The Boy Who Made Nicky Smile

When you’re four years old, the idea of undergoing spinal surgery is equivalent to being told you will someday walk on the moon. It’s nice to think the surgery might end the constant pain you’ve been feeling since birth, but it’s a long-shot, some people claim, and there’s always the worry that what is done to make things better might actually make things worse (somewhat similar to the contingency plan that called for President Nixon to record a message to the nation, in the event that the three lunar astronauts were unable to return to Earth).
I have a great memory of those days. (Not the moon-landing; I wasn’t here; the surgery-days). But I have an even better grasp on something that happened three years later, when I was seven. It has always stuck with me.
My surgery was experimental. That meant tons of follow-up appointments in California for many years afterward (and visits to Mickey Mouse and his Magic Kingdom). During one such appointment, the doctor’s assistant pulled me aside. “Derek,” she said in a whisper, “there’s a boy in your room” (I had had my own room in the surgery-days, a side affect of my wanting to watch children’s programming as opposed to the latest exploits of Erica Kane) “and he has never smiled before. I thought maybe you could walk in and tell him “hi”, and we’ll see what happens.”
Later in life, I would have been more apprehensive and I might have said no, flat and firm. But back then, I felt honored to be asked. I would do it. She said, “Great! His name is Nicky.”
I walked into the room, with my wobbly gait, and said, “Hi, Nicky.”
And he smiled. Almost instantly and for the first time in his life. His parents insisted they get a picture with “the boy who made Nicky smile”. I, of course, obliged. That picture is out there, somewhere, but I don’t have a copy.
I don’t know where that family is today. I don’t know what happened to Nicky. Life diverges at so many different forks I couldn’t even begin to imagine. Yet for that one, fleeting moment, we met in a hospital room in California, and he smiled. Whether it was the way I walked, the way I spoke, or just getting to talk to someone his own age after spending so long in a hospital room that smelled like pain,it doesn’t matter.
I am the boy who made Nicky smile.

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