Smiles Before Christmas
Wednesday December 19
Royal Manchester Children's Hospital
1:45 PM GMT
On the day before, Kakeru started his rehab work by walking in a pool at Carrington under the supervision of the physiotherapists. His gait pattern was not the greatest, but it was good enough for the doctor to let Kakeru switch from crutches to a cane. Kakeru was instructed to use a cane whenever he goes out of his own apartment for the next few days. Nevertheless, he was still able to perform his clinical work.
In that sunny and cold Wednesday afternoon of December, Kakeru was doing his routine clinical practice work at the hospital. He was about to change his routine a little, and go meet his teammates at the entrance of the hospital for the team's annual visit at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. The entire squad was split into 3 groups so each group would visit one of 3 different hospitals – the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, the Christie Hospital, and the Francis House Children's Hospice. The largest group was set to visit the Royal Manchester Children's. Hospital visits became a tradition for clubs across disciplines, and it usually happens around a week before Christmas.
"Time to meet the team, Kakeru?" a nurse asked.
"Yes, Julie. They are about to arrive in a few minutes. I better wear the right kit for the occasion." Kakeru replied.
"I can't wait to see the kids' faces on our floor when they will see the players." Julie said.
"Not only this floor, Julie. There are other kids who would like to see me since my obligations kept me from leaving my department to visit them so far."
"You're right. See you later with the players."
"See you later." Kakeru finished.
Kakeru then got changed from a medical student's outfit to a clean kit that consisted of a track suit and track pants in Manchester United's colors. When the players finally got off the bus, Kakeru came to greet them at the front entrance.
"Hey, Kakeru!" Nana greeted Kakeru with a hug.
"Hey, Nana. How was training?" Kakeru asked.
"It went well. I really wanted to kick the ball this morning." Nana replied.
"That's good to hear." Kakeru said. "Where is Yusuke?"
"He's with the other group at the Christie." Nana replied.
"Nice to see you, Kakeru." Ander said.
"Thanks, Ando. How was training?"
"Nana gave me quite a run for my money today. She had lots of energy to burn."
"So you're working here when you're not in Carrington, eh?" Jesse asked Kakeru.
"For the last 4-week block before Christmas, yes. I really have a good time here, and I'm sure the kids will be very happy to see you."
"Well, let's not keep them waiting any longer. Here's your bag of gifts." Matthias gave Kakeru a bag full of gifts destined for the children. Those gifts were all official merchandise.
"Thanks. Matthias. Let's go then." Kakeru said.
Kakeru and the rest of the team followed the personnel and volunteers who would guide them on the tour of the hospital's different wards. On the ground floor, the players made their first contact with the children who were in the secondary medicine ward. Meanwhile, a few photographers and cameramen followed the players around. One of the wards the players came to visit just a floor above was the nephrology ward.
"Mister Aizawa. Miss Mishima." Dr. Montgomery greeted Kakeru and Nana.
"Dr. Montgomery. Nice to see you again." Nana shook hands with Dr. Montgomery.
"I'm sure the children can't wait." Kakeru said.
"They're all yours." Dr. Montgomery replied.
Then the players came to visit all young patients in the nephrology ward. For most of the children, it was a very special moment to meet their idols up close and personal.
"Hey, look who this is. It's Kakeru Aizawa." a father said to his son, who was a patient in the ward.
"Hello." Kakeru came to meet the father and his son.
"Say hello." the father said to his son.
"Hello." the boy replied timidly.
"My name is Kakeru. What is your name?" Kakeru asked the boy.
"Nice to meet you, Rupert. How old are you?"
"Eight." Rupert replied.
"Do you like playing football?"
"Yes." Rupert replied.
"Who's your favorite Manchester United player?" Kakeru asked.
"Matthias Köhler. I would like to be a tough defender like him."
"Yeah, Matthias is the toughest defender I know. Want to meet him?"
"Matthias, you have a very young fan who wants to meet you. His name's Rupert." Kakeru said.
"Hello, Rupert. Want a gift?" Matthias asked.
