Last Friday during lunch, I could be found sitting in the back of a church. Not being Catholic, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do during the service at The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception near Underground Atlanta, so the last pew seemed the best vantage point. I was there because of someone I had never really met, but whose hat hangs in my home. It belonged to a young woman who died 10 years ago, and her family held a memorial mass that day in her honor.
Her name was Marilu and she listened to me every day on the radio. An active teenager, she developed a pain in her leg that seemed normal but it wouldn’t go away. When Marilu went to the doctor, he told her it was a sprained muscle and to take ibuprofen. She followed his instructions but the pain remained.
Frustrated, her mother insisted that the doctors find out what was really going on. They did. She was diagnosed with Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that effects older children and teenagers. Marilu underwent chemotherapy, ad despite the treatments she was able to graduate from St. Pius High School in Atlanta. She also completed a semester at Kennesaw State University, with honors. But by the end of 2003, the cancer had spread and she was admitted into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite in fall of 2003.
During that time the Tennessee Volunteers were in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl. As is customary for any school that plays in that game, members of the team tour a local children’s hospital and give away signed items to the kids. Tennessee chose to visit Scottish Rite, and as an alum of UT I volunteered to go with them to carry hats and Sharpies so the players had plenty of supplies.
We toured the halls of the hospital and visited each sick child, leaving behind a white hat with an orange T signed by members of the team. There were some patients who were asleep in their beds when we stopped by, and in those cases we simply left the signed hat with their parents. Others were in more serious situations, like the coma Marilu was in. But we made sure to leave their families with a hat. I was probably near Marilu for mere seconds, but the impact of that minute remains to this day.
Marilu came out of her coma a couple weeks after our visit, and was showed the hat that had been left behind. Her brother later told me that the first words out of Marilu’s mouth upon seeing it were how much I would like that hat, if I didn’t already have one.
Being a listener, she knew what a big Tennessee fan I was. But in what would become her final battle with this terrible disease, she somehow thought of me. Add to that the fact no one in her family had any idea I had been there that day with the players, so her wish to give me the hat to me was organic. She died on Feb. 21, 2004, at the age of 19. That spring her hat was hanging on my wall.
It’s funny how moments we don’t pay much attention to end up being some of the most meaningful in the end. I was so excited to be walking with Coach Phil Fulmer and members of my college team that I never thought twice about whose hospital room I was going into. I only noticed how these massive football players smiled at those eager kids with dark circles under their eyes, whose day was made by the autographs. My job was to simply stand on the sidelines and make sure the guys had enough ink.
But a decade later I find myself sitting alone on a bench in a strange church, praying for one of those patients. A patient who used my voice through her radio as a distraction from her fear. A girl who should be here today, stressing out about turning 30.