corner. And that was fine. Ivy didn’t have a problem with fairy tales. But he knew from experience that some kids didn’t want fairy tales. Some simply wanted to know the truth. He was fine with that too—even though it had gotten him into a heap of trouble at his last job. That whole debacle was a long story rife with injustice and it ultimately resulted in Ivy’s resignation, a cross country move, and a fresh start—none of which Ivy had seen coming the month prior. But that’s life. One day you’re cruising along just fine and then WHAM a cement truck comes from out of nowhere and changes everything.
As Ivy unlocked the door to the playroom he wished there were some way to see the cement trucks coming. Being a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan, a particular strip came to mind. Calvin and Hobbes are on one of their wagon rides as Calvin explains how his motto is to live in the moment because you never know when a cement truck is going to wipe you out. He asks Hobbes what his motto is and Hobbes replies, “Look down the road.” Sounds wise, but life doesn’t seem to work that way. Those cement trucks like to hide in blind spots, sneak around in stealth mode, fall from the sky, or burst into existence from a quantum fluctuation—just about anything to avoid detection. And that’s just the way it is.
So as Ivy started preparing the playroom for the day, he tried not to think about when the next cement truck would crash into his life or what changes it would bring. And when he felt a small premonition that the playroom would be the place—that some life altering event would occur right there in that very space—he cast those silly thoughts aside. Instead, he busied himself with his chores until his first patient appeared in the doorway. A thin boy, no older than ten, with an I.V. pole on wheels in tow stepped into the room.
“Hello, young man,” Ivy stooped from his six foot four inch height so he could make eye contact with his unfamiliar guest. “My name is Ivan, but people call me Ivy.”