"There you go. I have some here."
Matthias then gave Rupert a Manchester United shirt and a baseball cap. The German wrote his autograph on the hat as well, which brought a big smile on Rupert's face. Kakeru and Nana also gave Rupert signed cards.
"Can I get a picture of my son with some of you people?" Rupert's father asked.
"Of course." Kakeru replied before he turned to Rupert, and asked: "Is there anyone else you want in the picture with Matthias and me?"
"I'm in." Nana said.
In a matter of seconds, Rupert's father took 2 pictures of his son with the 3 Manchester United players.
"Here you go. Thanks a lot, people." Rupert's father said.
"It's our pleasure, sir. Have a good day." Kakeru replied.
"Get well soon, Rupert." Nana said.
"Thank you, Nana Mishima."
The players continued interacting with children and parents in the ward. The children were either in the corridors, in their rooms, or in the hemodialysis room. At some point, Kakeru and Nana entered the hemodialysis room where 2 children were having their treatment, and one of them caught Kakeru and Nana's attention.
"Hi, there." Nana came to meet a young girl of Chinese descent. That girl was wearing a child-sized Manchester United shirt.
"Kakeru Aizawa and Nana Mishima... Hello."
"What is your name?" Nana asked.
"Mei-Ling... Mei-Ling Chang." the girl replied; her eyes were sparkling.
"How old are you, Mei-Ling?" Kakeru asked.
"I'm 10. I'm a big fan of you two and Manchester United."
"Thank you." Kakeru said. "Hold on, I think I have seen you before. It was back in October."
"Yes, I have been here since early October. I'm waiting for a kidney transplant, but no one in family is compatible." Mei-Ling replied.
"Sorry to hear about that. I hope they will find you a kidney soon." Kakeru said. "Are you friends with a boy named Brendan?"
"Brendan and Claire have become my friends since Brendan came here. They come to visit me when they can."
"That's a very good thing to have friends. No matter what happens, they are there to support you. Don't ever lose hope, Mei-Ling."
"You're right, Kakeru." Mei-Ling replied.
"I have a gift for you. You definitely deserve one." Nana said.
Nana then took a wrapped gift out of her bag, and gave it to Mei-Ling. The wrapped gifts were preferably given to children who were very sick. When Mei-Ling took the wrap away, she was happy to find a gym bag, a box of candies, a duvet, and a knit cap.
"Awesome!" Mei-Ling exclaimed.
"Do you want us to sign your shirt too?" Nana asked.
"Yes." Mei-Ling replied with a big smile.
Kakeru and Nana then took their markers to sign Mei-Ling's shirt. After that, Mei-Ling reached for something on the nightstand next to his bed. There was a small handmade card where she made a color-penciled drawing of herself, Nana and Kakeru.
"It's for you."
"Thank you, Mei-Ling." Kakeru said before he and Nana took a look at the card. "Well done. I love it."
"Wow! That's very good." Nana also had a big smile on her face.
"Nana." Mei-Ling said.
"If I leave the hospital, I really want to see you play for real."
"You will make it, and I will make sure you go see a match with your parents someday. Stay strong." Nana replied.
"Thank you, Nana." Mei-Ling hugged Nana
A few seconds later, Kakeru and Nana asked the official photographer to take a picture, with Mei-Ling's permission of course. When Kakeru and Nana came out of the hemodialysis room, Dr. Montgomery came to meet them.
"I see you two met the little lass." Dr. Montgomery said.
"She told us her story. I really feel sorry for her." Kakeru replied.
"Unfortunately, her condition was in an advanced stage when she was brought to us, and both of her kidneys stopped functioning properly. She's on the waiting list for transplants, and we can only cross our fingers now. Still, we're taking good care of her for the time being, and we'll continue doing so for as long as it takes." Dr. Montgomery said.
"We wish there is something more we can do for her." Nana said.
"You have done more than enough by bringing back a smile on her face. The fact that she met her favorite players will make her feel better for some time. She will never forget this day."
"When she comes out of the hospital, I would be happy to invite her and her parents to see us play at Old Trafford." Nana said.
