She answered the door of her mother's modest home and I was immediately taken by her charm that belied her youth of 15 years. Her complexion was fair, too fair, but she had those laughing hazel eyes that sized up her visitor instantly. Her hair was short and black. I would learn soon enough that it was a wig, her only concession to the chemotherapy that had taken her own hair but not her indomitable spirit.
As a newspaper reporter and editor of some twenty years' experience, I had won my share of awards for my writing, most of them for investigating official malfeasance and political corruption. I possessed the self-assurance that gave me confidence to tackle any story but I was not prepared for what I was about to learn from a very courageous young girl.
"Hi! Come in," she said, stepping back to hold the door open for me as I entered. She showed me into the living room and the interview began. It was disconcerting, to say the least, because I had never interviewed a dying person before. I had taken the assignment after learning from one my own daughters - they were classmates - that Rachel's biggest disappointment was that she wouldn't live long enough to attend her senior prom.
Thinking like a reporter, I sensed that this story had the human element that readers love. But I never anticipated this interview would be so hard. I was accustomed to being detached from the subjects about whom I wrote. I had been taught in journalism school to never become a part of your story. The fact that she was so young and seemed so full of life only made the assignment more difficult.
Her mother sat to one side, saying nothing, trying to be inconspicuous. It was painfully obvious that this interview was a terrible ordeal for her, a fact that only served to intensify my own discomfort. Colon carcinoma, or colon cancer as it is more commonly known, is relatively common in older men, certainly not teenage girls. That statistic notwithstanding, Rachel was diagnosed in January 1987. She was 14.
She was scheduled for 12 monthly chemotherapy treatments but by November of that year, two new tumors were found. She underwent surgery for the fifth and final time in December 1987 before returning home three days after Christmas -- to die.
As I asked my awkward, clumsy questions about her illness (more like a journalism student than a veteran reporter), she told me about how the cancer had been diagnosed, how she had gone to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, and how wonderful everyone at St. Jude had been to her. She told me about a boy she'd met at St. Jude. "We would have our chemotherapy and then go play tennis," she said. "He died last summer."
Eventually, after as many delays as possible, I asked the inevitable question, the one I had come to ask: What would you like if you had one wish? I already knew, of course, what the answer would be. Without hesitation, she replied, "If I could have one wish, it would be to live long enough to go to my senior prom. I know I can't live that long and I accept that, but since you asked me, that would be my wish."
As if the candid answer hadn't been enough to bring a lump to my throat, I noticed that her smile never faded from her face. There was no regret, only an almost blissful acceptance of her fate. This wasn't normal. Where was the sorrow, the depression? I knew if it had been me, I'd be wallowing in self-pity.
By now I knew I would have to ask the question I'd had no intention of asking. "Was there ever a time that you felt sorry for yourself, when you questioned why this was happening to you?"
"Sure," she said, still smiling and never breaking eye contact. "When they first told me, I couldn't believe it was happening to me and I certainly couldn't understand why. I would lie in bed and stare at the wall and ask, 'Why me?' But now I'm stronger and closer to God. I'm not scared of dying. I'm afraid of hurting, though, and I think I'll be better off in heaven with my family members who have died before me. To tell you the truth, I'm looking forward to it now that I've made my peace with God. I even made all my own funeral arrangements. I don't want a lot of tears cried over me."
Then she just about sucked the air out of my gut when she added, "When I was in St. Jude I saw little children who would be playing and suddenly stop playing, run over and pick up a pan, throw up and go right back to playing. It's no big deal to them because it's all they have ever known. I saw babies who were bald and who had black Xs and lines on their heads where they had been marked for radiation. Some of them would never see their first birthdays. I've had 15. What do I have to bitter about?"
That was it. She didn't expound on her answer, didn't dwell on her reasoning. She didn't need to. That was also the end of the interview. There was no way I could have composed myself sufficiently to continue. I took a few more photographs of her with her stuffed animals and with her family and then I left, crying as I drove to my own home and my three beautiful, healthy daughters, one the same age as Rachel.
Two days later the story ran and the response was immediate and overwhelming to the point of renewing my faith in humanity. The people at The Dream Factory, an organization that grants wishes of dying children, heard about Rachel and contacted the Embassy Suites Hotel in Baton Rouge and with the hotel donating the use of its ballroom, The Dream Factory presented Rachel with her very own "Mardi Gras" party.
When Rachel couldn't decide between three boys, each of whom wanted to be her date, she simplified matters by deciding to go with three dates. Rachel's dress and the limousine that took her and her three dates to the formal affair, to which all her classmates were invited, were also provided by The Dream Factory.
A local tuxedo rental company provided tuxes for half price and 200 of her classmates and friends attended the special Mardi Gras party. A local Toyota dealer, Price LeBlanc, also had seen the story and quietly, with no public fanfare, gave Rachel a shiny new Toyota Corolla to drive as long as she wanted.
Tragically, she was able to drive it only a very short while. Barely five weeks after her special party, Rachel died quietly. Right to the end, she continued to talk with the other children at St. Jude in attempts to cheer them in any way she could. She would tell them to keep the faith and not to get depressed and most of all, no matter what, don't give up.
I will never forget the outpouring of love from so many, especially The Dream Factory, the people at Embassy Suites, the limousine service, Price LeBlanc and those who called and wrote letters of encouragement.
But more than anything else, I will always remember those dancing eyes, that smile, that attitude, that unshakable courage and her dying advice to healthy children -- teen-agers like herself before she fell ill: "You are very lucky and you should appreciate that." Characteristically, she was smiling when she said it.
Copyright © 2000 Thomas Aswell