The Pope, The Clown and The Cross
(I originally posted this on September 28, 2009 and it has always been one of my favorites. I am reposting it now since I assume many current readers of the blog have not read it, and, with the recent death of my son, Larry, it now has a special meaning for me.)
In 1957 comedian Red Skelton was on top of the world. His weekly comedy show on CBS was doing well. He had curtailed the drinking which had almost derailed his career. Not too shabby for a man who had started out as a circus and rodeo clown and who was now often called the clown prince of American comedy. He and his wife Georgia had two beautiful kids: Richard and Valentina Maria. Then the worst thing in the world for any parent entered into the lives of Red and Georgia Skelton: Richard was diagnosed with leukemia. Unlike today, a diagnosis of leukemia in a child in 1957 was tantamount to saying that Richard was going to die soon. Red immediately took a leave of absence from his show. CBS was very understanding and a series of guest hosts, including a very young Johnny Carson, filled in for Skelton during the 1957-1958 season.
Red and his wife made two decisions. First, they decided not to reveal to their son how ill he was; if worse came to worst they wanted him to enjoy the time he had left. The boy’s leukemia was temporarily in remission and outwardly he appeared healthy. When the boy saw “The Last Days of Pompeii” on TV and was fascinated by it, his mom and dad made their second decision. They were going to take him and his sister to Europe so the boy could see Pompeii and other parts of Europe and the world, and to allow the parents to consult with foreign physicians and also to conduct a pilgrimage for their son. The Skeltons were Protestants, indeed, Red was an active Mason, but they had chosen to educate their kids at a Catholic school and Richard was very religious, his room filled with religious pictures and statues. Like many Christians of whatever denomination, in their hour of utmost need the Skeltons decided to seek aid of the Catholic Church.
The entertainment press was just as aggressive then as it is now. Skelton informed the press why his family was going on an around the world trip, but asked their assistance in helping keep from his son that he was afflicted with a mortal illness. Amazingly enough, the American press agreed to help him. The American ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate behaving quite honorably in this instance.
The British press was quite another matter. While the Skeltons were in England during their trip, the British tabloids, always in a contest to see which paper can be the most vicious and cruel, denounced the trip as a cheap publicity stunt by Red Skelton. Richard learned of his grave illness by reading one of these disgusting rants. Only nine years old, however, the boy was a fighter. “Everybody says I’m going to die but that means everybody but me.”, was his brave reaction to the news.
On July 22, 1957 the Skeltons had a private audience with Pius XII. There was nothing unusual about this. Pius considered it as part of his duties to meet with anyone who wished to see him: rich or poor, Catholic or non-Catholic. These audiences often had a large impact on the people who saw the Pope. For instance, while Rome was occupied by Germany during World War II, German troops, Protestant and Catholic alike, flocked to see the Pope, until such visits were forbidden by the Nazis, fearful of the impact of the Pope’s words regarding mercy and Christian charity on the troops.
The Pope spent a great deal of time talking to the Skeltons. He blessed Richard and the other members of the family and gave them religious medals. Red would later describe this visit as the high point of his son’s life. The Pope gave them these words of comfort, which really are the only words of comfort for members of a family when one of them is nearing death. “Life is eternal because of God. So if life is taken away from one person in a family they are never separated because the family will always live together in eternal life with God.”
The family saw Pompeii which greatly interested Richard. Arriving in Paris he said, upon being asked by a reporter, that he wanted to see the Eiffel Tower. When asked as a follow up what else he wanted to see, he showed that perhaps he shared his father’s comedic talent. “What else is there?”
The family had a great deal of fun, but the European physicians could offer no hope. In August the Skeltons went to Lourdes. “God alone can save my boy’s life as science has done all it can.”, was Red Skelton’s comment at the time.
After they returned to the States, the leukemia came out of remission and took its dreadful course. Richard underwent treatment at the UCLA medical center. His parents were constant visitors to see him. Both father and son did their best to keep up the spirits of the other children undergoing treatment by telling jokes. On one occasion Red Skelton sat up most of the night with a young girl who was undergoing surgery and kept reassuring her that everything was going to be all right, as it turned out to be in her case.
“The doctor was as gentle as he could be when he told me there was a good chance I had something that would mean amputating my leg. I remember crying for hours that night. The night before surgery I was very scared. My mother was at home with three small children and I had a difficult time falling asleep. When I finally gave in and allowed sleep to take over, it wasn’t for long. I awoke to find my friend Richard’s father asleep in the chair next to my bed. He woke up soon after I did, and in a very gentle voice kept telling me it was going to be ok. I just had to believe. There he stayed for most of the night. I would sleep and waken, and he would sometimes be asleep, other times he’d smile and comfort me.
Surgery went well, and my leg wasn’t amputated, but I was in and out of surgeries, casts, and the hospital for the next two years. Richard passed away from leukemia the second year, but has lived on in my heart and memory. His father became my hero as I watched him on television, then and in later years. For during the time I knew Mr. Skelton and his son Richard, I only saw their courage, compassion, and tender hearts. I saw a man who was “in character” to make the children laugh and forget their illnesses, but I also saw a very gentle man who was not “in character”, as he sat by the bed of a fatherless 11 year old. Setting aside his own fears, or sadness, Red Skelton, the clown who entertained millions during the early days of television, made sure I was able to face a scary situation with the hope it was going to be ok.”
I find this remarkable. Dealing with the approaching death of his own son, Red Skelton found it within himself to keep up the spirits of other children. I guess he really meant it when he said, “God’s children and their happiness are my reasons for being”. In the years to come Skelton would become a major donor for charities for sick kids, and would also assist children through his establishment of the Red Skelton Foundation in his hometown of Vincennes, Indiana.
Throughout his treatment at UCLA Richard kept a bag packed near his bed at home just in case the leukemia would go into remission again and his family could go on another trip together. Heartbreakingly, that was not to be the case. As his tenth birthday neared, his father brought a catalog to his son so he could pick out what he wanted. He did so and also picked out a surprise gift for his mother for mother’s day.
The end came for Richard on May 10, 1958, a week before his 10th birthday. As he lay dying he asked his father to remember to get his mother the red blanket he had picked out since he didn’t think they’d let him out of the hospital so that he could buy it himself. An hour later his gallant struggle against leukemia ended. His mother and father wept quietly by his bedside for half an hour.
Shortly after the boy’s death, a package arrived from the Vatican. It contained a crucifix blessed by Pope Pius XII. Just before his death the boy had requested the crucifix, and the Pope had immediately sent it. Richard doubtless realized the great truth that the crucifix is the symbol of Christ’s victory over death, and our victory also. The mortal remains of Richard Skelton were buried with the crucifix in his hands. I have absolutely no doubt that the soul of the brave young boy who loved God so much immediately enjoyed the Beatific Vision after his period of travail on Earth. As Red Skelton said after the death of his son, “I want the thousands of people who have written us that they prayed for Richard during his illness to have faith that God will answer their prayers.”