Thursday, November 29, 2001
Hard to say good-bye

   I went to visit the O'Rear family Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to offer them comfort, a voice of compassion -- even a shoulder to lean on if needed.
   It's funny how life has a way of turning things around on you. You start off on a mission to help someone else, and you're the one ending up being helped. I don't know if I was any comfort to them or not. I hope so. I do know I walked out of their house feeling a little less sad, the aching in my heart a little less severe.
   Ashley was a special person. She touched so many lives in such a short amount of time. Her passing has left us all hurting inside. It's not been easy saying good-bye.
   I've written more than 5,000 stories during my career (I quit counting in 1995 when I hit the 5,000 mark). I've covered death and tragedy, scientific breakthroughs, major accomplishments and milestones and even a legitimate Miracle. Each story has been special in its own way, and I feel blessed for the experience they brought and the people I've met because of them. But none have touched my heart like Ashley O'Rear. She had that effect on just about everyone she met.
   I first met Ashley in 1998 when she returned to school full time after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy from her first tumor. Over the last few years, we got to be pretty good friends. As her cancer went into remission, I really thought this would be a story with a happy ending,
   During the past 20 years, I've written about the progress and setbacks of a lot of sick children. Far more than I wish I had to. But they were stories that needed to be told. These were real people. They were people with dreams and goals and plans for the future -- all put on hold as they waged a battle for survival. Most battled cancer, the rest fought to overcome other life-threatening conditions. All too often, my coverage ended at church, surrounded by a grieving family praying for answers to questions that are beyond our comprehension. Each one was special, and they all have touched my heart.
   Ashley was different. She was an incredible young lady, full of grit and determination. Nothing could break her will. You could see it in her eyes. Nothing could slow her down. Not brain surgery. Not radiation. Not chemotherapy and certainly not cancer. I knew in my heart this was going to be a story with a happy ending. With millions of people praying for her, how could it not have a happy ending?
   I've learned, however, that God has a way of giving us what we need, but sometimes we have to travel on a much different path than the one we set out on before we are wise enough to receive it.

   As we talked Wednesday afternoon, Paul, Susan and Justin shared some of their favorite memories about Ashley. They were happy memories that touched my heart and made me smile.
   Paul shared a special moment between him and Ashley while watching the Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast" during their recent visit to New York City. It was one of Ashley's all-time favorite shows.
   "About half-way through the show, Ashley put her arm around my shoulder and leaned against me. It was a special moment, and a memory I'll always cherish," Paul said.
   We talked about the funeral, and the family expressed how grateful they were to everyone at the Waxahachie Civic Center, Boze-Mitchell and the College Street Church of Christ for their dedication and compassion. We were all overwhelmed by the number of people in attendance, especially the number of students who made a point to express their sorrow. There were hundreds of students at the funeral -- each and every one had been touched by Ashley in one way or another.
   "We wanted it to be special. To show Ashley how much we loved her," Susan added. "She was our special Princess. We can't thank everyone enough for helping celebrate Ashley's life. It was very special."
   Paul and I talked about the presentation of photos depicting Ashley's life and set to music. Paul worked through most of the night Sunday and Monday putting it together, sorting through the photos and selecting the music. "It was good therapy for me," he said. "That first song is a lullaby I used to sing Ashley to sleep with when she was a baby. Last week I sang it to her again. When we started putting the presentation together, Susan told me that she wanted to include that song. It was pretty special to us."



   Justin told me the family had just been told the U.S. Olympic Committee will allow him to carry Ashley's torch as the Olympic flame makes its way through Dallas enroute to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the winter games. Ashley was selected in September to be an official Olympic torchbearer, and was the first to be presented with a torch Nov. 20 -- less than a week before her passing. Justin was pretty excited about carrying the torch. I got the feeling it wasn't for himself, but because it gave him the chance to honor his sister. "I get to do this for Ashley," he proudly told me.
   Walking through a maze of plants and flower arrangements that now fill the O'Rear home, Susan noted that at last count they had received more than 80 bouquets, plants and arrangements for Ashley's funeral.
   "I told Mom that we have to write 'thank you' notes to a lot of people, but today, I just can't bring myself to do it. Today," Susan said, "I'm just going to take it easy. Words can't express how much we appreciate everything that has been done by so many people. The generosity and compassion has truly been overwhelming and we're going to get around to thanking each and every person, but I just can't do it today."
   I told her I thought everyone would understand. She needed this time. The family needed this time. The "thank you" notes could wait for a while, I said, offering to come back and help when they felt up to it.
   As I was getting ready to leave, Justin suddenly remembered that he had a gift he wanted to give me. Despite my protest, he insisted that he made something special for me and wanted me to have it. A few minutes later, he walked back into the room and handed me a picture he had colored. He knew how much I loved the ocean, and when he was over at our house we sat and watched the fish in my marine aquariums. It was a picture of the sea, with sea turtles and fish swimming about. I flipped the picture over, and on the back he had written, "To Neal White and Family, Thank you so much for everything. Love Justin."
   I gave him a hug and tried my best not to cry. I told him he could call me anytime he wanted and we would go do something fun. I stopped at the door, turned and gave him another hug and whispered in his ear that I loved him, too.

   On the drive back to the paper, I started thinking about the funeral. When it came time for viewing, I had taken our youngest son Alex out into the lobby while my wife and two oldest children went to pay their respects. While standing there with Alex, doing my best to try to stop the flow of tears streaming down my face, several people coming out of the auditorium recognized me and made a point to comment on the column I wrote about Ashley in Monday's paper. Along with their words of appreciation, many offered a much-needed hug, or a handshake.
   I remember one gentleman in particular who came up to me, put his arm around me and thanked me for my writing. I told him I appreciated it, but this is one story that I really prayed would have a happy ending.
   He gave my shoulders a squeeze before letting go, then turned and looked at me. "It did, Neal. We all know that she's with Jesus now," he said. "An ending doesn't get any happier than that."
   As I pulled into the parking lot, I found comfort in his words, realizing again that sometimes God takes us on a different path than the one we set out on.

   Neal White is the Editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light.