"I feel the same too." Kakeru added.
"Well, I will try to keep you informed if there is good news about her."
"Thank you, Dr. Montgomery." Nana finished
At that point, Dr. Montgomery parted ways with Kakeru and Nana.
"Poor little girl." Nana said.
"I agree with Dr. Montgomery though, Nana. If we can bring those smiles on the children's faces, then we are doing a good thing. We have to trust Dr. Montgomery and his colleagues in the wards." Kakeru said.
"I know. It's just the emotion." Nana replied.
"It's OK. Let's go and bring more smiles on kids' faces." Kakeru finished.
After the players were done in the nephrology ward, they moved on to the spinal injuries & orthopedics ward. A little later, the players went to the gastroenterology ward on the same floor. Kakeru, Nana, and Matthias then met a mother of Indian descent who was with her baby boy. The baby was lying on his back in a special baby crib for very young patients.
"Hello, there." Kakeru greeted.
"Hello." Nana and Matthias greeted as well.
"Hello. How are you?" the mother asked.
"We're having a good day so far. Lots of smiles everywhere." Kakeru replied. "What about you?"
"I'm doing well, thank you."
"I hope you don't mind the TV cameras. They're here to film the visit." Kakeru said.
"No, not at all." the mother replied. "By the way, my name is Archana."
"Nice to meet you, Archana. What is the name of your beautiful baby?" Nana asked Archana.
"Sanjeet... my little boy."
"Hello, Sanjeet." Kakeru, Nana, and Matthias said altogether.
All 3 players stood over Sanjeet, who giggled and smiled in return. Kakeru and Matthias took turns to play a little with Sanjeet by using their hands as something for the baby to grab on with his own tiny hands. Nevertheless, Sanjeet was particularly more responsive when Nana played with him.
"You like my hand?" Nana cooed to Sanjeet.
"How old is he?" Matthias asked Archana.
"Three months old. He seems to like you guys already. Sanjeet is usually not the most comfortable around strangers."
"That's nice." Kakeru said.
"Can I hold him for a moment?" Nana asked.
"Yeah, sure." Archana replied.
Archana then gently took Sanjeet, and put him in Nana's arms. The baby giggled and showed his best smile when Nana moved her smiling face closer to him. Kakeru also came in to tickle Sanjeet a little.
"Now that's a really sweet sight. I would like to take a picture of you two with Sanjeet as you are." Archana said.
"Sure. Go ahead." Nana replied.
"It's my pleasure as well." Kakeru added.
Kakeru and Nana posed for a couple of pictures with the latter holding the baby. What Archana saw was like a glimpse of what Kakeru and Nana would look like as parents in a near future.
"Thank you very much, both of you. I can only imagine what it will be like when you two will have children of your own. You will be good parents in the future." the mother said.
"We're flattered. Thank you." Nana replied.
As Kakeru continued watching Nana continue interacting with the little Sanjeet, the Japanese Knight was thinking about what Archana just said.
'Nana has such a natural touch with children. I really hope I can be as good in a father's role when the time will come.' Kakeru thought.
"Kakeru?" Nana asked.
"I switched off for a second. Sorry." Kakeru replied.
"Want to hold him?" Nana asked.
Kakeru then turned towards Archana and asked: "Can I hold him too?"
"Sure." Archana replied.
Nana then handed the baby to Kakeru. He made sure his arms were folded in the same way as Nana did. Sanjeet giggled and smiled when his gaze met Kakeru's. In return, Kakeru smiled as he slightly caressed Sanjeet's cheeks.
'There you go, Kakeru. I think you'll be fine on the day you will become a father.' Nana thought.
Kakeru then handed Sanjeet back to Archana before the 3 players gave a few Christmas gifts. Kakeru gave a duvet and a knit cap while Nana and Matthias gave an infant-sized Manchester United shirt and a teddy bear respectively.
"It was a pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much." Archana said.
"Thank you. I really wish Sanjeet a quick recovery, stay safe, and have a Merry Christmas." Kakeru replied.
