When the word "hospice" is spoken, usually the word "death" is somewhere in the sentence. Toward the end. Or at least the next sentence. There are tears and wailing in all backgrounds.
Suits are pressed, black dresses cleaned. Aunts and mothers-in-laws are put on standby with homemade pound cakes as heavy as boulders; hams the size of sports cars are baked with every tin of pineapple rings that the IGA has to sell.
Not so fast. Brooklynn Richmond, age 3, had a "princess" party at a hospice in Chester on Thursday. There was ham all right, and cake, and punch, and chicken nuggets. Make-up and sparkly nail polish and Cinderella slippers. Streamers and banners and a sash for Brooklynn that said "Queen of Hearts."
Nurses giggled like kids. Social workers laughed until their sides hurt. Chaplains who counsel about death and what might come after, never mentioned the word "death" once. The party was at Hospice Care of South Carolina's Chester County office, in an old refurbished house in downtown. It was such a blast that when sirens sounded on the street outside it seemed certain it was the cops arriving to break up the noise.
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All this carrying on happened because Brooklynn is, in all likelihood, dying. She has an awful sounding brain tumor called a diffuse Pontine brain stem glioma.
"A name like that, you know it is trouble," said hospice nurse Brandy Hyatt.
In July, doctors gave this girl from Fort Lawn in rural eastern Chester County two months to live. Hospice came in with all their medical and social services people and their never-ending smiles.
"Hospice is just like family, we love them all," said Heidi Richmond, Brooklynn's mother.
Daily hospice home visits, from medical teams and social work teams and religious teams and more, became part of life.
"Quality of life, that is what we stress," said Jan Byars, community relations director for hospice. "Making every day count."
Thursday was two months from the time Brooklynn was given two months. Brooklynn was sure alive. The day had to count.
Brooklynn's parents, Heidi and Matthew, quit their jobs a year ago after diagnosis to spend as much time with Brooklynn as possible. They have depended partly on donations since. They decided to have a "princess" party for Brooklynn. The whole hospice team - led by preacher Eric Winstead, who provides the pastoral care - said, "Great idea!"
One of the loudest was a 46-year-old stunning beauty named Janine Butler Davis. Butler Davis is director of support services for this hospice. She is also a former Mrs. South Carolina International.
"How about I give Brooklynn a princess crown?" Butler Davis asked her co-workers. "Every little girl deserves to be a princess."
"Yes!" they all screamed, like kids. Because Brooklynn, in a hospice practice with 63 patients, is the only kid. The little girl, bloated by the steroids she needs, who has horrible bad days of pain so severe it would make a grown man wail like a pansy, is the one for whom these hospice angels who aren't supposed to cry, cry the most.
The hospice was jammed with almost all of the 30-plus staffers, including a burly male nurse named Keith Martin who looks like Santa Claus and played Santa Claus. Somebody made a throne out of a chair with tutu-like material thrown over it to make it royal-like. There were gifts, and cake, and Brooklynn got her hair done. She used a tiny brush to put on kid lipstick: Four coats. Orange, red, sparkly pink and coral.
"I like to be pretty," said Brooklynn. She sure was.
Her parents said the day was special, beautiful, to be treasured. Like all days when it could be the last day.
"Brooklynn is a little tired today, not so active and not saying much, but we can tell she is having the time of her life," said her father.
Then Butler Davis brought out the best of the loot. The booty. The crowns.
"I have some connections in crowns, so I had one special made," Butler Davis said.
She brought out her own crown and let Brooklynn try it on. Brooklynn loved it.
Then Butler Davis put on the crown that she had made for Brooklynn Richmond, age 3 and not supposed to make age 4. She might not even make the weekend. But all in the family and hospice hope that Brooklynn is the hospice patient who is the exception to the rule that death must be in the same paragraph as hospice.
After all the fuss, quietly, Brooklynn said out of the blue, these words nobody argued with: "I am a princess."
To learn more or help Brooklynn Richmond:
Write to Hospice Care of South Carolina, 179 Columbia St., Chester, SC 29706