Want to see a magic trick?
Watch Jay Knapp transform the faces of very sick children.
Last week, Knapp, the 2010 Rotary Club of Oro Valley Citizen of the Year, played a shell game at the Tucson Medical Center for Luis, whose appendix burst nearly two weeks ago. Luis' roommate Ryan is lending one eye, anyway, cautiously wondering who this elderly gentleman is, and what he's about.
Early on, the boys know just which of the three walnut-shaped half-shells is hiding the pea.
"Remember how that feels, because it's the last time" they'll get it right, Knapp tells them.
His interest piqued, Ryan adjusts his bed to see better. The boys guess at which shell covers the pea … and they're always wrong.
Knapp rips a magazine page in half, and the boys shred it further. He squeezes the pieces and blows on them. Magically, the picture is restored, fully intact. Everyone applauds, and the boys' faces light up.
There it is. The moment.
So often, "you look at the child's eyes, and they're sad," Knapp said. "I want to replace sadness and despair with joy, and that's the way you get back towards healing."
Knapp's first day doing magic for ill children hurt too much. He couldn't bear the thought of going back.
"Look at their face, look at their eyes when you begin, and when you finish," Knapp's son told him. "The eyes will tell you everything."
Now, "it's been 12 years, 11-1/2 at TMC," Knapp said, and he goes back every week.
Ryan's mom watches like a hawk. Jay turns a $10 bill into a $100 bill, before their eyes. She wonders how he did it.
"Can you keep a secret?" he asks.
"Of course," she says.
"Me, too," he says.
"I love to deal with mamas," Knapp said. "On certain things, I have the moms participate. They're the mirror. The kids look at the parents. If the kids are down, they bring the parent down, and vice versa. If they're feeling good about themselves, and not so disenfranchised from the human race, you can respond to healing faster."
He's been "hugged by more grandmas, and kissed, and heard languages I don't understand, you can't believe," Knapp said.
"It does help," said Luis' mother, Leticia. "It boosts their spirits. We've been here 13 days. To see him happy, it helps."
One day, Knapp worked his magic on a very ill girl, maybe 13, who'd lost all her hair to cancer treatment. She cracked a faint, guarded smile, yielded a little giggle, "and then it was laughter," Knapp said.
Her father, "a big, big man," approached Knapp afterward.
"My daughter hasn't smiled in weeks, and she hasn't laughed in months," Knapp said. "Thank God for a man like you."
Knapp touches the head of each boy with a magic wand.
"I hope that you get better fast," he said. "You have the magic in you, and you're going to get stronger and stronger every day, you will really."
He's seen it happen.
"You can't think of two things at once," Knapp said. "They start concentrating on the thing that's most appealing. You get them to laugh, and stop thinking about the pain. Laughing is vital. It's everything."
Knapp tells many stories about the interactions he's had with young children, some of them "so fearful, so frightened." One afraid child "went into surgery laughing and giggling" after a session of magic. "I gave him the magic coin," Knapp said. "I always give the magic coins out. They're 24-karat plastic."
When Knapp walks into a room, and it's dark, "that's not a good situation," he said. Knapp opens the blinds, turns on the lights and turns off the TV. "I don't like competition," he said.
"I change the atmosphere. It's light, it's happy, it's enchanting, it's fantasy. All good things can come from fantasy.
"That's what I sell is complete deception."
One girl at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind touched him deeply. After a performance, she said Knapp's magic was "the best show I ever saw." She is blind.
"It struck in my heart like that," Knapp said, thumping his chest once.
So, now, he wants to teach blind children how to do magic. "What would that mean to a blind child? A blind magician? I will run through fire to see him. I will teach a blind child, or two or three. It would be a bonanza of a breakthrough. We can conquer a whole world. Why not?"
His heart is often struck. A homeless boy told Knapp he liked a shelter, because he "was never warm" in a doorway. A school child cried and cried, then stopped, his tears locking on his cheeks while Knapp showed some magic. One child, terribly ill, asked Knapp to "please touch me and make me well," and told another child "only the magician can do it."
"The belief is so deep, even I am surprised," Knapp said.
Too often, performing magic for very ill children is very sad, very difficult, very painful. "You have to have a little different fortitude," Knapp said. "I'm not immune to it. I see it. I feel it."
Why does he do this, at 81, a disabled American veteran, time affecting his body, himself a cancer patient?
"I know what it is, I'm living this right now," he said. "When I can take a kid that is really defeated, feeling so bad, and transform him even a little bit, I win.
"It's right here," he said, tapping himself on the chest, near his heart. "For me, it is the right thing to do. I don't need confirmation from anyone.
"To take a kid, defeated and fearful, and wipe that out in seconds, what else would you want?"