After a few goodbyes, Kakeru, Nana, and Matthias were approached for a quick interview in the corridor. For this event, only the reporter from the official Manchester United television channel, MUTV, was allowed to ask the players about their impressions.
MUTV reporter: Kakeru... You spend some time doing clinical work at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, and you're a part of the annual visit before Christmas at the same time. Tell us your thoughts about the visit.
Kakeru: It's a good thing that the Manchester United Foundation put up something like this. It's always a pleasure for us to be here meeting with the kids. With the Holidays coming soon, it's tough for them. But they are always happy to see us. If we can put some smiles on faces to cheer them up, then it's always worth it.
MUTV reporter: Thank you a lot, Kakeru. Now on to Nana Mishima... Nana, on a day like this, can you tell me what a visit to the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital means to you?
Nana: It is very important and it's a great honor. When we're having bad days at work or on the pitch, we sometimes forget that there are more important things in life. Meeting the kids, giving them a few presents, and seeing them smile... it does a lot of good for the children and for us players too, especially before Christmas.
MUTV reporter: Thank you, Nana. Matthias... First time you come to the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. You were at the Christie last year. What do you make of today's visit here?
Matthias: As much as we try to bring smiles on kids' faces, it seems the kids are the ones who make us smile too. It's a great day to step away from football, and to revisit things that are really important in life. When you think of kids, you see kids running around and having fun. When you see them with their families in here, you have to feel for them. We try to make them happy for one day, and hopefully one small gesture from us can go a long way.
MUTV reporter: Thank you, guys.
After the quick interview was done, Kakeru, Nana, and Matthias joined the other players in completing their visit in the ward. Then all players moved on the floor above, and first came to what is known as Ward 84 – the ward for children who either have cancer or serious blood conditions. It was also the ward where Kakeru was working earlier in the day.
"Hello, Julie." Kakeru greeted upon arrival.
"Nice to see you again." Julie replied. "And Nana Mishima is with you as well."
"I was never going to sit that one out, even with a ban." Nana said.
"By the way, let me introduce myself. I'm Julie; I'm the chief nurse in this ward."
"Nice to meet you, Julie. You can simply call me Nana."
"Sure. Well, enjoy your time inside Ward 84." Julie said.
"Thank you, Julie." Nana replied.
"Well, let's go." Kakeru said.
Inside Ward 84, the Manchester United met the young patients fighting either cancer or other kinds of serious blood conditions. As they did in other departments, the players met young patients, and made them smile. For some patients, their immune systems were weakened so much that visitors had to wear masks and hospital gowns. Some of the patients had to be isolated, so much that each patient could only communicate with the outside the room through a phone. At one point, Kakeru, Nana, and Matthias met a 13-year-old teenage boy who was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma. The teenager was sitting on his bed with his mother at bedside.
"Hello, young man, and Madam of course." Kakeru greeted.
"Hello." the teenager replied.
"Good afternoon, M. Aizawa." the mother added.
"I would like you to meet my fiancée, Nana, and Matthias Köhler." Kakeru said.
"Nice to meet you." Nana and Matthias greeted altogether.
"Nice to meet you." the mother and her son replied.
"What's your name?" Nana asked the boy.
"Do you like football, Simon?" Matthias asked.
"I do, but we are City fans in my family." Simon replied.
"We may not share the same colors, but it's okay. We can have moments of peace like this." Nana said.
"I can't say I disagree with that. This is what this time of the year should be about." Simon's mother replied.
"Want a few signed cards?" Kakeru asked.
"Yes. I would like my mother to take a picture with you guys with me after that, but I will wear my blue City hat." Simon replied.
"As you wish." Matthias said.
After the 3 players gave their signed cards, and posed for pictures, Matthias continued talking with Simon a little longer. Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana took a few moments to talk with Simon's mother.
"You're doing a great job putting smiles on kids' faces. Thank you." Simon's mother said.
"It's our pleasure." Kakeru replied.
"Simon is a really brave boy going through the chemotherapy treatment, but he always enjoys meeting footballers."
