Noah was five years old when we found out that he had cancer.
He was in my Sunday School class and would come walking down the hallways at church with this skipping kind of swagger and the biggest grin on his face, like he knew something—or maybe had just done something. He was always smiling. So one day I asked him why he smiled so much. He grinned even bigger and said, “I don't know.”
In one week, Noah Ellsworth will finish his leukemia treatments after two years of chemo, needles, vomiting, pain, sickness, doctors, hospitals, ad nauseum—literally.
A few weeks ago, my kids and I went with Noah and his family to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital so he could show us around. With that characteristic skip, Noah burst through the front doors and marched up to the registration table to check in. It was just another Monday.
On the ride down, Sarah explained to me some of the intricacies of Noah’s cancer. She explained to the absorption rate of methotrixa-something-or-another.
“I became a nurse by default, not by choice,” she said.
When we got to St. Jude, Noah showed us the cafeteria (great food), the Starbucks, the colorful murals along every wall, the framed stories of patients who had fought and won, and others who had not. He pointed out the juke box, the toy room, and the room where his family had lived those first few weeks, when it all began. He also showed us how he likes his coffee at St. Jude: lots of milk with about ten packs of sugar, thank you very much. (When you’re a cancer patient, you just eat whatever you think you can keep down.)
But first, there was the waiting.
We waited in traffic. We waited to find a parking spot (the hardest part of the day, according to Noah’s brother). We waited and waited and waited to see the doctor. We waited to have blood drawn. We waited to hear if Noah’s counts were good. We waited, and then we waited some more.
And while we waited, we watched parents and children walk through the doors. You could tell the difference between the ones who had just started and the pros. It was all in the forehead. Lines of worry are slightly different than lines of resolution.
Young children with walkers, toddlers with tubes, bald heads, chubby cheeks—their stories crashed into me every time the waiting room door opened.
I watched as they stuck a needle in Noah’s port, which had been surgically placed in his chest to make it easier to give him his chemotherapy and draw blood.
Noah still looked anxious in spite of the hundreds of needles that had poked and prodded him at St. Jude. He moaned and glanced at his mom for affirmation. He sat there bare-chested, so vulnerable but resolute. Within seconds it was over.
My own son passed out even before he could see the needles. And in true fashion, the St. Jude nurses rushed to his side to help him revive, waving fans, giving him juice, and holding ice on his neck.
To be fair to my son, Noah’s least favorite part is the needles, too.
As we were leaving St. Jude, the children began jumping to let out the energy that had been building all day from the waiting. I yelled ahead and teased Noah. “Touch the ceiling, Noah.” And up he went. That’s Noah.
Two years ago, Noah had been sick for several weeks; he had a fever that just wouldn’t go away. When the Ellsworths took him to the doctor in Jackson, he recommended that they drive to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. That week, the family was thrown into the dark sea of cancer, but it wasn’t hopeless.
Before they left their house to drive to St. Jude, Sarah felt a cleaning frenzy take hold of her. It was irrational to begin dusting, but it was something she could control. Instead, she sat in a chair with Noah and held him.
“I’m so thankful for that now; for that moment to sit and rock him before we left.”
At that moment, she didn’t know if Noah’s sickness was simply a virus or a life-threatening condition.
The Ellsworths lived at St. Jude for several months; they were only about an hour’s drive from home. If they had lived anywhere else in the world, they would have had to fly every week for the last two years to receive treatment as many others have had to do. Living in Jackson, the city right off I-40 between Memphis and Nashville, took on a whole new meaning for Sarah and Tim, who moved here from the Midwest.
Eating has been a constant struggle for two years. He would beg for pancakes, only to throw them up a minute later. Tim and Sarah were completely exhausted, but Dr. Jeha assured them that they were still in the hardest part of the treatment. Blunt honesty about the situation was exactly what they needed to keep going.
Now, the waiting is almost over.
In seven days, Noah’s treatment will be complete.
Many people in Jackson are counting down those next seven days. Across the city, red “Team Noah” shirts are being worn which depict a lego man holding a baseball bat: two of Noah’s favorite things. Classmates are prepared to welcome him back to school and Noah keeps smiling and practicing his baseball swing in anticipation of next season when he won’t have to wear a mask.
