TRUST IN GOD
Ashley turned fourteen in April 2001. She had spent the previous four years of her life battling cancer and all the demons that come with it, including the cruel side effects of the very medicines and treatments that were designed to save her life. Even three years after her final chemotherapy treatment, there were still some very frustrating long-term side effects that she had to deal with every day.
Through it all, she seldom complained. She had developed a courage that would serve any warrior well; a determination that would see the fiercest athlete through the most difficult challenge; and an indomitable spirit that exemplified the motto, “Never give up”.
Because of these qualities, and because of the thousands of people who came to follow Ashley’s story through my Internet and e-mail updates, Ashley became an inspiration to people all over the world. People found the courage to face their own life struggles because of the inspiration they gained from Ashley’s story.
Sometime during that spring of her fourteenth birthday, I learned that the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games was accepting nominations for Olympic Torchbearers. The 13,500-mile Torch Relay would begin on December 4 in Atlanta, Georgia, and end on February 8 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The motto for the 2002 Winter Games was “Light the Fire Within”, and the torchbearers’ theme was “Inspire”. The Organizing Committee wanted to showcase the stories of people who inspired others, by inviting them to be torchbearers. So they asked America to nominate people who were worthy of such an honor.
Naturally, Ashley was the first person who came to my mind. I sent the following essay to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, telling Ashley’s inspirational story “in 100 words or less”:
Ashley is my daughter. At age 9 she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She underwent brain surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy for 1-1/2 years. Today she is 14 and a survivor. The story of her courageous battle with cancer and her determination to beat this disease has inspired countless people who followed her story via the Internet, some of whom were engaged in their own cancer battle. She still struggles with some residual side effects of the treatments, but she continues to face her struggles with courage and determination.
On July 11, 2001, I opened my e-mail and found the following message from Mitt Romney, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. The subject line read, “Congratulations! You have been selected as an Olympic torchbearer.”
Dear Ashley O’Rear,
For the last two months, community judging panels across America have been reading tens of thousands of stories, submitted by people from all walks of life who want to honor someone who has been a source of personal inspiration in their lives. The panels’ task has been to choose a few special people who are the light of inspiration in our nation to serve as torchbearers for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Torch Relay.
On behalf of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and our presenting sponsors Coca-Cola and Chevrolet, it is my privilege to inform you that you have been selected by our judges as a potential torchbearer to be honored in the Olympic Torch Relay. I would personally like to invite you to help carry the Olympic Flame as it travels across America. Congratulations!
I read the e-mail three or four times, just to make sure I had not misinterpreted something or that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Then I shared the exciting news with Ashley: she was going to carry the Olympic Torch!
The e-mail went on to say that an official public announcement revealing the names of all torchbearers would not be made until late August. We were asked to keep the news within our immediate family until after the official announcement had been made. We anxiously awaited the Organizing Committee’s announcement, so that we could start telling everyone we knew!
On Thursday, October 18, 2001, the mayor of Dallas, Texas – Ron Kirk – held a press conference at Dallas City Hall to officially announce the passing of the Olympic Flame through the city of Dallas on December 12. Ashley was one of over one hundred torchbearers from the Dallas/Fort Worth area who were present for the press conference.
Susan said that the whole time Mayor Kirk was talking he kept looking at Ashley, who was sitting in her wheelchair on the front row wearing a bold, bright, patriotic “flag” shirt. Three torchbearers had been pre-selected to briefly tell the story of how they were nominated to carry the Olympic Flame. The final speaker was unable to attend the press conference, so Mayor Kirk asked Ashley if she would like to come up and say a few words. Ashley’s voice was too weak to be heard in such a large crowd, so I wheeled her up to the front and proceeded to tell her story (excerpted below).
Ashley is fourteen years old. When she was just about to turn ten, we found out that she had a brain tumor. We spent a lot of days and nights at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. She fought it bravely. She overcame it. She was in remission for about four years. It was during that time that I nominated her [to carry the Olympic Torch], because of the courage that she had shown and the inspiration that she had been to so many people all over the world. We got the letter saying that she had been invited to participate [in the Torch Relay].
Then, just about a month ago, we found out that her tumors were back. So we’re fighting the battle once again. To me, that just adds a whole new level of meaning to realize that here she is fighting again, and she is going to be representing the very best of the human spirit as she carries the Olympic Flame through the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
As I wheeled Ashley away from the podium to once again take our place in the crowd, the whole room erupted in spontaneous applause and rousing cheers for Ashley. Once again, her spirit and her courage had touched the hearts of complete strangers.
After the press conference had concluded, several news crews came up to Ashley and asked if they could interview her. One reporter asked her, “What would you say to the people of New York who experienced such a devastating tragedy on September 11?”
Ashley’s answer to that question was at the same time beautifully simple and deeply profound. It revealed a genuine faith and trust in God that I strive to emulate every day of my adult life.
Here was a fourteen-year-old girl whose body had been completely ravaged by the hideous monster we call cancer. She was too weak to stand and walk without assistance. She required the use of a wheelchair – and someone to push the wheelchair – just to get where she wanted to go. She had suffered more physical pain in her short life than most people will ever experience. So many things had been stolen from her by this monster: her beautiful hair, her physical strength, her independence. No child should have to endure the monumental trials that she had experienced in her short life.
Yet without a moment’s hesitation, she quietly and thoughtfully answered the reporter’s question. “What would you say to the people of New York who experienced such a devastating tragedy on September 11?” Here is her answer.
