Many of the thousands of Iowa Hawkeye fans could only imagine, as they looked up, at the end of the first quarter, waving at the tiny faces and hands across the street and several floors above, what life must be like right now for those tiny people looking down, waving back.
Me, I didn’t have to imagine. I’ve been there.
On Saturday, continuing what ESPN is already calling “college football’s newest cool tradition,” the second round of waving at the patients looking down from the top two floors of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital took place on Saturday, when Iowa played former coach Hayden Fry’s old team, North Texas.
At the end of the first quarter, the audience first heard from one of those young patients, and then the entire stadium began looking up, waving at those faces, and watched the little hands waving back. This is something the fans will do at the end of the first quarter, at every home Hawkeye game, from now on.
I was there, then, too. You can even see me (barely, for a second or less, in one of two black shirts just left of the end zone, in front of the green-shirted North Texas fan waving his cap, as I did) at the end of the ESPN video HERE.
And being there, waving, made me remember the other times I was there, looking down on Kinnick Stadium.
I was even there before the new “there,” the Stead Family Children’s Hospital, was there.
Our family has spent nearly a month’s worth of days traveling to the corner of Melrose and Hawkins — in 1982, for my dad, in 1992 for my father-in-law, in 1999 for my newborn niece Vanessa, and then in 2002, for my mom. A generation earlier, my parents were there, too, with my younger brother, who was born prematurely, with a hole in his heart.
The majority of our days there coincided with football season.
I’ve stood on the top level the old parking lot ramp (where the new Children’s Hospital is now), looking over the stadium as I passed on the dreadful diagnosis of my mom to my cousins.
I’ve walked between the stadium and the hospital in the dark, listening to the cheers erupt in response to a touchdown in the Iowa/Iowa State game, while football was farthest from my mind.
I’ve sat in a tiny room overlooking the stadium, feeling a newborn baby’s hand close tightly around my finger less than an hour before she would take her last breath.
And I’m not alone. I have several friends who have been there, too, as well as at least a half-dozen children whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and writing about, over the years. I’ve watched several parents experiencing that “tug-of-war” with God that Sherrie Austin so eloquently describes in the song “Streets of Heaven.” I know children who were there years ago, and came home healthy. And I know moms who sat there facing the news that their baby would not be coming home.
It’s amazing what you remember, in places like that — things you didn’t even know realize were paying attention to. Those now-empty phone booths I saw a few weeks ago; I remember them from 1982, before cell phones rendered them unnecessary. The courtyard where I had lunch recently — my whole family was there in 2002, as we contemplated when to give the doctors our consent to turn off her life support. And of course, passing by the stadium on every hospital visit, or every walk to the car, just makes it that much easier to get nostalgic while joining the Hawkeye fans waving to the beautiful families who are now going through what I went through then.
And feeling now what I feel, and remembering what I remember when I return to that place — which mostly reminds me of my parents — makes me wonder how much stronger those feelings are, and always will be, for those who are there because of their children.
For some of those families waving back at us on Saturday, their journey will be one that lasts days or weeks, or maybe months, and ends up with a cure that leads to a normal, or nearly-normal life, for them and their child. Others are just beginning what may very well be a lifetime of living under constant medical care. And others, despite the courage of their babies and the incredible dedication of the medical community, will eventually remember this as the place they had to say good-bye way, way too soon.
Look closely at those photos of those people waving back. You will see IV poles, little faces barely visible from the rails of a hospital bed, signs about cancer and a patient’s support team, and much more evidence of the desperate struggle for health, and life, that these families are facing.
Now look even closer. You will see in their eyes, as they wave back at you: Hope. Determination. Inspiration. And a confident conviction that they are not alone.
I still remember, years and even decades later, each of the trips our family took there. I still remember the words of kindness, support and love we received, the hugs, the smiles, the barely noticeable gestures that say: “You are in our thoughts, and our prayers. We are here for you.”
And without personally knowing any of those people waving back at me on Saturday, I can virtually guarantee you that they will remember your wave, always.
On Sundays through Fridays, when they look out those top-story hospital windows at empty bleachers, they will still see your wave, and hear your cheers. When they watch football on TV, they will remember the day they looked down waving, and saw you waving to them, both through that big window and on a tiny screen. For many of them, driving by any stadium, or seeing anyone wearing black and gold or hearing “Fight, Fight, Fight for Iowa” will remind them of that Saturday — it will make them remember you, waving at them. And they will remember how you made them feel, how your little wave, strengthened by the thousands of waves surrounding you, gave them a little more faith, a little more hope, one more reason to smile.
And regardless of where they are in that journey, or how their journey will end, they will remember you.