"The City players were here a few days ago, am I right?" Kakeru asked.
"Yes, they were. Simon had a great time back then."
"I guess that's one advantage of having 2 teams in Manchester with both sides visiting the same hospitals so almost everybody is satisfied." Nana said.
"That's true." Simon's mother replied. "By the way, Ms. Mishima, I want to say that I fully support City as my club. However, I will never condone the things Ricardo Vernardi said to you a few weeks ago. There are boundaries that must not be crossed for the sake of human decency, and Vernardi lost a lot of respect I had for him."
"I'm really glad to hear it. Things like gender, race, and sexual orientation should never be attacked by a fellow player nor by anybody for that matter." Nana said.
"I think we better go now. There are other kids who would like to see us." Kakeru interjected.
"OK, I'll let you go. It was nice to meet you." Simon's mother said. "Oh, and Ms. Mishima... please stop scoring late winning goals against us, will you?"
"I will try." Nana replied between laughs.
"I wish Simon a speedy recovery, and a Merry Christmas. Good luck." Kakeru said.
"Thank you all." Simon's mother replied.
From there, Kakeru and his teammates continued visiting the other wards. After the visit was over, Kakeru stayed to finish his shift while Nana and the rest of the team left the hospital. Around 4:30 PM, Nana drove Kakeru to Carrington where he could take on another rehab session with the physios.
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
7:30 PM GMT
Kakeru and Nana already came back home a short time ago. Yusuke also joined them and Noriko for dinner. The 4 friends were about to start talking about the day they had. However, Nana received an important phone call from Miwa.
"Miwa-san?" Nana asked.
"I hope I'm not calling at a bad time." Miwa replied.
"Not at all. So, how did things go in London with my appeal?"
"When United's representatives and I made our case to them, the disciplinary panel appeared to be staggered by what we presented them as evidence, including that old video from Kakeru-kun's match against Kamakura High School." Miwa said.
"Have they made a decision to overturn by ban?" Nana asked.
"Not yet. They said that they want to talk to you by phone first. I told them that you were busy today with training and then visiting children at the hospital, so they have convened to call you in Carrington around 11:00 AM tomorrow." Miwa replied.
"What should I tell them then?"
"Tell them the truth. Tell them that you were angry because of Sera's insults. Tell them that the only mistake you did was to walk towards him, but that it was never in your intention to hit him with your head. That should clear the very few doubts they may have left." Miwa said. "Between you and me, I think the FA is pushed back into a corner by us representatives and by the media."
"Very well. I will take the phone call from Carrington on tomorrow." Nana replied.
"Excellent. We'll talk later then." Miwa said. "By the way, I guess you had a good time at the hospital today."
"It was a big lift for everyone. It really puts everything back into perspective." Nana replied. "Good night, Miwa-san."
"Good night, Nana-chan."
Then Nana ended the phone conversation. A few minutes later, Kakeru and Nana told Yusuke about what they did and who they met at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital.
"So that's basically what we did at the Children's." Kakeru said.
"Wow. I can't wait to go there. Maybe next year." Yusuke replied.
"The greatest inspiration you can take from those kids is their courage. For some of them, their lives are in danger, and yet they will keep on fighting with tremendous courage." Kakeru said.
"Have you ever done something like this before, Yusuke?" Nana asked.
"I did. I visited a few hospitals as a Marino, but it was the first time I saw something as well organized as this with the whole team being involved. With Marinos, I used to take part in all kinds of things with the community such as soccer schools, parent-child soccer matches, other local community sporting events, helping with festivals, fundraising activities for disaster relief, etc." Yusuke replied.
"It has to be very satisfying to be able to put that many smiles on people's faces when they're having a tough time at this time of the year." Noriko said.
"It sure is." Nana replied
"So, Yusuke, tell us about your time at the Christie." Kakeru said.
