A year to the day after she buried her son, Joanie Halgrim rode in a minivan down a rocky dirt road not far from the airport in Nairobi, Kenya. Her stomach turned from the stench of rotting garbage and raw sewage mingling with exhaust fumes and the acrid smoke from sizzling meat peddled by street vendors.
The van stopped in the midst of some bleak gray apartment blocks, their balconies festooned with drying clothes flapping in the sun.
She and the other travelers got out and entered an austere concrete block building. It didn’t look nearly finished, and yet in a week’s time it would be a home to unwanted children, a place where they would sleep in neat rows of new wooden bunk beds upstairs.
As she walked around the dusty interior of the orphanage last month, deep feelings welled up inside Joanie. On the second floor, she found a balcony and walked outside to be by herself. And she started to cry.
She thought about the many times she had prayed for a miracle when her son, John, was sick.
She realized that maybe now she was getting it.
It was a year and a half before, in April last year, when the two ladies came to the Halgrim house in Fort Myers, Florida.
“Think of me as your fairy godmother,” one of them, Sue Fenger, told 15-year-old John Halgrim.
She was a volunteer from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the charity that helps dreams come true for children with life-threatening ailments. He was a boy with a time bomb in his brain.
“I’ve been thinking about this,” John told her.
He had considered a trip to the Bahamas after hearing about an opulent resort called Atlantis, where guests get to swim with dolphins.
But as John’s illness intensified, a different idea came to mind.
Maybe the mission videos he’d seen at church planted the seed — the ones showing kids living in slums without running water. Or maybe it was that TV program about parentless African children being forced into slavery.
Whatever the reason, John became fixated on those children — and that place.
“I want to stop the hunger in Africa,” he told the wish-granter. “I want to open an orphanage in Africa.”
That, of course, wasn’t what Fenger expected. Other kids ask to go to a movie premiere or even meet the president. That kind of wish can usually be granted. But this?
“John, that’s a really big wish,” she said. “I’m not sure Make-A-Wish can do a wish like that. Do you have a second wish?”
John got quiet. Then he made up his mind.
“Nope,” he said, “that’s my only wish.”
He was, in so many ways, an ordinary kid. But he also believed steadfastly in God and still, somehow, miracles. And he believed he would eventually be healed, that this thing in his brain was put there so he could do something important.
This, he decided, was important.
The headaches began more than a year before the wish-granters came calling, in early 2006, around the time John turned 14.
His mom insisted on an MRI. The radiologist who performed the procedure in March 2006 knew right away what he was looking at.
He showed John’s parents the thing in the boy’s head, a black spot in the middle of the image of his skull. Joanie thought it looked like a little bomb had exploded in there.
At first, John felt relieved. At least they knew what was wrong. Now, maybe, the headaches would stop.
Then he started to get scared. His Aunt Debbie, Joanie’s older sister, had a brain tumor — and she died.