An act of kindness: Dying child puts real face on the family leave policy

February 04, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- This is a story about high-stakes politics and whether the federal government can help everyday Americans -- and about a little girl who touched the president and then went home to die.

Melissa Weaver lives on in the speeches of President Clinton, who mentions her when he wants to show people that government can make a difference in their lives. His signature on a single bill made it possible for Melissa to get her dying wish.

The story has two trails. Both start in Houston, but they enanywhere in America where there are voters. And sick children. And parents who want to make their children's dreams come true.

It begins in 1992, the year Bill Clinton unseated George Bush as president of the United States, and the year that Kenneth and Rosemarie Weaver learned that the oldest of their three daughters had a lethal form of childhood cancer.

Melissa, then 10, had been running track at her school in Port Lavaca, Texas, when her leg swelled up. The Weavers' pediatrician sent the family to a specialist in Houston, 130 miles away.

A biopsy was done. Melissa's cancer was so rare that it took a week for doctors to identify it. On April 30, 1992, her parents learned the name of their little girl's enemy: peripheral neural ectodermal tumor.

Melissa's mother took on the duty of driving her to Houston for chemotherapy, radiation treatments and operations for the next 18 months. Sometimes the two were away for six days at a time.

It fell to Mr. Weaver to pick up the two younger girls from his mother's house after work, and to answer their poignant questions.

"When are Mom and Melissa coming home?" they'd ask. "Why does this happen to little girls?" "Will it happen to me?"

Mrs. Weaver, a teacher, was granted a six-week leave by her school district -- a leave later extended by a year. This left the family dependent on Mr. Weaver's job as a technician at a plant 30 miles away owned by Occidental Petroleum.

Like most folks along the Gulf Coast, Kenny Weaver liked George Bush. He had voted for him in 1988, and assumed he would again in 1992.

But he assumed wrong. In 1990, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which required businesses with more than 50 employees to grant a leave of absence -- unpaid -- to employees who had a birth in the family, or adopted a child or had a family member who was seriously ill.

Nearly half the states and every industrialized democracy in the world has such a law, and it passed by large margins with Republican and Democratic support. But Mr. Bush vetoed the legislation, saying it was an intrusion of government into the workplace.

In 1992, the bill's sponsors tried again. Once more, the bill passed Congress, and once more Mr. Bush vetoed it. This time, with a presidential election in high gear, the veto was big news.

"He's telling the American people that we can't have a law that 70 other countries have, that all of our major competitors take for granted, a law that would support family values about as much as any law and would be good for the workplace," said candidate Bill Clinton.

Clinton's words hit home

In the Weaver household, Mr. Clinton's words had a firm resonance. Mr. Bush complained that Democrats had timed the bill to arrive on his desk near Election Day. But a sign of how out of touch Mr. Bush was with the electorate came when Ann Landers, of all people, encouraged her readers to write and tell the president that he was wrong.

A year after Mr. Bush's veto, Melissa and her family went to Washington to fulfill the last wish of the little girl's life. The visit might not have been possible had Mr. Clinton lost the election. Two weeks into the new administration, Congress passed the family leave bill for the third time. This time, it was signed into law the next day.

Back in Texas, Melissa, who turned 11 the day Mr. Clinton was inaugurated, seemed to be recovering. She had become a precocious reader. One of her favorite authors was Lurlene McDaniel, who writes novels about children with life-threatening diseases.

In May, the family's respite suddenly ended. "Melissa had been with a friend over the weekend," Mrs. Weaver recalled. "Then she came home and said, 'Mother, I've been meaning to tell you about this lump.' And it started all over again."

Melissa had blood work done. In September, she went in for a re-evaluation. A pediatric oncologist, Dr. ZoAnn E. Dreyer, told Melissa's parents that the cancer had spread to the other organs. Kenneth Weaver told the doctor that he had been thinking of taking some time off from work and wanted to know when he should do it."Right away," Dr. Dreyer replied.

Urgent dreams

She also had another suggestion: Enroll Melissa as a client of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

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