Hope and the Great Pumpkin

Sean has had two sleepovers in the past two weekends. He’s exhausted. I am always exhausted. Tonight, as we battled for that last half hour of contentment before resigning to bed, we watched Charlie Brown’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin” and I have so much to say.

As an early disclaimer, I grew up in a Catholic church with incredible priests: men who could take the gospel and make it real and liveable to every participant. Monsignor Mahoney, was one who became a beloved family friend and ultimately officiated my wedding. Father Mahoney caught my attention as a child in his homilies as he often referenced the Peanuts gang. So that my theology goes back to Charlie Brown may seem brilliant, but it is admittedly not entirely original.

For those of you who haven’t seen “The Great Pumpkin” in a while, I am here to provide a brief reminder.  Charlie Brown’s best friend, Linus, is filled with anticipation and joy about the upcoming arrival of the Great Pumpkin.  Per Linus, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch and brings toys to all the boys and girls. Linus foregoes trick or treating awaiting the arrival of the majestic Great Pumpkin. Linus’s sister, Lucy, is verbally outraged at his foolish belief and behavior. Charlie Brown’s smitten sister, Sally, stays with Linus, believing they will celebrate the Great Pumpkin’s arrival together.

Spoiler alert:  the Great Pumpkin doesn’t come. Sally is enraged. Linus is dismayed. And mean Lucy, in spite of herself, rescues Linus from the patch and lovingly brings him back to  bed. Upon awaking, Linus professes NO remorse to Charlie Brown for his devotion to the Great Pumpkin.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you palliative care. Hope. The loud voice of second opinion. Tenacity. Discouragement. Support. Unbreakable faith.

Again, with a nod of gratitude to Father Mahoney for illuminating the theology within the Peanuts gang, I offer these thoughts. The Great Pumpkin is special: whether it be as ethereal as the Holy Spirit, as pragmatic as a symbol of hope, or as allegorical as treatment for advanced disease, that Pumpkin represents something worth waiting for. Linus, ever the representative of humanity seeking the Lord, remains steadfast in his belief of this wonderful thing that he has never seen. In this story, Linus is Faith 101.

Linus’s faith is unwavered by the mockery of his friends and especially his sister. Linus’s faith becomes a clear and shiny hope, an anticipation of a delivery of belief. Linus is every parent of a child with cancer. Linus is a stage IV patient returning to MD Anderson. It isn’t that Linus doesn’t hear the Peanuts gang mocking him, and it most certainly isn’t that Linus doesn’t want to trick or treat. To be sure, Linus takes all of that in but is instead drunk with hope that no one can dare call false because they don’t know any better.

The night in the Pumpkin patch is the perfect allegory for a season of disease treatment. Linus and Sally stay side by side, certain for the arrival of the “Great Pumpkin”. Friends come and mock their choice. They offer the option of leaving for something more fun. Linus at one point becomes so convinced he has in fact seen the Great Pumpkin (which is only Snoopy) he passes out. Eventually, weary from waiting, Sally, the primary caregiver of Linus, leaves in a heap of frustration. Linus seems sad, but remains steadfast in his belief.

To me, the most touching and poignant moment of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” comes in a scene with no dialogue. Lucy, Linus’s sister, awakens at 4 am to realize Linus is still out in the pumpkin patch. Silently, she trudges out and assists the very cold and sleepy Linus to bed. She doesn’t gloat, she doesn’t ask for thanks.  This character who has represented opposition to belief in a thing unseen, succumbs to love for her brother and seemingly forgives him for his devotion to a hopeful notion.  Perhaps, she even loves him a little for it.

Many many days, I meet patients and families who remind me of Linus. Boldly optimistic and infatuated with hope. For the love of GOD, if I do anything right in my job, I never ever want to squash that hope or depress their inner Linus.  The challenge is how to break the news that the “Great Pumpkin” they thought was coming, isn’t, BUT there is still reason to stay in the patch with a heart filled with hope. The challenge is to remind Sally her time wasn’t wasted and to encourage Lucy to not wait until 4 am to show her kindness.

I love the Peanuts gang and I love working in Palliative care. And I encourage each of you reading, to spend a moment, in a pumpkin patch, spiritually beside Linus, with a heart full of hope.