First, you don't cry.
At least that's how I've gotten through the 180 or so individual interviews we've conducted over the past 11 years with our My Wish families. Yes, my fingernails have carved arcs of suppressed feeling into chairs, sofas and love seats across the country. I've pinched my right leg through my trousers multiple times in a single day. When in deep trouble, I've broken eye contact with our subject, looked down and tried to just hold on for a few moments, as if clinging to a raft careening through whitewater. During our first year, I asked a 10-year-old boy who loved Tracy McGrady how the tumors in the back of his neck felt. He paused for a moment, dropped his head into an open palm and sobbed. Had I been holding a pen, I might have stuck it between my ribs right there, like a prison shank. It's not that I think getting emotional would be a breach of professional decorum. I just don't want to be disruptive as memories start pouring forth. The best way to respect and honor the people who share their stories with us is to listen.
Sometimes, in Carolina or Georgia or Iowa, the car goes to the end of the asphalt road and then the end of the dirt road before I get out. Maybe it's a big house in the Pacific Northwest on a cul-de-sac, with a front lawn and a friendly dog. Or it's a trailer in the Midwest, with a satellite dish on the outside and no room within. Setting up our cameras already has disrupted the home. Tables and couches and shelves have been moved, revealing remote controls so old they can't always recall where the TV is. Food and morning beverages, lots of them, sprawl across the kitchen counter. And then I knock on the front door and ... well ...
Maybe 30 years ago, walking into a strange home while in a suit and a tie would have established you as a person of probity, someone to be trusted. Football coaches on recruiting trips back then: they must have worn jackets and ties, right? Anyway, it feels like the opposite now, as if I represent a corporation or renegade arm of the government with twisted plans for the property and the people living there, and a slick line of shop talk to make those plans a reality. More than a decade in people's living rooms or dens, and no one has ever worn a suit and tie in the chair opposite me. I often feel as though I have to apologize for my clothes, though when my hair turned gray and I started wearing reading glasses, kids like the unstoppable Rylee Durham began calling me Harry Potter's grandfather, which really isn't bad at all, you've got to admit.
I walked into one house in the south, and the sibling of our wish child took my hand and quietly showed me her room, and where she did all her homework, and the books she'd been reading recently. Illness in a family reshapes everyone's world. To put one nervous mother at ease while we were setting up, I sang most of Mary J. Blige's "Work That." I guess she figured the interview couldn't be any more unpleasant than that.
I have nothing in my hands. Usually, I've read a summary of a child's health history. If there have been posts on social media or CaringBridge, there are often specific milestones in treatment for me to ask about. But most of the time, I'm asking two questions, in a small variety of forms: "What happened?" and "How did you feel about it?" As I sometimes tell our subjects before we begin, I ask questions they know the answers to. Anyone with a sick child has had to deal with inquiries from many people; often they have come to expect that most people don't want that much detail, and so they have crafted their responses to suit the demand. Early on, I try to convey that we're interested in the long answers. This is one I recall, from Judy Krause, whose daughter, Danielle, was being treated for a brain tumor. Her answer was one of the best descriptions of the chaos of a medical crisis:
"There must have been 12 family members there, all walking out. I just for some reason turned around one last time to take a look at her, and all her numbers just dropped, and I went, 'What's going on?' Then they just immediately yelled Code Blue. They were on me in like one second, trying to get me out of the room, and I said, 'No, I don't want ... I'm not leaving.' Then they said, 'Can we get you a minister?' I said, 'What?' 'You know, can we get you somebody to talk to?' I said, 'Why would I need that?' And I remember somebody handing me orange juice or something. I mean, it was just the craziest moment of my life, and I thought, oh my God, she's not going to make it, and then they pulled us all out of the room, and, thank God, they got her back."
The mother of Jacob Trammell, who loved baseball so much, remembered the nights that she'd sit at their dining room table and go over game situations with her son, as if they were times tables; Kyle Byrd's mother, Cassandra, recalled how her tears would fall onto her then-infant son days after his Spinal Muscular Atrophy diagnosis; and then there was the sheer delight on the face of Matt Vosejpka's younger brother, Mitch, when he learned he'd be the perfect bone marrow donor:
Mitch: "I was like, 'This is great. This is unbelievable. I like this.'"
Me: "Were you scared?"
Mitch: "Not really. I was more focused on the excited part."
I don't go on the wishes, which is surprising only to people who have never seen me at a child's birthday party, wringing my hands like a pastry chef convinced that his popovers will not rise, hiding in the kitchen as the piñata is demolished in the yard, asking over and again if everyone is having a good time. So when these wishes make you feel something, hope or sadness or joy or uplift, that's the skill of our producers and editors; the generosity of the athletes and teams involved; the abundant and unfailing love, resourcefulness and advocacy of a sick child's parents; and the pluck, the humor, the strength, the swag and the wonder of our My Wish recipients. When we put these stories together, it's important that viewers find something to like about these children -- their athletic skill, their attitude, their wit -- before finding out that they're sick. Making sure they emerge as unique individuals and not as victims. That's key.
This week is the 10th anniversary of My Wish, and our stories begin Sunday. Before working on My Wish, my journalism background featured a lot more irony than earnestness, and at first I might have thought Make-A-Wish was too sentimental for my taste. I got over that real fast, thanks to such young people as Charlie Pena and Katie Morris and Jailen Cooper, whose stories you can read in this space -- and to the kind, clever and giving staff members and volunteers at Make-A-Wish, with whom we've been privileged to partner with for My Wish. Like a lot of people, I once thought Make-A-Wish was only for children facing a terminal diagnosis, and this proved to be very much not the case. So many My Wish children are flourishing, bolstered by the resilience they showed during their illness and their capacity for exhilaration during their wish.
In 11 years of getting to talk to these amazing young people and their families, some of the best words came from Hailey Cannaday, who got to swim with Olympic champion Michael Phelps. "If I'm not crying, you shouldn't be crying," she said. "If I'm smiling, smile with me." Last I heard, she was driving from Ohio to Chicago with her mom for a K-Pop concert. So I'm with her, on both the smiling and the crying. Maybe not the K-Pop.
Chris Connelly is an ESPN reporter and essayist who has served as correspondent and host for ESPN's annual My Wish series since 2006, done in collaboration with Make-A-Wish.