I wangled a night out this Wednesday. After a long summer of being bound at the hip to my precious children, I was on the verge of crazy. So it seemed worth the hassle of rounding up a sitter. Especially since I was going to join five other cartoonists to hang out and draw together, then maybe pop out for a cold one and some laffs — not mere laughs — afterward.
We were the scheduled Family Activity that night at the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Chicago. We brought pens and pencils and paper to have some fun with the kids and their families who were guests there. A diversion while they waited for an operation or chemo or a long awaited organ.
One of the cartoonists was sharing tips and tricks with an adorable little blond girl in a surgeon’s mask. “You know what the hardest part of the body to draw is?” he asked. “The hands.” He was right, of course, but that didn’t stop me from cracking a joke.
“I think it’s the liver,” I said. “It’s inside your body, so it’s impossible to see while you’re trying to draw it.” She giggled. Mission accomplished.
A moment later, I overheard someone else behind me talking about waiting for a new liver. “Or the Isles of Langerhans,” I added, amending my joke. “Nobody even knows where they are.”
Before it could become awkward(er), a brother and sister both asked to be drawn. Another cartoonist and I split the duties. I drew the brother. An Italian kid with a terawatt smile. But I insisted that he draw me too. Bless his soul, he gave me more hair than I deserve.
His parents must have liked my drawing of him, because they threw another kid my way. Then an iPhone picture of a soulful little girl with the most amazing tangle of curls, who was “up in the room.” Suddenly I was the go-to caricaturist.
It’s been decades since I did much with caricature, not counting my family Christmas cards. But I was in no position to refuse.
A request came from the toy room off to one side. “I want a picture of him and me together…” the mother said, her voice trailing off. She might have said, “one last picture,” but I was too busy fighting the lump in my throat to pay close enough attention. Because it was clear that that was what she meant.
Her two-year-old little boy looked like a typical silly bones two-year-old, except for the tubes taped to his face and the hard case that was strapped across his ribs. He had a toy dog and laughed hilariously each time he made it throw up into the toilet he had cribbed from a doll house. It was hard not to laugh along, even knowing that he got the idea from his own frequent vomiting.
Back with the Italian family, I captured a couple more family members on paper. It was as if they had been testing me before they made the big request. It came via the iPhone again, in a hand thrust silently over my shoulder. Someone murmured the same request the mother in the toy room made. “Please don’t draw the tubes.”
The picture on the phone was a little blurry from the low light of the room where it was taken. It had nothing to do with anything in my eyes. But I could make out the intrepid smile on the face of a heartbreakingly sweet one-year-old, despite the tubes. I never asked why they were there. I just drew. A portrait that captured her spirit as best as I could under the circumstances.
Maybe it would have been better to make a cartoon out of her. Maybe that would have sent a more confident message to the family that everything was A-OK. Normal. But my smile was turning brittle. My sense of humor, fragile. I played it straight. Safe.
I got home late and went shakily to my girls’ room. I thanked God as I wobbled there, watching them sleep. Without tubes.