Politics & Government

For mother, ailing son, a prayer for pope's blessing

WASHINGTON — Patricia Harrison saw the red dots marching across her 14-year-old son's chest and knew instantly what the nagging symptoms of the previous few weeks — the fatigue, the stubborn cold, the bruises — added up to: Graham's leukemia had returned.

That was in January. On Thursday, Harrison threaded through crowds of worshippers at Nationals Park baseball stadium, pushing the wheelchair of a chemo-weakened teenager who loves the Boy Scouts and playing tennis and wore fuzzy brown pajama pants adorned with pictures of moose.

Perhaps, his mother thought, the mere proximity of Pope Benedict XVI would rain blessings on her child. Perhaps, she hoped, she could gain prayerful strength for the fight to come.

Graham's sea-green eyes peeked out above the white mask that covered his nose and mouth. It's interesting, he said, that he should see the pope just three months after being diagnosed with leukemia.

After all, he pointed out, he saw another pope three months after his first cancer diagnosis.

Graham was just 21 months old in 1995 when Pope John Paul II placed a hand atop the toddler's head at a cathedral in Baltimore.

Graham doesn't recall the blessing, but he knows its significance. He went into remission the following summer, and stayed healthy until this year.

They almost didn't make it to see the pope Thursday.

Graham had an especially tough round of chemotherapy this week. He didn't get out of the hospital until Wednesday. He was battling nausea. His mother prayed through the night, silently reciting the rosary.

But they came, sitting above home plate with a strong view of the altar, Graham slumped in his wheelchair, his mother seated to his right. Graham pulled off his medical mask. His mother took off his black Orioles ball cap and replaced it with one bearing Pope Benedict's name.

The pope emerged onto the field as choirs sang. Graham leaned on his mother's shoulder.

The pope greeted the crowd: "Peace be with you." His mother wiped away a tear.

Harrison can speak easily about her son's good work at school, about his quest to become an Eagle Scout. She recalled with a smile his youthful laps during the annual cancer research fundraiser Relay for Life, how he proudly called himself a survivor, how important that word is for him. She talked about how he'll return to his favorite camp in August.

She talked about her fears.

But only a little.

She spoke instead of her faith, the belief etched in the tiny lines of her face as she clasped the metal railing and looked into the clear blue sky.

She doesn't necessarily believe that Pope Benedict can heal her son. But she doesn't disbelieve, either. She believes in God's will, and she believes in the pope's blessings.

She closed her eyes and prayed for strength and for courage. She prayed for faith.

At the altar, Pope Benedict consecrated the body and blood of Christ. He asked Graham's mother and 45,000 others: Do you believe in life everlasting?

I do, Harrison said. And wiped away more tears.

Then, later, she was celebrating life, laughing and snapping pictures of her child with a disposable camera. Graham smiled shyly from beneath his Pope Benedict cap, softly waving a papal flag.

Related stories from McClatchy DC