By Dawn Elliott ’93
Never again will the Fourth of July be the same. Yes, there will be picnics and fireworks. I will delight in a chance to sleep late and spend time with friends. But, rather than the independence of our country being foremost in my heart, I will dwell on the independence of a precious girl, Alyssa Smelley. On July 4, 2006, Alyssa Smelley died, freed from the bonds of her earthly, ravaged body. She attended the celestial fireworks of Heaven, seated not on the ground on a blanket brushing away mosquitoes, but held tightly, wrapped in the arms of her Savior.
I have learned much from the short life of this 15-year-old. Diagnosed last August with an inoperable brain tumor, Alyssa and her family, Russell, Allison, and Travis, began a detour on their journey that most of us hope we never take. Alyssa’s dad, Russell, has been Westmont’s cross-country and track coach since 1979. Allison has taught piano and junior high math for years locally. And Travis is Alyssa’s fun-loving, devoted 10-year-old brother. We have walked alongside the Smelleys for 25 years, as part of a three-family support group. Russell and Allison, Brad and I, and Doug and Nancy Ranck, all from different parts of the country, converged in a single apartment complex and became an extended family for one another. Because of this, we were allowed the grave privilege of taking the detour with the Smelleys that led to the end of Alyssa’s life. We were with Russell and Allison when Alyssa was intubated and unresponsive in the pediatric intensive care unit. We were with them when the doctors told them that it was likely their precious Alyssa would not survive. We were there when things seemed better, and when they seemed immeasurably worse. And we were there when the doctors said that there was nothing more to be done. Together, we told our
children that Alyssa’s time on earth was short. We prayed earnest prayers, we cried, we treasured the lingering time together. We clung to moments we recognized as sacred. Along with our kids, we held one another and sang and prayed and cried together as Alyssa took her final breath. And we watched and learned.
In many ways, it is clear that the last 25 years have prepared us for the past 11 months. As newly married couples, we invested in one another’s lives. We struggled through our differences, shared our marriage woes, talked about our hopes, and ate pancakes. We rejoiced together at the births of our children, first delighting in parenting Hannah Elliott (20) together, quickly and joyfully followed by the birth of Kelly Ranck.(19). Nearly every year thereafter, until Travis was born, another child was born into our extended family, until we had eight children. We vacationed together, we celebrated holidays together, and we had whole family sleep-overs in each of our living rooms. Our daughter, Amanda, now 17, held newborn Landon Ranck, now 16, in the hospital, and Amanda and Landon held newborn Alyssa Smelley in the hospital. Together, pledged best friends, the trio shared long, hilarious, deep-rooted, nurturing friendship. Travis Smelley, Jake Elliott (13) and Elise Ranck (12) also have a tightly woven relationship, a sort of “all-for-one-and-one-for-all” thing. All eight kids enjoyed one another and looked forward to our weekly group night when they could eat, laugh, and hang out while their parents figured out life together. Thus, it was a natural progression to enter with the Smelleys into this unnatural progression as Alyssa’s life ebbed away.
Now, Alyssa is gone, and we are left to muddle through. From Russell and Allison, we quickly learned the value of living in the moment. Awash in heartbreak and overwhelmed with the unknown, they opened their lives, needing prayer and comfort. Knowing that so many in the community would want to understand the situation and offer support, we needed a plan for communicating Alyssa’s progress. Embracing the value of the Internet, we began sending regular updates to the Westmont community, the church community, to Alyssa’s friends and family, to any who asked. Ultimately, this was beneficial for several reasons. Although they did not write the e-mail updates, Russell and Allison dictated the general content. The messages allowed everyone to pray specifically and to have the same information, so there was little speculation. And they helped monitor the communication to Russell and Allison, so they were not overwhelmed.
Early on, though they knew that Alyssa’s prognosis was grim, the Smelleys chose to cling to the oncologist’s words, “You have every reason to hope.” By choosing not to speak of the prognosis, but rather to pray for the miracle of healing, we were all able to come together in supporting the family as they cared for a very sick Alyssa rather than a dying Alyssa. Thus, we all helped Alyssa finish living her vibrant life, rather than helping her die. Interestingly and wisely, a friend/oncologist suggested that the type of Alyssa’s tumor need not be openly discussed; that “She has a brain tumor” should be enough information. Because of the Internet, people would research Alyssa’s tumor and offer information and suggestions —with the best of intentions. Again, we were able to help the Smelleys by sifting through the “helpful suggestions.” It was curious that we received many e-mails asking “I know you aren’t saying, but what is Alyssa’s prognosis, really?” I guess enquiring minds believe they have the right to know.
It became overwhelmingly obvious that the regular updates led to communal prayer and support as the community responded broadly and effectively. Russell and Allison’s openness made us more able to understand and offer real help. They were careful to think through their needs —and they were willing to be helped. Often, when things were chaotic, we found ourselves telling them what they needed, and then enlisted help for them. Allison once said, “I know we need help, I just don’t know what kind.” We brain stormed with them and matched jobs to friends. We helped the Smelleys set up (and maintain) boundaries, so that the “help” didn’t feel invasive. So that they could care for Alyssa without distraction, we tried to anticipate problems and find solutions. We paid attention so that we could all share the burden of Alyssa’s physical care. The updates became a vehicle for sharing boundaries (“Please do not offer us any pills, advice, vitamins, or home remedies”; “It is not a time for visitors, but funny cards are appreciated”).
