Garden of Gratitude

A former patient gives back to St. Jude.

Brandon Dill

He was only 6 years old when a rare form of leukemia changed the course of Jeremiah Godby’s life. At one point his condition was so dire that the boy started planning his funeral. According to his mother, Kathleen Sherwood, he wanted to be buried with his Nintendo and wearing his Chicago Bulls T-shirt, while loved ones sang “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

But thanks to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where young Jeremiah and his family spent considerable time throughout his childhood, Godby isn’t just a memory or a tragic statistic. After intensive chemotherapy and radiation, and a bone-marrow transplant from his younger brother, he’s been in remission for 20 years.

Today the 26-year-old holds a degree in landscape design from Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and owns a landscaping business there. As part of a survivor study at St. Jude, he took time on a visit last August to share with hospital officials an idea — his unique way to express gratitude to the institution that stopped leukemia in its tracks.

That idea is The Hope Garden located near an entrance to St. Jude. In March, Godby brought with him to Memphis several students from Parkland’s horticulture department and a Parkland professor, Kaizad Irani, who played a large role in designing the garden. (Irani won the landscape design competition for the remembrance garden being constructed at Ground Zero in New York City.) Working together during Parkland’s spring break, the group gave shape to Godby’s vision.

The design includes a walking labyrinth with a heart at the center made of brightly painted pavers; the artwork represents a tree in each season, and the roots of the tree point to the hospital entrance. The mazelike configuration of the garden represents the journey the child and family take as they navigate life after a cancer diagnosis. Within the labyrinth are benches where visitors — whether they’re patients, family members, or staff — can enjoy the sun, admire the flowers, and read the inscriptions on the pavers lining the garden’s perimeter. One, for example, reads: “You ask why I laugh in Satan’s face. Because I’m a fighter!”

Godby says his idea came from a Champaign hospital that has a “healing garden.” When he talked to St. Jude officials about building one on the campus, they readily agreed, after several doctors and researchers met to ensure that the final product would be safe for children and a comfort to families.

The 6,000-square-foot triangular space is planted with crape myrtles, burning bush, dwarf hollies, sweetbay magnolia, laurels, a variety of ornamental grasses, daylilies, and a mix of annuals. St. Jude contributed funds toward the concrete work, Godby and Irani donated their time and creativity, and some 40 students helped to prepare and plant the garden and lay the pavers, which were painted by patients, family members, and the students themselves. They also raised funds in their community to pay for the majority of the garden expenses and to cover their travel expenses to and from Memphis.

Recalling the garden’s ribbon cutting in early March, Godby says he was so moved he could barely talk: “Words couldn’t express how happy I was. We were all crying, my parents, the students, all of us — but we were happy.”

As he returns to St. Jude as part of the survivor study, he expects to visit the garden and hopes to see children playing there, while family members enjoy the natural beauty and mingle with others who share their worries.

His mother, who lives in Clinton, Illinois, remembers the days of being a frightened young mother whose son wasn’t supposed to live. The bone marrow transplant had been done only twice before, with children having that type of cancer. “But Jeremiah helped us make the decision to try it,” she says. “I had prepared myself for him to die, but he lived, and it still makes me emotional.

Recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Sherwood says their lives have come full circle. “Last time we came to St. Jude, he pushed me in my wheelchair. I’m not glad my son had cancer, but I find the blessings in it now. There are plenty of blessings at St. Jude.” M

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