It's easy to feel guilty when you're creaming a kid with cancer in UNO or Fussball, but the Lebanese and Syrian kids with whom I play each week in Beirut love a tough match.
"No matter how bad they feel, you'll see that the children want you to distract them from their pain -- they know the healing value of play," the volunteer coordinator said on my first day at the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon -- affiliated with St. Jude's.
As I handed her my volunteer forms a year ago, I could not have foreseen my future UNO battles with a Lebanese pre-teen from the south -- or my competitive fussball matches with a ten-year old girl missing her hair, but definitely not her spunk.
"Children aren't attached to their suffering -- unlike adults who will go on and on about how sick they were with a cold two weeks after it's passed," she added.
With his mouth obscured by a Mickey Mouse surgical mask, and his ski cap pulled half-way over his eyes, Mahmoud has a poker face I can't match. But since our favorite game is UNO, it's mainly just a matter of chance.
Draw Two. Every time I'm forced to draw two cards, Mahmoud's poker face cracks to flash a faint smile. Sometimes, when the game gets real heated, I'll ask a helper to step in to cool me down -- like this adorable toddler in a royal blue silk scarf, who never stops blowing me kisses from behind her mask.
At two years old, she's too young for self-pity, and too present for some grand narrative to make sense of it all.
"Do you know what is written on her shirt?" I asked her young mother, the first day we met.
"No, I don't know English," her mother said.
"It says, 'Play with me'," I said.
And so we play. Put stickers on our noses. Piece together puzzles. Trace our hands with crayons. In the playroom, my little friends -- Sunni, Shia, Druze and Christian -- all play together in peace, while fighting for their lives. Here, religious differences are checked at the door. Because in the playroom, all of us are one -- uno.
Reverse. Whenever Mahmoud puts down three reverse cards in a row, it's like he's playing himself -- and then I have time to check on the others. Like little Samir -- a one-year old with cancer -- who's also developmentally disabled. But instead of prompting pangs of pity -- his laugh, which contains more joy than I can muster in a year, does just the reverse -- and makes us pity ourselves.
Skip. Mahmoud and I tend to skip a lot of what's happening around us. Like when we played an intense game of UNO straight through a sweet sixteen party. Because in Beirut -- even in the cancer ward -- the party must go on.
In solidarity with the birthday girl -- her long brown hair topped with a twinkling tiara and her mouth covered by a mask -- her high school friends sported matching masks with the number 16 taped on them in hot pink. Dressed in Oxford shirts and preppy jeans, they kept stealing glances at the toddlers -- in between photos and bites of cake. This was a birthday they would never forget -- and many had to leave the room in tears.
The playroom is not for the faint of heart. It is a seminar in suffering -- a meditation on its indiscriminate ways. A laboratory for playing with and despite pain. A reminder to not be defined by one's suffering, and a master class in finding moments of joy hidden in unbearable sorrow.
"Do you have Facebook?" Mahmoud asks me -- when he thinks I don't notice him cheating.
"No -- do you?" I reply.
They all do -- even the four-year old who's always coloring Smurfs. I need to get with the times, they tell me. Buy an iPad too, while I'm at it -- and get rid of my crap phone.
"And get on Facebook so you can be our friend," they said in unison one day -- revealing their motive for getting me to join.
Until that moment, I'd never imagined that the kids and I might one day be connected outside of the hospital. While I'd learned details about their lives -- fleeing snipers in Tripoli, learning French in school -- I'd never considered that our connection was something far greater than could be contained by those colorful playroom walls.
"If I join Facebook, you will be the first friends I add," I replied, imagining myself cyberfriending a troupe of mostly bald kids, whose mothers keep showing me their pre-chemo photos in their phones.
Wild Card: Draw Four. Whenever I draw four cards, Mahmoud licks his chapped lips, as if preparing for the final kill. While we do battle, parents in the playroom debate whether Lebanon's policy of dissociation on Syria is protecting it. Well, I'm dissociating too. Because in the playroom, I don't see cancer -- I see kids. And this protects me -- and them -- from the cascade of tears that would flow -- if I only saw them for their sickness.
With its 18 religious groups, Lebanon is just as colorful as a UNO deck -- and stacked with even more wild cards. When the government falls, as it tends to do, Lebanon "skips" to the next, and when violence erupts, there is talk that the country is going in "reverse" -- back to the civil war. But many are still holding out hope that -- despite the odds and wild cards -- everyone might just come together as one -- as the cancer kids do, every day, in the playroom.
UNO. It's been a while now since I saw Mahmoud -- which I'm hoping is a good sign. Thankfully, eighty-percent of the kids at the center fully recover. The last time Mahmoud and I played UNO, I wanted to say, "I'm really pulling for you, and hoping you get well soon."
But before I could, Mahmoud just smiled, and said, "Uno."
To make a donation to the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon online, please go here