Zoe the Star Seeker

Written by Kerry Elizabeth Blickenderfer-Black,

Started 23 July, 2013

My daughter, Zoe, saw stars everywhere.  Not the astral bodies but actors and sports heroes and musicians.  She imagined resemblances between people or groups sometimes, and because of her condition, often the people would smile and indulge her.

When she was interviewed by Make a Wish last June, they asked what her aspirations were, to which Zoe replied that she just wanted to star watch.  So we were sent to the place where such folks shine the brightest, to Hollywood, CA.  It took a bit of time to plan the trip, but when her pediatrician asked that things be sped up, the Make a Wish organization did just that. 

They arranged airfare, sending a big, black limousine pick us up at our little Cheswick home to take us to and from the Greater Pittsburgh Airport.  We felt like stars ourselves sitting in the comfortable leather seats, sipping apple juice from champagne flutes while being conveyed by Terry, our chauffeur.  Terry, she thought, should begin a career as a sports caster, newsman, or voice-over artist with his rich voice and smiling disposition.  Terry nodded, pleased, when Zoe imparted this knowledge.  She wondered if he would be the return-trip driver, and he reassured us that he would, indeed, be here to convey us home.

We giggled like best friends as we examined the new blue leather bound book that would hold all of the autographs that she expected to collect.  We drew tiny silver stars on the cover with metallic markers.  Zoe insisted that she wanted my signature, so we both signed the last page.  “Only if you sign, too, honeybee,” I required with a tickle.  I made the “y” for Mommy swirl into a heart that engulfed my little Zoe’s adorable John Hancock.  Rebecca, Zoe’s nurse, came along on our trip, and I was grateful for the medical wisdom and kindness.  She signed on the page just before ours. 

At the airport, we were greeted by a charming, older man holding a sign welcoming Zoe to her Make a Wish.  Tall, with hair a mixture of steel and silver, he introduced himself as Mark.  Zoe smiled up at him, squinting her large brown eyes behind her floral glasses.  “You look so much like John Wayne,” she said to our new acquaintance.  His kind eyes crinkled as his welcoming grin broadened.  “John Wayne is one of my favorite actors!” he exclaimed.  Zoe held out her autograph book and asked him if he would please sign.  Mark looked confused and deferred to me. 

I re-asked the question that I presented to Zoe when she asked me to sign.  “Don’t you want to wait and have the stars that we meet in Hollywood sign the pages of this special book?”  As she stated the last time, though, Zoe said, “there are enough pages, so please, please, please, will you sign, Mr. Mark?”  She fluttered her feathery eyelashes, and he complied.

With her adorable cupie-doll dimples and sideways glances, Zoe had the kind of charm that attracted attention, even from her wheel chair.  By the time that we reached our destination, most of Zoe’s fine, golden hair had fallen out, and so I fashioned a silk scarf and hat to protect her from prying eyes.  It was probably an unnecessary effort, since it did not seem to bother my outgoing child in the least that her head was as naked as when first she came into this world 13 years ago. 

Most attention is kind and welcomed, but there is some who would take the innocence from even the most vulnerable.  When approached by a man who I assume had ill-intentions, he discovered that although it is dangerous to approach a cub in the wild for fear of retaliation from the momma, it is sometimes more of a risk to approach a human child whose mother is already hyper-protective after all of the years of health issues, all too aware that the time for such concerns may be coming to an abrupt finality.

While waiting at the terminal for our plane, Mark and I made small talk while Zoe ate a soft pretzel and watched the airplanes through the large windows.  He was ex-military and something of a cowboy, indeed.  In fact, his sensibilities reminded me a lot of John Wayne, with a rugged self-determination, yet a gentleness of spirit.  Rebecca excused herself to visit the rest room.

That was when I noticed a man who resembled Peter Lorre chatting with my girl.  Immediately, my protective sensors were alerted, though I am not certain why.  When he saw my face, Mark turned and had the same reaction.  We power walked the few feet to Zoe, who smiled and introduced us to, indeed, “Mr. Lorre, mom, on his way home to Hollywood!  He signed my book!”

“Yes, well, safe trip, little girl!  I am really glad to meet you!” he said with a simper, exiting without a word to me or Mark.  Indeed, he’d signed the book, misspelling “Lorre” phonetically.  I launched into a quiet reminder about the dangers of talking to strangers, and despite the gentleness of my tone, Zoe’s eyes filled with tears. 

“But he was such a nice man, mom.  Really.  He invited me to see his house in the hills.” Chilled, I stared.  Mark, who was standing behind me, forgotten, then stepped in to reiterate my warnings, adding, “The actor Peter Lorre died a long time ago.  That man was just pretending, I guess.”

I discretely reported the potential child predator to the ticket clerk while Zoe looked in her autograph book.  We were seated shortly thereafter, waving goodbye to the Make a wish volunteer who reminded Zoe of Mr. Wayne.  Mark lifted his hand and did a passable imitation, saying, “Take care, pilgrims!” which sent Zoe into another fit of giggles.

The flight attendants all signed her book, looking like models.  They all were flattered and attentive.  The pilot’s voice came over the speaker to welcome us to the flight, and Zoe was convinced that he must be Leonardo DeCaprio.  The attendants put their shiny-haired heads together, then quietly came to our seat and asked if Zoe would like to meet the captain.  “It really is not done any more, but the captain has agreed to allow you to see the cockpit!”  Zoe jumped up and squealed with enthusiasm.  After collecting the signatures of the pilot and co-pilot, Zoe settled into the seat, breathing shallowly.  I wiped sweat from her forehead in concern, but she only smiled and nodded into a brief nap.

Our trip was short, because Zoe did not survive the flight.  By the time that we reached California, my little girl was in full-blown arrest and despite valiant efforts by the medical staff, I stood by helplessly as Heaven reclaimed my angel.

After the next weeks floated by like a distasteful, disorienting, surreal fall from an icy mountain, I found myself alone in Zoe’s small room, surrounded by her favorite things.  Her walls were covered with Hollywood elite, mostly teens with perfects smiles who had their whole lives as possibilities and promises stretching before them, but there were among these grins also some classic actors and a good many sports stars.  There was none of the two-toned purple paint to be seen.

The bag that we packed for her California visit lay upon her bed, forgotten in the rush of necessary activities. Within, I found her autograph book.  Lovingly, I fingered the silver stars as tears rolled unchecked down my cheeks, blurring my vision.  I opened to find her girlish curly writing on the first page.  It read, “This is to collect some stars before I go to live among those in Heaven.”  I could not swallow as I silently prayed for my girl’s gentle soul. 

I turned the page to find Mark’s signature, and on the page beside it, Zoe wrote “Soldiers and Cowboys protect our liberty.”  On the page opposite Mr. Lorry was “Beware sheep in actor’s clothing, or something like that.”  She’d written after the signatures of the flight crew a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “These will be the angels that fly us to our rest.”

My daughter, Zoe, indeed saw stars everywhere, real, imagined, and sometimes yet to be.  I wonder how many of the people that she touched realized the potential Zoe saw within them.