Keep believing in God, that He can help; that if you believe and just keep relying on Him, He will help you make it through all your troubles.
I have spent almost all of my adult life serving as a minister, and I still struggle sometimes to have a faith that is so genuine, so simple and so completely trusting.
NEVER GIVE UP
It was Tuesday morning, April 11, 2000. The peaceful silence of restful sleep was broken by the ringing of the telephone at 5:00 AM. I answered the phone to hear the voice of Kidd Kraddick, the host of the “Kidd Kraddick in the Morning” radio show that originates on Dallas/Fort Worth radio station 106.1 KISS FM and is syndicated across the country.
Kidd and his co-hosts – Kellie Rasberry and Big Al Mack – were going to be serving as Celebrity Escorts later that day at the annual Beyond the Rainbow Luncheon and Fashion Show hosted by Children’s Cancer Fund of Dallas. This gala event draws thousands of the Dallas/Fort Worth area’s business executives, socialites, professional athletes and celebrities each year to raise money for life-saving research and treatment programs that will lead to a cure for childhood cancer. Ashley had served as a Calendar Artist and Fashion Model for Beyond the Rainbow in 1998, and then as a Friendship Model in 1999.
The night before the 5:00 AM phone call, Kidd Kraddick had been searching the Internet, looking for information about Children’s Cancer Fund and Beyond the Rainbow to prepare for his participation that next morning, and to be able to discuss the fundraising event on his show prior to attending the luncheon. In his search, he came across a guest editorial that I had submitted to our local newspaper, the Waxahachie Daily Light, a few years prior.
In that newspaper piece, Kidd learned about Ashley and her cancer battle. That prompted him to do some additional searching to see if he could find any updated information about Ashley’s condition. The most current information he found was my Internet update which I had posted in September 1999, some six months prior. Kidd found himself engrossed in Ashley’s story and eager to find out how she was doing at that time. So he looked up our phone number and called us at 5:00 AM.
He asked how Ashley was doing, and I updated him on her status. After we chatted for a few minutes, he asked if it would be OK for him to conduct live interviews with both me and Ashley, by telephone, on his morning radio show in a couple of hours. I woke Ashley up, explained about the phone call, told her that Kidd Kraddick wanted to interview her on the radio, and asked her if that would be OK. I was not at all surprised at her answer. YES! That would be OK!
The on-air interview lasted about sixteen minutes. Kidd, Kellie and Big Al were all very gracious in their comments and questions to Ashley and me. Near the end of Kidd’s interview with Ashley he said, “Hey, Ashley, I’m going to ask you a really, really hard question, OK? If somebody else finds out in the next week or so – somebody your age – that they have cancer, that they have a brain tumor, what advice would you give them to help them get through it?”
Once again, Ashley’s answer was at the same time beautifully simple and deeply profound. It revealed an unconquerable spirit.
Here was a thirteen-year-old girl who had been knocked down so many times she could have easily, and understandably, just thrown in the towel. Who would have blamed her for saying, “I give up”? Even in her apparent victory over cancer, the battle had certainly taken its toll. There were challenges that she faced every day. Even simple, everyday tasks were more difficult. Here is an excerpt from my September 1999 update.
The worst part of Junior High, so far, has been the homework. Ashley has been staying up until midnight or later, just about every night, in order to get her homework finished.
The most dramatic performance-related effect we are seeing as a result of the treatments (and probably specifically as a result of the radiation), is that it takes Ashley much longer to accomplish most tasks. When we sit down as a family to eat, Ashley is always the last one to finish her meal. Walking is still a slower process than it used to be. She still writes left-handed, which she taught herself to do when the brain tumor surgery left her with severely diminished fine motor skills on her right side.
Whether these losses are permanent or temporary, only time will tell.
Did Ashley use her medical condition as an excuse to lower her expectations of herself? No. Instead, she just pushed herself harder and kept at it longer to make sure she got all her homework finished and turned in, and to make sure she kept her grades up. She often even refused the modifications to her school assignments that she was allowed by law that would have lightened her load. She just kept pushing forward, no matter the challenge.
So, when this thirteen-year-old “never-say-die” warrior was asked by a radio celebrity (whom she happened to idolize) what advice she would give to another kid who was given a cancer diagnosis, her answer was not hollow. It was not simply some philosophical ideal that she had read somewhere or seen in a movie. Her answer came from deep in the trenches of her own daily experience. This was her own battle-tested philosophy of life that had seen her through the darkest of days.
“If somebody your age finds out in the next week or so that they have a brain tumor, what advice would you give them to help them get through it?”
Her quiet, timid reply was almost imperceptible over the radio, but it carried all the force and authority of a grizzly bear standing upright and roaring at the top of its lungs.
To stay happy and not feel bad about themselves. Pray. Never give up.
LEARNING FROM ASHLEY
Trust in God, and never give up. This is Ashley’s Legacy. It was the battle cry by which she fought her own battle, and it is the heroic advice that she timidly offered whenever she was asked how to make it through life’s darkest days.
In facing the deep despair and utter emptiness of losing Ashley at such a young age, we have simply taken a page from her playbook as we struggle to make it through life’s darkest days: “Trust in God, and never give up.”
- Three Ashleys, © Paul O’Rear, Used by permission.
- Olympic Torch, by Raul64 (Wikipedia), Public Domain.
- Olympic Torch Relay Press Conference, © Paul O’Rear, Used by permission.
- Kidd Kraddick and Ashley, © Paul O’Rear, Used by permission.