The teenagers all began itching in the springtime, for their yearbooks, for the final bell, for summer break, for it all. It was all so close now, here at Dixie Hollins High School. They asked each other to prom. They ordered caps and gowns. They took exams with manila folders taped to the sides of computer screens for blinders. They ate lunch outside, in the grass, shrieking. Here was the final, manic leg of a four-year race to graduation: June 5, Tropicana Field, guests please hold their applause until the end.
When Lyndsey Staub started at Dixie four years ago, she was running toward this moment like everyone else. Ask around Dixie this spring, though, and the consensus was that she was at home, or in the hospital. Lyndsey had cancer, and so was usually at one of these two places. On prom night she would be home, left arm thrown over the right shoulder rubbing the spot where a tumor had become entangled with her rib cage. This hurt even more than it sounds, but there was good news: She'd finished reading The Great Gatsby.
"What are your goals, Lyndsey?" the principal of Dixie had asked her at the beginning of her junior year, when she'd come to school bald and he'd heard she only had a little time left. Lyndsey said she wanted to graduate from high school.
This sounded simple, but it wasn't. She would need credit for five classes that she was too sick to go to; she'd need an FCAT score when she couldn't focus on the test questions; and she needed not just passing grades, but at least a C-average.
At the end of her junior year, the doctors said there was nothing more they could do for Lyndsey. "Six months to a year," they told her. She might not even be alive for her family to break the no-applause rule.
But the principal, Dan Evans, just told her, "Okay." They'd get her to June 5 at Tropicana Field.
And so began a much quieter race to graduation, one that has not announced itself by shrieking in the hallways or picnicking on the campus lawn, but with all of that urgency and more.
Whether Lyndsey will get her diploma in 17 days remains to be seen. She has classwork left to complete. She is getting sicker. It is a frighteningly close race.
But above all there is a girl who wants something more than she wants to let go. And there's a school system that, when the balance has tipped toward giving up, wouldn't let her do it.
• • •
Lyndsey was living on a run-down street in New Port Richey, her mom high on pills and the mom's boyfriend a drunk, when the first tumor took over her left kidney. Lyndsey was 3 years old and little more than stubble-blond hair and bright blue eyes. She relapsed at 5, needing more chemotherapy and radiation. She started kindergarten a year late, wearing a do-rag and bonding with a boy who was allergic to red foods.
Child protective services caught on to her family a week and a half before Lyndsey started the second grade. Maybe it was the bruises the mom's boyfriend would leave on Lyndsey with the oar from his canoe. She went to live with her father and his girlfriend, Lauri Draskovich, and Lauri's daughter, Jordan.
Then Lyndsey's father was diagnosed with throat cancer. This was the man who, when Lyndsey was at All Children's Hospital, would sleep there, shower there, go straight to work, come straight back. On Saturday mornings they'd lie in Lyndsey's hospital bed together, watching cartoons, making her cancer not feel so terrifying.
Now she told him: "Daddy, if I can do it, you can do it."
One day, he kissed Lyndsey goodbye on the cheek, then he drove out of the county, put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on a motel room, and took pills until it was over.
It was springtime and the school year was wrapping up. Lyndsey went to the play area and sat on the swings. She tried to play tag with the neighbors, but her head was hazy. She asked Lauri: Did the cancer kill Daddy?
Five months pregnant, Lauri said yes.
• • •
When children get cancer, Wilms' tumor is what their parents want to hear. It attacks the kidneys, but usually just one. It calls for surgery and chemo, but that usually works well: Even when caught late, the survival rate for Wilms' tumor is 75 percent. When caught early, it's 95 percent.
Time went on and so did Lyndsey. Lauri got custody. Her baby — Lyndsey's little sister — wriggled into the world and was named Makenna. Lyndsey started cheerleading. "I'm going to get a high 4," she boasted to her teachers at Blanton Elementary when FCAT season rolled around. "Congratulations Lyndsey!" her report cards shouted. "You made the Honor Roll."
And Lyndsey met Skip Lilly. The father of Lauri's friend from high school, Skip lived next door and wanted to help the girl the way her teachers and nurses had. He took her to doctor's appointments and the movies. Even though she did not have a father, Lyndsey now had a "Papaw."
They say at five years you can consider yourself cancer-free. There was a big party, and everyone came, even Lauri's mom and brother from Tennessee.
The next year, when Lyndsey was in the sixth grade, the doctors found a free-floating tumor near her heart. Then they found a tumor on her thyroid.
Amy Ballard, her second-grade teacher, and Debbie Holland, Blanton's guidance counselor, would visit her hospital room. Lyndsey would always say she was sorry that they had driven through traffic to see her. They'd laugh with Lyndsey as she scratched at her back with a toothbrush, the morphine making her itchy. They'd go get her food from the cafeteria; or, if Lyndsey felt well enough, they'd walk down together.
• • •
Lyndsey started at Dixie Hollins High missing a kidney, her thyroid, pieces of her lungs and shavings of her bones. She would miss her thyroid the most. A second brain of sorts, it controlled how fast her body used energy, reacted to hormones, made proteins. Without it she felt like her brain was working in overdrive, trying to do two jobs. Her words came out slower. She couldn't fall asleep at night.
But here she was, in the ninth or 10th grade, asking her substitute teacher over the shouts of an out-of-control class if she could go work outside in the hall.
