When doctors told Laura Fuller that her daughter Delaney’s death was imminent, she packed up Delaney’s cherished fairy tree – a birch tree found on the side of the road and decorated in her bedroom with love – and brought it to her at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital, hauling it from the car to the elevator and up to her hospital room.
“Ever since then, I’ve wanted to put a tree up here,” said Fuller, a stained-glass artist from Falmouth. On Wednesday, 12 years after Delaney died at age 9, Fuller made good on her wish. She returned to the Portland hospital to celebrate the installation of “The Children’s Tree,” a sparkling, 18-foot-tall glass-like sculpture that she made in memory of her daughter.
Delaney was diagnosed with Hurler syndrome, a genetic enzyme deficiency, when she was 4 months old. Doctors didn’t expect her to live three years. She made it nine.
“As kids with Hurler typically do, she got sick a lot, and they were so good to us here,” Fuller said of the staff of the children’s hospital. “I’m so grateful they are here and so grateful they were here for us when we needed them most.”
An anonymous donor paid for the tree sculpture installed along a wall in the atrium of the sixth floor. Constructed with a glass-like polycarbonate and mica, the tree sparkles and fills the room with light. Little doors on the tree’s trunk open to reveal mysteries and gem-like wonders within. Fuller calls them “doors to a different world. It’s hard when you’re in here. You forget how to play. You miss being outside.”
In her studio practice, Fuller creates three-dimensional stained-glass art that has panels embedded with natural objects. The tree sculpture does too, on a larger scale. Fuller hid 95 treasures within the tree, behind the doors and along the branches that reach out across the walls and the room’s arched ceiling. There are beetles, polar bears, hummingbirds, elephants, little motorcycles, baseballs and two lucky blue feathers.
“I really want to make kids forget why they are here,” she said.
The tree is lit from within, creating a prism of color. The atrium is a bright gathering spot for children who are receiving care and their families. There are toys and books and games. A section of the atrium was redesigned to accommodate the tree, which is built around a steel armature and secured to the wall.
Dr. Lorraine McElwain, director of inpatient pediatrics, said the tree has brightened the atmosphere. It changes with the light and the time of day. Sometimes it shines. Other times it glows. It always catches people’s eye, McElwain said.
It’s been up for about a month “and there’s not been one negative word about it,” she said.
Two-year-old Madison Arndt, a patient at the hospital, was playing with the tree Wednesday afternoon, opening and closing the doors to peek at the fairytale world inside. She giggled at the revelations.
“She likes exploring it, looking in every door and seeing what she can find,” said her father, Mitchell Arndt. “It’s pretty amazing. Lots of colors.”
Fuller thought about the tree for years, and worked it out in her head many times over. The creative construction phase lasted nine months. She compared it to the birth of a child.
Throughout the process, she has always felt Delaney’s presence. There were signs and signals along the way, and whenever Fuller faced a dilemma or artistic decision, she deferred to Delaney. All the treasures are things she loved, and things they shared.
“I feel like she’s with me all the time,” Fuller said. “I know she is.”