Losing Mikayla


You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard.

It's hard now to connect that first moment, when we first heard the news, with everything that happened later. Mikayla has liver cancer. It seems serious, but she's just a little girl. A child full of cheek and wonder. There's a battle ahead, but she'll pull through. She has to. A lot of life left, yet.

The whole thing ultimately takes something like 100 days, and it's worst case scenario at every step. Mikayla is six, and hepatoblastoma is rare in children older than three. The problem is exacerbated by tumours in her lungs, which must be defeated before a liver transplant can be performed. Two separate chemotherapy plans produce no positive result.

A miracle cure seems a lot to hope for. Hell, the odds were stacked against her getting sick at all. The stars already aligned, but in the wrong order; surely 'miraculous' is now in limited supply. But faith is a powerful thing, and, around the world, people are praying for Mikayla. 'The more the better,' her father says.

During the coming months Mikayla's story seems to broaden the parameters of human hope and compassion. 3AW morning talkback radio host Neil Mitchell learns of her fear, not of death, but of being forgotten, and is moved. From that moment on, Mikayla's illness, usually a personal matter, is played out in a public way.

(Continues below)

Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease.

First, though, social media comes into its own. A Facebook support page eventually attracts nearly 4500 members. Mikayla's family tacks updates, confessions of anger, grief and hope, to Facebook's wall, and scores of friends from near and far respond instantly. 'Like' becomes shorthand for 'I hear you, feel for you, am thinking of and praying for you'.

Facebook facilitates the formation of a Cancer Council Relay For Life squad; Team Mikki goes on to raise more than $6000 towards cancer research. Former strangers meet for the first time on that track. A plush caterpillar named Carl serves both as the team's baton, and as a symbol of the love and concern they share for the sick girl and her family.

After plans for 'one last family trip' to Queensland fall through due to the health risk, Mikayla's father enlists a platoon of volunteers to help him build a swimming pool. Photos of the construction process make their way onto Facebook. They stand as testament to a father and friends 'doing what they can' when there is little that can be done.

Symbolism's all crap.

The mainstream media dons a benevolent face. 3AW, Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper, and Channels Nine and 7 News carry Mikayla into Melbournians' homes. It's easy to be cynical about their motives, but hard not to be inspired by the gush of public support they prompt, or to argue with the smile on the little girl's face: her dawning realisation that she really won't be forgotten.

In an ideal world every sick child would be noticed in this way, wherever they're from. Then again, in an ideal world, Mikayla wouldn't be sick. 'Shit like this just isn't supposed to happen,' one mutual friend says to another. The family has been told by doctors to consider bringing Christmas forward.

The view offers more joy than they can afford.

The media attention and the support of the Make a Wish Foundation enables the creation of the now famous Fairy Party. Jumping castles, pony rides, a helicopter, a clown, face-painters, a woman who makes a living as a 'real life fairy'; more like a carnival than a party. Hundreds of people in fairy wings (the fairy theme is Mikayla's wish) cluster in the bucketing rain to sing happy birthday.

Mikayla, visibly sick, manages a cheeky grin when she takes advantage of the captive audience and pushes her father into the swimming pool he built for her — as if that was her plan all along. News crews are on hand to capture the moment, and could not have staged a more moving scene than that affored by such spontaneous daughterly mischief.

If hope comes near you, kick its backside. Got no place in days like these.

If God answers prayer, for his own reasons he says no this time. Mikayla dies on a Monday morning, her mother's and father's hands upon her as she sighs her last breath.

Mikayla's father appears in the media the next day. Eloquent, but broken. He speaks of his daughter's unending faith, her compassion; his own sorrow. He's grateful that he and Mikayla's family had the opportunity to say their goodbyes to her, and that Mikayla was able to tell him she loved him one last time before the end.

Words like 'closure' are worthless at times such as this. Losing Mikayla is likely the hardest thing her parents will ever face. But life goes on and, even during times of pain, it is not worthless. If it was, we wouldn't care that Mikayla lost hers.

Just as she's thinking of pulling the blind down, a rocket bursts in front of her eyes ... She tries, and fails, to stop her spirits' rise.

With thanks to Kirsten Stollery.

Lyric: 'Picture Window' by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby 




Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He was a member of Team Mikki. 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Mikayla Francis, media, cancer, ben folds, nick hornby, picture window



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Existing comments

Princess Mikayla knows that Hope is no liar, cheat or tease. She knew already in her earthly life that hope isn't wishes and dreams but something much more profound.

Patricia Taylor | 16 December 2010  

Tim, this piece is so beautifully written - but what a tragedy that it had to be written at all.

Annette | 16 December 2010  

Tim it's a beautiful article. Although prayers for a miracle cure were not answered, the hand of God could be seen in the peaceful way Mikayla approached death, in the way the comunity rallied, and in the way Mikayla has bought out amazing qualities and gifts in ppl that hear her story. Her msg is simple and yet profound for those of us rushing around trying to make sense of this world. Life is for love and giving and faith and joy and helping others. She exemplified the "fruit of the spirit"(Galations 5:22).

Natalie | 16 December 2010  

This is a fantastic piece Tim and Kirsten. Unfortunately, we often learn more through pain and tragedy than we do when everything is smooth sailing. As a member of ‘team mikki’ it was a beautiful experience to come together as a bunch of strangers all having a connection with Mikayla and her family in some way and being able to share our stories. My thoughts are especially with her family as we celebrate her life tomorrow at her funeral.

Nic | 17 December 2010  

A lovely piece of writing Tim. As another member of Team Mikki and of Mikayla's school community I feel proud be part of a community that is so caring, supportive and just truly amazing! My thoughts are now with her wonderful family, who are going through such a difficult time.

Riaane | 17 December 2010  

Lovely piece.
I feel sad reading this. Sad for a life cut short. Sad for Mikayla's parents and family. But also, very sad for all the similar stories that aren't played out publicly and do not receive similar amounts of support.
Grief is frequently private. Would that citizens know the people in their own streets, their own workplaces, who have to deal with debilitating illness daily, without media attention and community assistance. This is not to subtract from Mikayla's family's openness. Just a poignant realisation.

MBG | 29 January 2011  

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