Above all, the Smelleys allowed us to be with them. We had no map for how to navigate this route. We stumbled along, doing the next thing. We laughed with them. We cried with them. We encouraged them to take an occasional break. We asked hard questions. We listened. We grieved. We reminded them that they were doing an amazing job. We apologized when we screwed up. And we were quiet with them. We often showed up for dinner, just because the days were long and this was a great time for a break. (This also meant that we were able to sample some of the very generous and delicious meals delivered to them.) For hours on end, the kids sat with Alyssa. They sang to her, they laughed with her, they talked about favorite memories, they covered her walls with pictures of friends and family. Later, when she was bedridden and incoherent, they learned to feed her, to look for small ways to make her comfortable. We all learned that time spent just holding her hand was a treasured privilege. Through all this, it was Russell and Allison’s willingness to be vulnerable, to let us in, that was key. We are truly thankful that they allowed us to encircle them in any way we could manage.
Whenever we were with her, Alyssa made each of us feel special. How often do I give that gift to anyone? Alyssa reminded us there are countless things to be thankful for each day: “When everyone gets up Monday complaining about the first day of school, remind them that I’m having holes drilled in my head.” This year the learning curve has been steep. Too steep. We watched the Smelleys face the hardest of tasks head-on and with honesty. We learned with certainty that there is hope in the face of tragedy. We found joy in being part of a Christian community striving to love through pain and offer support through chaos. We have been forced to truly understand what our faith is about. It was not an effort to support the Smelleys, it was an on-going privilege. And thank you, dear Alyssa, for showing us the face of God. We miss you already.
Excerpts from the Alyssa E-mails
Alyssa Returns Home from Her First Hospitalization: Aug. 31, 2005
As a testimony to the spirit Alyssa has pervasively shared, today, when she was discharged, nurses were crying and doctors were stopping by to make sure she came back to visit. One doctor told her that they rarely saw someone like her, that she had made an impression on all who had seen her. As far as he was concerned, she could be the new hospital president. As she prayed tonight over her long-awaited pizza party, she asked that the Lord would care for all of us and give us comfort during the time to come. For many in the hospital in the past two weeks, the Smelleys have been Jesus to those around them.
Establishing a New Regular Routine: Dec. 11, 2005
For Russell, Allison and Travis, these past two weeks have been less intensely difficult. It has been such a relief that Alyssa is not feeling awful every hour, every day. Thus, they have established a new “regular” routine. As a bit of context of “regular,” we traveled together to Disneyland (yes, Dr. Z said it was fine). Late in the evening, Allison and I were watching the kids as they stood together in the wheelchair line with Alyssa. Bundled in their hats and scarves, laughing together, there weren’t many outward signs of grave sickness. As they piled off the Space Mountain roller coaster (yes, Dr. Z said it was fine.), Allison handed Alyssa her evening dose of chemotherapy. (How many of us carry that around in our purses?) Alyssa described holding tightly to her hat, instead of the roller coaster bar. I said, “Too bad about my hat, I’d never let go of that bar.” Allison reminded me that mine was the impression of someone with hair all over my head.
Hour by Hour: March 1, 2006
“Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives.” This is the Smelley’s daily life, measured in hours only, sometimes less. Will this hour be a good one for Alyssa? Will she be asking for Pizza Mizza? Or will she be vomiting? Will she be sound asleep? Or will she be so dizzy she can’t even use her walker to get down the hall? This is a difficult time, marked by blessings and moments of laughter. Many days, Alyssa feels quite lousy. At other times, her humor shines through. The other night, as he was tucking her in, Russell asked Alyssa if she needed anything else. Her answer, “Hair.” And when she is feeling well, it is delightful to watch Alyssa hurrying down the hall, not actually using her walker, but carrying it in front of her. She is not allowed to travel through the house without a spotter because of her unsteadiness and dizziness. When we asked how she felt about this, she said, “It’s frustrating because I have to wait sometimes, but someone always comes —eventually.” We can all relate —it’s hard to wait 35 seconds.
Jesus Is Calling: June 12, 2006
Day by day, Alyssa’s life grows more “strangely dim” as she walks from the things of earth toward His glory. She can see almost nothing now and can’t explain what she can see. Her mental cognition declines daily. She recognizes only her parents and Travis and a few others very close to her. Even this recognition is not consistent, as she has times of confusion when she doesn’t fully connect with anyone.
Alyssa keeps asking if she can “go home now.” In her confusion, she doesn’t always recognize her surroundings; her own home, her own room are unfamiliar. She politely states, repeatedly, “I’m ready to go home whenever you’re ready.” We have begun to wonder if she isn’t so much confused when she says this, but rather that she really is “ready to go home now.” Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling.