Two girls, one strength

Mary Katharine Ham

5/3/2006 12:04:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

Amber wore a royal blue dress that night. The neckline shimmered, just a trace of glitter against a stark white bandage on her chest where her central line had been.

A delicate white hat covered the dark fuzz where her long hair had been. Her mother dabbed away tears. Her bear of a father looked like he might have to borrow the Kleenex. Her best friend hugged her around the shoulders like she had at countless softball games, sleepovers, and beach trips.

Amber's eyes gleamed. They were the darkest brown, the color of forgotten pecans, soil-dampened and almost black under a pile of autumn leaves.

Everyone knew her first black-tie event would likely be her last, but 15-year-old Amber smiled-- big and un-self-conscious. She never seemed to carry the weight of her sickness the way others did. She never seemed to hold back tears or question her lot.

***

That night, Amber was on her way to a dinner in nearby Charlotte, thrown for a friend she had never met-- an equally strong and cheerful girl, whose knee pain had become a battle for her life.

Twelve-year-old Hope Stout had osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that affects kids from ages 10 to 20.

Amber did not know her, but Hope had given Amber a gift. When representatives of the Make-A-Wish Foundation visited Hope and asked her what her wish was, she looked around her hospital room--at her ever-present family and her abundance of flowers and cards-- and asked, "how many children are waiting for wishes to be granted?"

The answer was 155, in her section of North Carolina. "Then, my wish is to raise money to grant all of their wishes," she said, at which point pens and jaws dropped all over the hospital, and the national media dropped in on Hope.

Her red hair and splash of freckles were all over Good Morning America. Hope joked that God had actually let her have two wishes by making her a star for just a little while.

Hope's wish raised $1 million for Make-A-Wish in just a couple months, culminating in a formal dinner and auction at the Charlotte Westin, for which Hope planned the theme (old Hollywood), the menu, and the entertainment (Rat-Pack-style crooners). Hope died less than a week before the big night.

She spoke to the crowd in a taped interview, a Carolina blue bandanna brilliant against her bright hair. She half-giggled her way through it, telling folks not to worry about her and thanking them profusely for their help. When asked why she wished what she did, her answer was simple.

"Well," she shrugged, "I just saw that God had given me a whole lot, and I had already been to Disney World and stuff. But I figured a lot of other kids hadn't."

Part of the $1 million she raised went to make Amber's wish come true. The brown-eyed girl and her family spent their last Christmas together on a cruise in the Bahamas.

Amber died of osteosarcoma in May of 2004, just shy of 16, and just months after the fight had begun with a complaint about pain in her shoulder.

***

It is fitting that these two girls' stories connected, and a shame they never met. They shared more than their struggle with a rare bone cancer. Their families marveled that night, at the Celebration of Hope dinner, at how both girls were stronger than their parents, and wiser than their years.

Both faced a terminal diagnosis before they faced driver's ed, and both swallowed, smiled, and said, "there is a reason for this, Mama."

Amber--being of the age at which one still has a favorite animal--loved frogs. She had them all. They were stuffed and ceramic and wallpapered, and some held toothbrushes or pencils. They were on every picture frame, poised to leap into the fray with Amber and her friends. Amber had picked frogs several years earlier, after her youth pastor taught her an acronym: FROG, for "fully relying on God."

She had always liked the thought, and the frogs served as little, amphibian reminders of her need to remember it. When she was diagnosed, she figured "fully relying on God" was about all she could do, and thanked the Lord he had seen fit to teach her that lesson at an early age.

Throughout her sickness, Amber reminded people what the frogs meant. Driving through the streets of her tiny hometown, one could rarely find a door not decorated with a frog cartoon or a business without a frog flag.

When Amber came home from the Celebration of Hope in Charlotte, she still had silver streamers clinging to her shoulders when she told her mother, "let's do one for Hope, too."

Amber's hometown Celebration of Hope added an extra $13,000 to the fund. Amber was determined to attend. She was wheeled in on her hospital bed, and was able to sit up long enough to sing her favorite hymn with a local Gospel band.

As a reporter, I had the privilege of being invited into families like Amber's and Hope's during the hardest of times. Cancer in a child is inexplicable, unfair, depressing, and bitter. Yet I have always been amazed that children with cancer can be tough, serene, uplifting, and cheerful.

When faced with death, Amber gleamed, Hope giggled, and both of them gave so much. Their faith and their strength changed me.

Next week is the two-year anniversary of my friend Amber's death. Please consider donating to Team Will, the Sarcoma Foundation of America, or Make-A-Wish to help these kids and their families. Their battle is a tough one. They are always in my prayers.