"Oh, has the hospital gift shop stopped selling Three Musketeers bars?" she asked, referring to 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. Because if Benton had things his way, and he usually did, I'd be eating a piece of candy from the bottomless bag he constantly shared.
Benton Regello was an eight-year-old boy who was blinded by a tumor when he was fifteen months old. For the next twenty-six months, he was in and out of our hospital for chemotherapy and surgeries. During that time, he made countless friends. Struck by his incredible bravery and resilience, our staff began to believe that Benton was going to beat his disease. "He was just a regular little boy," recalled one of the nurses, "only he learned his ABCs in Braille."
For nearly four years, it seemed as though Benton was beating the odds, until one Friday afternoon in April 2003, when he 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 greeting by dipping into his candy sack and holding out Hershey's kisses. Sort of a trick or treat in reverse.
So, on that first day of my diet, I went to his room expecting more candy kisses. Instead, I found Benton curled up in his bed, his eyes open but not looking into this world. His parents, Bob and Jeanne, had moved their bed next to his and lay stretched alongside him, stroking his head and whispering things I could not hear.
Benton had suffered more seizures. And now he was dying.
"We've tried to say our good-byes," his mom explained. "But I know he's worried about us. He knows he's going to heaven, but he doesn't want to go there alone. Chaplain, could you say a prayer that he won't feel alone?"
My prayer came from Psalm 139:7–8:
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 Benton's parents recall the days we'd seen him in the hospital giving out candy. We talked about how Benton had used this simple gesture to express care for people whom he didn't even know or wasn't able to see.
Yet, even without his vision, he did see. He saw the need of people to know a touch and he gave them that touch. That touch was Benton's real gift.
"We brought his candy bag with us. Would you like to have some?" Jeanne asked.
Without a mention of my diet, I reached into the bag and pulled out the first piece my fingers touched. When I opened my hand, I found a miniature version of a Three Musketeers.
The gravity of my tears was impossible to resist. It seemed as though Benton had saved one last piece of my favorite candy.
I managed some quick good-bye hugs and put the little candy bar in my breast pocket. At home that evening, as I was getting undressed I removed the candy just as the phone rang. It was Benton's nurse.
"Chaplain, I thought you'd like to know, Benton passed away ten minutes ago," she said.
As I hung up the phone, I ripped open the half-melted candy bar and, with the solemnity of communion, I ate it.