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Little girl shows us the holiday way

You could never tell by looking at her. That’s part of the miracle. Nya Ricks glided into her living room Thursday, all of 4-foot-2, a ballerina’s grace melded to a seam-splitting spirit. With dark Hendrix-ish curls and sunburst smile, the 7-year-old greeted a visitor and in the same breath asked Mom for a cookie. Leaning against a chair, she absentmindedly flexed a leg out and up, grabbing the ankle to extend it above her head, the classic dancer’s move.

It was hard to believe that, a year ago, the same girl – shrunken to barely 40 pounds – lay in a hospital bed, plastic tubes running into various orifices, a ventilator line down her throat, her small body hammered by a rare form of leukemia.

“They didn’t think,” her mom, Lindsey, told me, “that she was going to make it.”

Lindsey Ricks is bright-eyed and lively, grabs your arm when she talks, chats with strangers in supermarket lines. But she was silent for a moment after she said this, letting the weight of the thought hang in the air.

That was then. It seems, happily, like a long time ago.

I was sitting behind the wheel in a mall parking lot the other day, watching a couple of drivers race for a vacant space. A line of cars backed up at a traffic light, each driver refusing to make space for a car leaving the lot. Stress hung heavy in the air. The invisible clock was ticking. Everyone had lists to fulfill and gifts to buy.

This is what most of us do every holiday season. It’s nothing new. Shopping and buying, giving and getting, have long been the way we show love and express emotion. Bright eyes and big smiles as the gifts are unwrapped on Christmas morning make the tension and stress, the lines and lists, worth it in the end. Or so we hope.

Lindsey Ricks isn’t shopping much this year. She used to be, she told me after Nya left the room in their neat Cheektowaga home, one of those manic mall-stalkers. Making a list, checking it twice, squeezing in a shopping run during lunch hour.

“I don’t need all that,” she told me. “Nya’s healthy, she’s here. We are so blessed.”

It started 14 months ago. Nya said she felt tired, rare for a kid who dances 12 hours a week. Then – pointing at her privates – she told Lindsey, “Mom, it hurts down here.”

A trip to the doctor’s didn’t help. They went to Women & Children’s Hospital for blood work. Lindsey told Nya, “We’ll get you out of here and home to a warm bed.”

Nya didn’t go home for more than a month – and then, briefly. Tests showed a rare form of leukemia. Chemo and radiation started the next day. Nya’s world shrunk to a hospital bed. She traded cookies and milk for fluid drips and drug cocktails. She was set free for 20 minutes last December. Putting on a coat and a sterile mask, she went outside and flipped the switch to light Roswell Park’s holiday Tree of Hope. Then it was back to bed. A month later, an infection put her in intensive care for three touch-and-go weeks.

Lindsey and her husband, Maurice, juggled time in the hospital with their jobs – she is a teacher at the Falk School, he is a house painter – and caring for Jayden, Nya’s 9-year-old brother. They searched for silver linings. They celebrated days when Nya’s diarrhea hit “just” three times, instead of the usual half-dozen bouts. They prayed for better, as she kept getting worse.

I don’t know how parents handle it. There is no greater evidence of an imperfect world than a grievously sick child. There is no deeper pain for a parent.

“You can’t crawl under the bed and curl up,” Lindsey said. “You have to stay strong. She’s in pain, crying on the toilet. I can’t cry too. I waited until she fell asleep. Then I’d cry.”

The rest of us are lucky. We hear the stories. We don’t have to live them. Still, the vicarious experience pulls us out of the clank-and-hum of daily life. We have the chance to absorb the larger truths, deeper meanings, from other peoples’ pain. Then we try to graft the insight onto the back of our minds, and make it stick.

Lindsey and Maurice Ricks don’t have to try. Having a child struggle in death’s grasp, seeing your 6-year-old go through methadone withdrawal, hammers the bigger picture into a parent’s soul. They reflexively appreciate what the rest of us take for granted. Health. Time. Togetherness. Laughter. As John Lennon brilliantly put it, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

As much as we are addicted to happy endings, they don’t always happen. Darkness can suddenly intrude, for anyone. Life can change with a phone call, a screech of tires, a diagnosis. Nothing comes guaranteed.

Nya came home, for good, last April. There has been no sign of cancer since. Normal life returned. Prayers were answered.

Thursday afternoon, she wore sparkly tights for dance practice. When Jayden said he couldn’t find his iPad, Nya – perhaps mindful of the shelf elves perched nearby – said, “That’s OK, you can use mine.”

She seemed bright, untroubled, no trace of psychological shadow. Asked if she remembered much about the hospital, Nya shrugged and said, “some things I do, some things I don’t.”

Lindsey shook her head in grateful disbelief.

“I’m the one who worries,” she said. “Things are good now. But there’s no guarantee it won’t ever come back.”

Lindsey thinks about the kids who can’t come home for the holidays. She remembers how precious pajamas were, as the thrum of medications injected into tiny bodies prompted frequent “accidents.” After talking it over with Nya, they solicited donations of pj’s for kids at Roswell Park, toddlers to teens. Piles of new pajamas, ready for delivery, are stacked on the living room couch. Donations of new pj’s for the Nya Noodle Project can be made to the Resource Center, Roswell Park, Elm & Carlton Sts., Buffalo NY 14263.

“For a few bucks,” Lindsey said, “people can light up a kid’s face.”

Bored with the adult talk, Nya headed down the hall to her bedroom. She and Jayden played with the iPad. Soon the air was punctured by random screeches and giggles. To Lindsey’s ears, the sound of their laughter is truly the greatest gift.