For these families of Ronald McDonald House, the stunning McLaren 650S Spider proved to be a welcome sight
McKayla Warder is waiting for a new heart; her own was irreparably damaged by a rare congenital defect. She survived experimental surgery before she was even born, and she’s been on a transplant list before. Though she’s overcome incredible odds — her family was told she had less than one per cent chance of surviving — the original wait list calculus saw her removed when her odds of a favourable recovery dimmed. The fact she is back on the list buoys hope and buys time for McKayla and her family. McKayla is four years old.
Sometimes I drive to run away from problems, large and small, real and imagined. Doesn’t matter what the car is. It’s the time and space between me and whatever I have to deal with, an attempt to pull myself away from some dream that isn’t. I met some kids recently who don’t have that option, kids who taught me a lot about bravery and love. Not superheroes, not geniuses, just kids. The idea was pretty straight forward: I called the Ronald McDonald House in Toronto to see if any of the families currently staying there would be interested in taking a ride in a cool car.
The McLaren 650S Spider I’d borrowed for the visit is stunning. You can’t overstate it. This is a supercar. McLaren builds race cars, and while those with deep pockets (my press vehicle clocked in at $350,000) can have one in their driveway, it is first and foremost a race car. There is no rocket ship dashboard, no dizzying array of complicated knobs and buttons and screens. It is beautiful and streamlined inside and out, the focus on a roar of an engine once heard, never forgotten, an engine that moves you to 100 km/h from a standstill in 2.9 seconds.
The forecast threatened rain, but it didn’t happen. I dropped the top and flung open those scissored doors, those doors that make you smile a little every time. Each time they arced skyward I had children gasping, loving the fun, in awe of the physics.
You’ve heard it before: when a child is facing catastrophic illness, so is their whole family. Ronald McDonald Houses around the world recognize this and create family-oriented living arrangements so families can stay together with their sick kids. Siblings attend class while parents can base close to the hospital, waiting for calls that often come with little or no warning. Ronald McDonald Houses are havens. There are 14 across Canada.
Jasmine Warder, seven, is McKayla’s older sister. When all the time and attention and resources are directed at one child for so long, siblings play a complicated role. Living at the House, Jasmine and her brothers Zachary, 10 and Tristan, 2, and mom Rejeanne are far from Windsor and the family home. Dad Justin comes out on weekends after working on the Chrysler line all week. The family has been here for several months now, with little McKayla a block away in Mount Sinai Hospital. “Last year was a perfect year; we had a whole year at home,” says Justin. Tristan has never known anything different, but for the older two, the tug of home is unmistakable.
Off to the side, a young couple stood shyly, a baby stroller between them. Baby Mia is four months old. As I peered in, her Mom, Kayla, shyly showed me where her baby had open-heart surgery at 12 days old. Her tiny chest was the length of my finger, an angry scar running down half of it. Mia stared up at me; Mia was scheduled for more surgery in two days. Jordan and Kayla are from Newfoundland, the House their only support system out here. Both parents took turns in the car, and then posed proudly for photos with tiny Mia.
“It seems crazy, riding like this, in this car; it lets you forget things just for a few minutes,” Mia’s dad Jordan told me. “Not that I ever forget, but you know what I mean.” I did. I’d heard the same thing over and over from parents and older siblings. A car that takes your breath away can also take your cares away. It’s something I’d always known, but never before considered the power of. I asked Jordan if he followed McLaren in Formula One racing. “Well, we have a TV, but it’s not hooked up to cable, you know, money,” he said quietly. Jordan and Kayla are about the same age as my kids.
A few minutes later, I told Zachary Warder to look in the side mirror. “There’s a cop!” he laughed. He asked if I get arrested a lot driving this car. Back at the House, the story quickly morphed. Jasmine began telling people that the cops had been chasing her brother and me.
Bailey Barrett, 17, slid into the passenger seat, pulling the door down and buckling up. Grinning as he realized people were taking pictures with their phones, I asked how he was doing. He’s been back at the House for nearly two months, experiencing some issues after a heart transplant two years ago. “I’m OK, but my sister back home in Newfoundland, she had a baby and I know my mom is dying to see her first grandchild.” I thought of a stranger’s heart beating in this child’s chest, and his mom back at the House whose heart was being stretched across so many children.
“But there’s so many things I couldn’t do before, that now I can. I couldn’t go on roller coasters.” Bailey wouldn’t have been able to do laps at a track in this car; the experience is more adrenaline pumping than any roller coaster. I was spending the day with the toughest kids I’d ever met, being reminded at every turn just how fragile we really are.
There was a bit of conversation happening away from the car. Eric, 16, was determined to go for a ride. Currently undergoing chemotherapy, his temperature had just spiked and he had to return to the hospital. Now. Eric was getting into the car, tucking his chemo backpack carefully at his feet. His Dad looked at me: two minutes, I promised.
It was Eric’s little brother, Antoine, however, who very much defined the day. At seven, he has more poise and insight than I could ever hope to. He told me how much he was enjoying the car. He told me Eric had been looking forward to it, hence the determination. He then told me they had to be very, very careful with his brother’s temperature: if it went above 37 degrees, they had to worry. He knew at what point they had to “immediately” get to the hospital. “It’s because it’s a bad sign for his white blood cells,” he told me earnestly. I asked him if he worried about his brother. “Yeah,” he said, quiet for the first time. “Cancer is awful.”
We pulled back into the lot, and he asked if he could sit in the driver’s seat.
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Special thanks to Ronald McDonald House Toronto for helping set up this great day, and to McLaren Toronto for loaning the truly spectacular car.