It was an emotional storytime for Barbara Louise Clouse, who returned to The Children's Inn at NIH on June 20 for the first time since her daughter's death three years ago.
Children who are living at the Inn, in Bethesda, lounged on bean bag chairs and cuddled with resident therapy dog, Viola, as Clouse read, "The Healing Lodge," a book she wrote in honor of her daughter, Michelle Louise Brackett.
Michelle was diagnosed with primary liver cancer when she was 23. She spent the next two years at The Children's Inn while her parents, both remarried, took turns at her side.
Michelle died in 2009.
The Children's Inn is a nonprofit that provides free housing and activities for families whose ill children are being treated at the National Institutes of Health. The Inn accepts people up to 26 years old.
"I was a stranger from Oklahoma, scared to death and trying to be strong for my daughter," said Clouse of Muskogee, Okla. "You walk in that door, you're family."
Told like a Native American legend, “The Healing Lodge” is a nod to Clouse's Cherokee heritage and is inspired by her stay at the Inn. It tells the story of a cave near the shores of the great water, just under the rising sun. It is a place where strangers offer comfort and sick children grow strong.
Among Clouse's listeners were Courtney Fiorio and her daughter Bella, 7, who is being treated at the NIH for osteogenesis imperfecta.
"That means I can break my bones really easily," said Bella of Boynton Beach, Fla.
She has suffered through more than two dozen breaks, mostly in her femur, which requires a full body cast for six weeks.
"She's doing great now," Courtney said. "When did you get to stand up and walk?"
"On my birthday," Bella said.
A portion of Clouse's royalties will be donated to the Inn, though she gives most of the books away. She donated 100 of them to The Children's Inn; she also reads at libraries and schools.
A walk around the NIH was more difficult than Clouse expected.
But Michelle was with her, kept close by the NIH identification badge she once wore and a snapshot of her final wish, to swim with dolphins.
"Now it's kind of getting to me, but I walked with joy," Clouse said.