Flashback – a few hours ago
Christie Hospital, Manchester, UK
The first area of the visit by Yusuke and his teammates was the Palatine Treatment Centre, which is the integrated hematology and oncology ward that mainly services teenagers and young adults under the age of 24. The ward also provides accommodation for patients aged 16 years and over who have high dose chemotherapy, and bone marrow transplants for leukemia, lymphoma, and solid tumors.
As the Manchester United players arrived with bags full of presents, they were greeted by applause by patients and personnel alike. Aside from signing shirts, cards, and other official merchandise, the players mostly posed with the patients for pictures and selfies.
"M. Saeki. Can I take a selfie with you?" a young adult patient asked.
"Sure. What's your name?" Yusuke asked.
"Well, Jason, let's go for it."
After Jason took the selfie with Yusuke, the two of them had a little chat.
"I've heard that the Japanese football league doesn't play in December. Is it difficult for you to adapt?" Jason asked.
"The only time I could not adapt was when I was at Borussia Dortmund's academy. I was only a teenager back then. Then I came back to Japan to rebuild my confidence, and I became the player United came to sign in the summer. So far so good, I guess." Yusuke replied.
"I have to say that I wasn't sure about how you would do when United announced your name, but I'm really happy so far. Keep on going, and you'll become a fan favorite."
"I'm glad to hear the words." Yusuke said. "Let me sign that baseball hat of yours if you feel like it."
Yusuke then signed Jason's Manchester United baseball cap.
"Jason, I hope you'll have a good Christmas time with your family, and then recover quickly." Yusuke said.
"Thank you so much. I wish you the best for the rest of the season."
Then Yusuke went on to meet and talk with other patients. Although Yusuke was a new signing not that long ago, he was already a player that many people enjoy meeting with. After some time, Yusuke and his teammates went on to meet a few patients who had to stay in their rooms. Before the players could meet with some of those patients with weaker immune systems, they had to wear special medical aprons after sanitizing their hands.
"Hello." Yusuke and Pog said when they entered the room.
"Hello there, people. Nice to meet you." a male patient in his late 30s greeted.
"Let me introduce ourselves: Yusuke Saeki... and this is Paul Pogba." Yusuke said.
"Of course I know who you are. I watch all matches, even at the hospital. You can call me Tom."
"Nice to meet you, Tom." Pog replied.
"I saw the game on Monday. I know it must not be easy for you when the results have not been coming our way lately." Tom said.
"Days like today are welcome as we can take our minds away from the game, remember that there are more important things in life than football, and come to say thank you for the support." Yusuke replied.
"Yusuke is right. Sometimes, we just need moments like this at the right time. We are all human after all." Pog added.
"No matter what happens from now on, I will be 110% right behind you. You can still make something out of this season."
"Thank you for cheering us up, Tom." Yusuke said before he handed a bag of gifts to Tom. "This is for you."
"Oh, thank you very much."
Then Yusuke and Pog posed alongside Tom for the photographer who was in charge of immortalizing the event.
"It was nice to meet you, Tom. Hopefully, you'll get home for Christmas with your family." Pog shook hands with Tom.
"Fingers crossed. It was a pleasure to meet you too." Tom replied.
"Have a good Christmas." Yusuke finished.
Then Yusuke moved on alongside his teammates to see the last few patients of the Palatine Treatment Centre before they ended the visit. As it was the case at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, there were also plenty of smiles on the faces of the patients at the Christie Hospital.
"That's how it went for me. It was a really good experience." Yusuke said.
"That's great to hear, Yusuke. Today's visit is the first of many more to come." Kakeru said.
"Matthias said something when he gave his impressions to the MUTV reporter, Yusuke. He said that one small gesture such as putting a smile on someone's face can go a long way." Nana added.
"On that, I fully agree with him. The fact that we were there for the patients is a big morale booster that might give them the strength to recover faster."
"At the same time, those moments remind us that it is not just about soccer or about us in life. There are people who need a morale booster more than we do. Those moments are perfect to make sure you keep your feet on the ground." Noriko said.
"You're right. If anything, I will appreciate every single moment of my career even more." Yusuke said.
"And may our careers last for a long time, and hold lots of happy moments as well." Kakeru finished.