But throughout Jackson, citizens have done more than simply wear a red shirt. Random acts of kindness have brought unexpected comfort from people whom the Ellsworth’s may never see again.
One day, Sarah stood in line at the post office with the Team Noah packages stacked in her arms. The Team Noah shirts, designed by a friend to show support for Noah, had to be mailed to people who didn’t live nearby. An older man behind her asked if she owned a business since she had so many packages. She told him about Noah and the shirts.
When she got to the front of the line to pay, a young man in the back of the line stepped forward and insisted on paying her bill. He had overheard the conversation and refused to give in to Sarah’s resistance. He paid the bill. Sarah began crying, which only encouraged the people in line to begin asking about what was happening. One woman spoke up and asked if she could buy a Team Noah shirt.
Sarah was overwhelmed.
When she got home, she began searching Facebook for the young man that had paid her bill. That’s when she found out that Curtis had lost his mother to cancer only a few weeks earlier.
On another night, the family decided to go to Chili’s. Noah couldn’t tolerate strong smells and was irritable on steroids. Dinner didn’t go well.
“Noah wasn’t thrilled to be there because of the smells, but he went. Chubby cheeks, thinned hair, and all,” said Sarah.
That night, Chili’s gave them a gift card to pay for the family’s meal when Noah would be done with treatment, which would be two years away. The staff told the Ellsworths to call before they came in again.
One night, Noah’s counts were good, so the family decided to got out, but first they called ahead. When they arrived, Chili’s had a table ready, with “Go Team Noah” decorations.
During treatment, Noah joined a baseball team even though he knew that he would miss many games. On a day when Noah couldn’t play, the team put his number on the back of their helmets. The baseball moms became familiar with Noah’s struggles and even carried snacks in their purse, in case Noah had a sudden craving or need to eat.
The Ellsworths’ church cooked meals most weeks including frozen meals for particularly long days of waiting at St. Jude. The church prayed, cleaned their house, took kids to school, and sent mail to Noah’s mailbox at St. Jude.
In 2014, Jackson Christian School had a sign in the front lawn about their St. Jude Math-A-Thon. Sarah called to thank the school and tell them what a blessing St. Jude had been to them. In response, many classrooms sent Noah letters to encourage him in his treatment.
Noah has had twelve transfusions, four MRIs, three CAT scans, 519 doses of steroids, two surgeries, over 150 clinic visits, 136 weeks of chemo, twenty-seven spinal taps, four bone marrow aspirates, eleven inpatient stays, and has traveled over 22,700 miles to receive treatment. His family has never received a bill.
In 2015, the family planned to go to RIFA’s annual fundraiser to see Steven Curtis Chapman. Unfortunately, Noah’s counts were not good enough to attend the event and sit in a crowd of people. The kids were devastated. But RIFA offered for the family to watch the concert from backstage and personally meet Steven Curtis Chapman.
The stories of kindness to this family from people in Jackson are countless. Where negative stories about greed, crime, and fighting may sometimes dominate, there are stories of generosity, kindness, and peace that should not be forgotten.
“Noah’s journey has affected so many people,” said Sarah. “This isn’t just his story. . . . It has been a story of God’s faithfulness to us. We wouldn’t have picked this journey but, in many ways, we are so thankful for it.”
In seven days, there will be no more waiting.
Noah will take off the mask that has hidden his smile for far too long.
The port that has intruded his chest, much too close to his heart, will only be a scar and memory.
In seven days, Noah and his family will finally see the hope that others have held on to for them when they had none.
This courageous boy has jumped high and beat gravity. And God has used the lives of countless people to hold him up.
Go Team Noah!
To read more about Noah’s journey, go visit his dad’s blog.
Proud to be a local Jacksonian, Ginger Williams tried to move away in college, but Jackson has that magnetic quality that pulls you back. As a child she lived in the trees, read lots of books, and wrote stories, and not much has changed. Ginger is a writer, a journalist, a volunteer, a homeschool mom, and a marketing associate for Reed Marketing. Her husband Matt and sons Blake and Ethan love living in Jackson and enjoying ice cream at the Old Country Store, soccer at North Park, and being only ten minutes from everything so that they are almost never late. She loves to tell the stories of Jackson so that others will become endeared to the city that she loves.
Photography by Ginger Williams.