It was a moment of unexpected joy and wrenching heartache. I made Ashley Allen smile.
Granted, it wasn't the trademarked ear-to-ear grin Roundup readers have become used to seeing. It was more of a half-smile.
But there was genuine pleasure in her eyes, and that's something one hardly expects from a 5-year-old who who only has a few months to live. Ashley lost a 17-month battle with brain cancer Saturday.
My unexpected moment with Ashley happened shortly before Christmas. She and her mother, Tracy, had stopped by the Roundup. Ashley's rambunctiousness, high spirits and eternally inquiring mind had begun to fade. So had the use of her right arm and leg, which had stopped operating properly, not only due to the tumors, but because doctors had removed three-fourths of the left side of her brain during one of the many operations she underwent in hope for a cure.
Ashley couldn't walk anymore at least not more than a step or two, and not without great difficulty, which usually ended with a fall. So Tracy asked if I'd carry her daughter to their car. I felt honored to do so.
Ashley was limp in my arms. She was so weak that her head crashed down on my shoulder and stayed there. I put her in the car seat, strapped her down, told her I loved her very much, kissed her shaved head, shut the door ... and started blowing silly, goofy kisses at her through the window.
That's when she gave me the smile.
Or, rather, the half-smile. But even at 50 percent of its former wattage, it was the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen.
The Allens' journey
The Allen family moved from Lacombe, Alberta, Canada to Payson in October 1999. Ashley's parents, Frank and Tracy, had purchased a home, and, until escrow closed, moved their daughter and three sonsJamie, now 14, Bret, 10, and Aaron, 8into a tiny travel trailer at Oxbow Estates.
Frank, now 40, started work at Phil White Ford. Tracy, 36, stayed at home with the kids and housework.
Not long after arriving in Payson, Ashley began complaining of headaches, which her parents failed to connect to an earlier incident: The day before they left Canada, Ashley had suffered a seizure, with no warning or medical history to explain it.
The doctors told them the incident was almost surely a one-time fluke. But Ashley soon began suffering her worst head- and stomach-aches yet. Tracy rushed her daughter to Payson Regional Medical Center, where a CAT scan revealed a large cyst and even larger dark mass on Ashley's brain later determined to be a lemon-sized "primitive ecto plasmic tumor,"a very dangerous grade-four tumor.
Two days later in Phoenix, Ashley underwent brain surgery which began at two in the afternoon and ended at 10:30 p.m.
The surgery went well. In fact, 20 minutes after the operation Ashley lifted her head and said, "Mommy, can I have a drink of water?" Within 48 hours, Ashley was leaping out of bed to greet visitors.
But the drama was far from over. Ashley started six grueling weeks of radiation treatment, followed by four weeks of carbo-platinum chemotherapy medications.
And then another tumor was found to have grown in the original's place, this one the size of a walnut. It was removed last year but, unlike the first procedure, this one required Ashley's doctors to remove a section of her brain. Her parents were warned that such a procedure might affect Ashley's speech, personality and the mobility of her right arm and leg, but it did not.
Even so, Ashley had to undergo two-and-a-half months of chemotherapy and grueling bone marrow transplants. But they appeared to have helped; a subsequent brain scan showed her "clear" of cancerous tumors.
The Allen's joy lasted only until last September, when Ashley was found to have five new and inoperable tumors, which had grown together in a single mass, in her brain.
Her doctors estimated that Ashley had six months to live.
During all of this, residents of Payson pulled together for the Allens. They contributed to Ashley's medical fund. They brought food to the Allen's home. One kind-hearted soul paid all the expenses for a trip to Lourdes, France site of the miracle of Bernadette for Tracy, Frank and Ashley, on the hopes that they'd find a miracle there, too.
While in France, however, Ashley suffered a serious seizure. Upon their return home, the Allens began phoning specialists about a new cancer treatment called Gamma Knife radiation, which uses a laser-beam of radiation to calcify brain tumors.
As it happened, the procedure did give Ashley more time. Once her doctors saw clear images of her brain, they said that without the Gamma Knife, she would have certainly died before Christmas. But she did not. In fact, her mother said, Ashley had the best and happiest Christmas of her short life.
In February, Frank and Tracy flew with their daughter to Houston, Texas, where they met with controversial cancer researcher Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, who charges patients $20,000 for his "non-toxic" treatments.
Burzynski's treatment, which involves the intravenous use of small proteins and amino acid derivatives found naturally in human blood, has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Some of Burzynski's patients praise the treatment, but it also has been highly criticized by scientists and colleagues as "scientific nonsense."
Not matter. It did not work for Ashley.
A phoenix rising
Throughout the ordeal, Ashley's parents were true inspirations. Especially Tracy for me, anyway, because I had come to know her so much more than I got to know her husband.
"I ask God, 'Why did I get somebody so special that you need her back?'" Tracy said earlier this year. "I think things like that. I'll always wonder what I ever did to deserve her in the first place. I still think she has special things to do in this world. She's just that kind of person. She's the brightest thing in my life. It's hard. It's so hard.
"But I accept whatever God has in store, because I trust him. I do. I trust him. And when I think of Ashley going to heaven, I get OK. I get peace.
"I'm not a strong person," she said, "but I get strength from Ashley. She's so strong. I don't think I could do what she's done. She's an amazing child, she really is."