What is a minute?

Today’s newsletter contains a special series of letters from the late 1980s concerning a young girl with brain cancer. Needless to say, it will be too much for some, so please stop here if you’re feeling delicate. I would like to thank Michelle’s mother, Tina, for being so receptive back in 2019 when first contacted about her initial letter to Mister Rogers, for so generously offering to show us the entire correspondence, and for so kindly allowing it to feature in the book, Letters of Note: Mothers. Finally, huge thanks to the archivists at Fred Rogers Center for their assistance, and for allowing Mister Rogers’ letters to appear.

On 19 February 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made its national debut on PBS in the United States, in turn introducing the nation to its soon-to-be beloved host, Fred Rogers, an impossibly calm and affable gentleman who would spend the next thirty-three years educating millions of children on a plethora of subjects and become an extra family member in many a household. Rogers was a man of many talents – responsible not just for hosting the show, he also produced and wrote each episode. He even voiced the show’s puppets and composed its music, including the famous theme song, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ He also replied to the thousands of letters he received each year from the viewers he liked to call his ‘television friends’. In August 1988 he received a letter from a lady named Tina LeBlanc Sadoski, regarding her daughter who was in hospital. Rogers soon replied, both to mother and daughter, and wrote many more times as the young girl’s treatment continued. Sadly, Michelle Sadoski died in January 1990.

17 August 1988

Dear Mister Rogers,

Our 5½-year-old daughter, Michelle, has an inoperable brain tumor. Our only hope to remove the tumor is with radiation. On the first day of her radiation treatment, she screamed and cried when she found out she would have to be in the room all by herself. She was so upset they could not give her the treatment.

The next day the doctor gave us some medication to sedate her. It was supposed to put her to sleep. By the time we reached the hospital she was still wide awake. We all tried talking her into doing the treatment, but she cried again and said no. We kept saying that it would only take one minute-thirty seconds on each side.

Finally she asked me, “What is a minute?” I know it was by the grace of God that I thought of how to explain to her what was one minute. I looked at my watch and started singing, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor...” and before I could finish the song I said, “Oops! The minute is up. I can’t even finish Mr. Rogers’ song.” Then Michelle said, “Is that a minute? I can do that.” And she did. She laid perfectly still for the entire treatment, but, there was a catch to it. I have to sing your song every time over the intercom into the treatment room. It is very embarrassing, but I do it gladly for her. By now, every doctor and technician in Radiation Therapy knows your song.

I just wanted to share this with you and to let you know what a wonderful job you are doing for all children. You touch their lives in more ways than you realize.

Michelle’s Mom

August, 1988

Dear Michelle,

It was good to get to know you from your mother’s letter. I am glad that you enjoy our television visits so much.

Your mother told me that you have cancer and needed to have radiation treatment. It can be hard to manage with a lot of things at the hospital. Michelle, I hope that you can talk about what you’re feeling with the people in your family and with the people at the hospital — when you're angry or sad or scared or happy. I call that “important talk”.

It meant a lot to me to know that our song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” helped you so much during the radiation treatment. I wanted to send you an audio tape of that, along with some other gifts. And I will think of you when I sing that song.

Michelle, there are a lot of people who care about you. Your family cares about you. The people at the hospital care about you. And I care about you as a television friend. You make each day special for the people who care about you — just because you’re you.

All of us here in the Neighborhood send our best wishes to you.

Your television friend,

Mister Rogers

January 1990

The Sadoski Family

Dear Friends,

Your friend wrote to us about Michelle’s death, and I sat here in silence, thinking about how much you've had to deal with since her diagnosis, and how much you’ve invested yourselves in Michelle's care. I can only begin to imagine how difficult it must be to have a child die, and especially under the circumstances you’ve lived with for so many months. Michelle’s pain is over, but I hope you have loving support of family and friends for your needs now.

Your family has had a special place in our hearts, since you were kind enough to be in touch with us through your letters and, lately, through our phone conversation. We treasure Michelle’s photograph, and we’re grateful to have offered a television experience that was helpful for both Michelle, especially during the past year.

It is obvious that you all gave Michelle a great deal of love and care and strength during her life. Nothing can take that away from you...or from her! Your family will continue to be in our hearts and in our prayers.

Most sincerely,

Fred Rogers

This exchange features in Letters of Note: Mothers. The Letters of Note newsletter is free to read, but you can support it by becoming a paying subscriber, for which you will receive additional ‘members-only’ emails. Or you could gift a subscription to someone else. Or you could donate. Or you could simply share the newsletter with friends. Options are below, all of which help. Thanks x

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