In an arena of thousands at THON, I always seem to come back to a photo — more than a decade old — of two little girls at a tea party.
On the right, Cassidy is sporting pigtails, pearls and a gown several sizes too large, which she would later refuse to change out of. Olivia’s on the left, grinning in a white feather boa and a pale dress with bows almost as big as her head on the sleeves.
My younger cousin Cassidy was about five when she found out that her best friend, her six-year-old cousin Liv, “had a boo-boo on her brain.” The pieces would come together later, after Liv passed away in April 2000 at age 7, that the “boo-boo” was a tumor and had been deemed inoperable from almost the beginning.
Cassidy, now 19, didn’t think much of it when her cousin started losing her hair and began reluctantly using a wheelchair. She just knew that Liv thought wigs were itchy, and hats made her head too hot; the device Liv used to climb the stairs sometimes seemed like part of a game.
Liv was still just like any other kid, Cassidy said: She liked butterflies and adventures, didn’t like to eat broccoli and “didn’t want to grow up ever.” The girls learned that hiding Cassidy’s shoes usually meant she wouldn’t have to leave Liv’s house as soon as their parents decided it was time to go home. They loved Disney movies, and Tarzan’s “You’ll Be In My Heart” became one of their favorite songs.
Liv earned a reputation as a teacher for those who knew her — really, Cassidy said, “she knew each day was important.” Liv’s legacy inspired Cassidy, now a freshman at Duquesne University, to study education in hopes of teaching other kids to embrace writing or the arts as an outlet during difficult times.
This weekend will mark my fourth time on press row at the Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon with The Daily Collegian. We’ll be there all 46 hours and then some, doing our best to tell the story from the moment the THON stage goes up to when the dancers sit down — plus all of kids’ talent show performances, line dance renditions and floor pass updates in between.
Still, for some of those moments, my mind will inevitably be far from the Bryce Jordan Center. I’ll keep coming back to that faded photo.
Earlier this week, in one of the first real conversations we’ve had about Liv, Cassidy told me that the tea party was actually a family fundraiser organized while Liv was going through treatment.
“It was one of those days that was about her and about her having cancer,” she recalled, “but we didn’t think about it like that.”
What really mattered was that the girls’ moms were also wearing fancy dresses and that they all got to drink apple juice — “because we did not like tea” — out of fancy China teacups.
“Liv and I loved being together,” Cassidy explained, “because for that time we were together she wasn’t being treated like she was a kid with cancer.”
Last year, Cassidy visited THON for the first time. While it was difficult to spend a few hours at the event as someone who understood that one kid could represent dozens of loved ones also bearing the weight of a pediatric cancer diagnosis, she was comforted to see so many students pouring their efforts into the weekend.
And to her, what happens in the BJC each February isn’t about an annual fundraising total or a test of endurance for student volunteers. The most important thing THON can do is give kids — whether they’re undergoing treatment for cancer or supporting a sibling, cousin or friend — a weekend when they can worry more about wearing funny hats or winning a water-gun fight than doctor’s appointments and hospital stays.
“That’s what we were,” Cassidy said. “We were just kids.”
Casey McDermott is a senior majoring in sociology and journalism is The Daily Collegian’s editor in chief. Email her at email@example.com.