This year, Lenae picked out the Christmas tree. It sits, small but mighty, ablaze with lights on the window sill of Room 21 on the eighth floor of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. It is blinking at the never-quite-dark darkness of hospital night. Beneath it, a shiny brass carousel plays Christmas carols to which Lenae and her mother often dance.
Lenae is waiting for Santa to visit the oncology unit. The 6-year-old has had a rough couple of months: Chemotherapy. Radiation. The bone marrow transplant. The recurrence of acute lymphocytic leukemia has left Lenae tired, sometimes out-of-sorts and not very hungry -- although her mother swears she has been craving lima beans and black-eyed peas.
Last week, Lenae wrote a polite note to Mr. and Mrs. Santa in the careful script you might expect from a straight "A" first-grader. She says she wants the Genesis TV computer game. She also wants an Aladdin sing-a-long videotape . . . and maybe a few other things.
Her green eyes loom large over the small blue mask she wears to ward off germs. Stripped of its mantle of strawberry-blond hair, her face can assume an expression of unsettling wisdom. But the chatter is pure child.
She enters her room, a place still heavy with the acrid scent of her recent transplant, pulling her IV stand behind her as if it were a reluctant friend. Lenae is excited, very excited about Christmas. She has seen Santa twice at parties since she has been in Hopkins these last two weeks. She trusts he will come back tonight. There's no doubt about it.
Her mother, 29-year-old Debbie Goodman, believes as well.
She and her husband Eric, a staff sergeant at the 89th Communications Group at Andrews Air Force Base, in Virginia, have been taking turns spending the night in the green fold-out chair next to Lenae's bed.
Meanwhile their parents are taking turns helping with Lenae's younger brothers: Brandon, 3, and Christopher, 2. Tomorrow they will all celebrate Christmas in Lenae's room.
On this floor, Christmas stockings usually fill up sometime after midnight rounds; that way, if the children wake up during their 4 a.m. checkup, they know, immediately, that Santa has visited.
This is not a depressing place. Christmas transforms the unit with decorations, parties, performances and surprise visits. There is much merriment. Once you accept the fact of the children's illnesses, once you get past the other barriers -- the high-tech medical equipment, the paging system, the hospital smells -- you are free to feel inspired.
The people here are all helping one another maintain their dignity and strength and enthusiasm. Parents and staff help the children -- and the children return the favor. This is a world dedicated to the belief that the cup is always half full.
And tonight is Christmas Eve.
Lenae has been busy making visions of Christmas as well as imagining them. Her room is strung with long festive paper chains. Antlers sit atop the head of one of her teddy bears. A wonderful Santa made from paper plates decorates her bulletin board.
This is the Goodmans' first hospital Christmas, although Lenae's cancer was diagnosed three years ago. And this is her mother's wish:
"All I want for Christmas is for the family to be together," she says. "In the hospital, wherever. As long as we can be together."
Life with someone who is ill creates new goals and new standards, she says. You develop the ability to swallow hard, to chew on hope and to build the patience needed for flesh to catch up with spirit.
She praises her daughter's appetite for tutoring; Lenae does not intend to fall behind at school. She is even wearing the back-to-school clothes Mrs. Goodman purchased for her before her relapse in August. School clothes make things more routine, more normal.
"Kids pretty much tend to keep a positive attitude, no matter what. You can't really take that hope away from them," says Melissa Deifer, a specialist in the Child Life program which helps children cope with hospitalization. "They live for this moment. They celebrate and have fun for this Christmas -- they don't dwell on whether or not they will have a next Christmas.
"Initially, they might have concerns about whether Santa will find them in the hospital. But once they see Santa at our Christmas party, they get in the spirit of it all. They don't sit around being mopey and depressed."
Lenae has grown weary of grown-up questions and conversation. She heads off to the playroom where another party brews. Excitement simmers. The patients on this floor are authorities on the present -- its pleasures as well as its terrors. To watch them is to know that life is often richest in those who lack a certain perspective.
This Christmas Eve, Lenae Goodman is filled with Christmas.
It is her gift to us.