"Today's the day I start the big diet," I told my wife, as I raised my hand to promise, "No chocolate today!"
"Oh, has the hospital gift shop stopped selling Three Musketeers bars?" she asked referencing my favorite candy bar.
"No," I said letting my belt out an extra notch, "I'll just have to rely on some willpower."
But when I arrived at the hospital and found my little friend Benton had been admitted again, I knew my candy pledge would quickly melt in my raised hand. Because if Benton had it his way - and he usually did - I'd be eating a piece of candy from the bottomless bag he constantly shared.
Benton Regello is an 8-year-old boy who was blinded by a tumor at 15 months old. For the next 26 months, he was in and out of our hospital for chemotherapy and surgeries. During that time, he made countless friends in the community.
Struck by his incredible bravery and resilience, our staff began to believe that Benton was going to beat this. "He was just a regular little boy," recalled the nurses, "only he learned his ABCs in Braille."
And for nearly four years, it seemed as though Benton was beating the odds, until one Friday afternoon in April 2003, Benton developed a headache and lost movement on his right side. His mom rushed him to the hospital where tests revealed a large tumor had hemorrhaged and caused a stroke.
But the worst news was that the malignancy had spread into other areas of the brain.
Over the next several months, Benton came to our hospital many more times. Each time he came, he wandered the halls guided by his mother. Each time one of his caregivers would say 'hello,' Benton answered the greetings by dipping into his candy sack and holding out Hershey Kisses - Trick-or-Treat in reverse.
So, on this my diet day, I went to his room expecting more Kisses. Only this time, I found Benton curled up in his bed, his eyes open but not looking into this world. His parents, Bob and Jeanne, had adjoined their bed with his and lay stretched along side, stroking his head and whispering things I could not hear.
Benton had suffered more seizures and was actively dying.
"We've tried to say our goodbyes," his mom explained. "But I know he's worried about us. He knew he would go to heaven, but he didn't want to go there alone."
"Could you say a prayer that he not feel alone?"
My prayer came from the Psalms. "Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there;"
After the prayer, I helped the parents recall the days we'd seen him in the hospital giving out candy.
"Oh," said Jeanne, "We brought his candy bag with us. Would you like to have some?"
Without a mention of my diet, I reached in the bag and pulled out the first piece I touched. I then opened my hand to reveal a miniature version of my favorite candy bar -- Three Musketeers.
The gravity of my tears was impossible to resist, as it seemed as though Benton saved one last piece of my favorite candy. Nevertheless, I managed some quick goodbye hugs and put the bar in my breast pocket.
Later that evening at home, as I was getting undressed, I removed the candy just as the phone rang. It was his nurse.
"Thought you'd like to know, chaplain, Benton passed away ten minutes ago."
As I hung up the phone, I palmed the half-melted bar. I ripped it open, and taking it with the near solemnity of communion, I ate it.
"Thanks, Benton. I'll start that diet tomorrow."
Benton's online journal is available for all to read. Picture courtesy of Charr Crail. You can read more about Benton in a story published by the Real Life Healthcare.