"They might not care about graduating," Lyndsey said, "but I do." She took her work and went.
Lyndsey wanted to write and signed up for journalism classes. She took driver's ed, figuring she'd find some way to afford a car, one day.
The tumors kept coming back, but she was done with chemotherapy. Yes, it meant she wouldn't get better. But it also meant not feeling nauseated all the time. Lyndsey was a teenager now. She did not want to lose her hair, which had turned brown and grown long over the years.
She'd try alcohol at a party, flavored Smirnoff vodka, but she didn't like the way it made her feel, like she wasn't in control. She smoked a cigarette while driving with friends to Tampa. "Dees-gus-ting," she spits.
She started dating a boy before Christmas of her sophomore year. "I really like him," she told her old guidance counselor, Holland. The boyfriend begged her to do chemotherapy again. When her hair came out in clumps, he shaved it off for her. Then he shaved his own head.
After they broke up, a friend of her ex started a rumor that the radiation bruise on her neck was a hickey. Lyndsey got calls from boys who said into the receiver, "I heard you do it for free."
Even though she once told her principal she wanted to graduate, Lyndsey did not want to go to school so much anymore.
She'd been kicked out of driver's ed for missing too much class, for the hospital visits. She stopped taking journalism classes because she couldn't think straight. Her body stopped responding to some of her medications. She was depressed.
No more chemotherapy, ever again, Lyndsey told her doctors at All Children's in May 2012.
"We see you maybe not making it to graduation," she was told.
"Well," Lyndsey asked, "when do you think it would hit me the hardest?"
She'd be all right for a while, the doctors said. But the tumors would grow. She would go downhill in the second semester of her senior year. It would unravel in the springtime.
• • •
Why go back in the fall of 2012? Why learn a new locker combination? Why print out her schedule? Why do her homework? Why take tests? Why sit for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test? Why walk the halls with the kids who try to pull the do-rag off her head? Why bother?
Lyndsey did show that fall. Principal Dan Evans met with Lisa Sinatra, the assistant principal in charge of the senior class. They decided to try to rush Lyndsey to graduate in December.
But after a few weeks Lyndsey stopped coming to class. She came into the office and said she wanted to drop out, four, five, six times. She had had this goal, but now it was too much. The make-up work from the classes she missed when she was sick kept piling up. She didn't believe it was possible that she would ever make it to Tropicana Field.
Each time she came in, Evans and Sinatra and the guidance counselor and her teachers would crowd into the office and do the math: One missing assignment from last year would sew up her junior year credits. Then one senior year English class. One math class. One economics class. One science class.
"You're so close, Lyndsey."
Most of the time Lyndsey said okay. But sometimes she wanted to drop out anyway.
They told her, "No."
"Lyndsey is not a statistic. She's not a student number, and there are dozens and dozens of Lyndseys," Evans says. "They don't have medical conditions like Lyndsey has, but they have life struggles, family struggles, that are severe. We save them one at a time."
In January it was decided. Lyndsey would enroll in Hospital Homebound, a program for students too sick to go to school. Her teacher would come by a few times a week to go over assignments. They set a pace that would have Lyndsey finish her final exams by May 1 — early, just in case.
Homebound began the process of getting Lyndsey a waiver from the FCAT. She also would need to read The Great Gatsby, her missing English assignment.
It should be said that Lyndsey could have gone through with dropping out at any time. She was 18 and would turn 19 in February, having started kindergarten a year late because she was sick from the chemo. Back then, in New Port Richey with her mom and the abusive boyfriend, Lyndsey would watch out the window as the yellow bus went rumbling by, the kids two to a seat on their way to school …
No, she was not dropping out now.
• • •
The teacher came twice a week, those first few months of spring semester. They analyzed poetry for English IV. For economics, Lyndsey learned how a capitalistic society works versus a socialist one, and what happens on Wall Street. She felt her weakest area was algebra, so her teacher, Pam Morse, had her work through problem after problem.
Lyndsey, like many of Pam's students, was most interested in her anatomy class. She learned about what was going on inside her body.
The decline had happened like the doctors at All Children's said it would, Lyndsey says now. She is speaking more slowly than she used to, pausing as her brain tries to find the words that used to come easily. She has started leaving notes all over the house to remind her that company is coming over. She forgets her birth mother's name mid-lunch.
Lyndsey has two good friends, Rachel Hager and Katy Lambert. Both graduated from Dixie last year. But lately Lyndsey turns down a lot of invitations to hang out. She doesn't want to rely on someone to give her rides and drive her back. She feels like she's become monotone, that she disappears into the background.
"I don't feel like I'm dying," she says, "but I feel like I'm slowly... withering away, or fading."
Lyndsey wears a patch and takes pills for the pain. Sometimes she feels well enough that she skips her pain medication. She doesn't like how cloudy it makes her brain. She can't remember what page she's on in Gatsby. But when she doesn't take the daily pain meds, the hurt builds until she has to take double the dose to make it stop.
In this fog, sometimes, Lyndsey has a two-hour window of clarity. She finished her anatomy exam in April. One down.
Suddenly there was a new pain in her right underarm. It ached and stabbed and trickled down into her chest, waking Lyndsey up in the early hours of May 1. When she took a deep breath, it felt as though something was being shoved into her chest.
When her hospice nurse, Sara Perszyk, came over, the first thing Lyndsey said was, "I'm sorry," before she started to cry.
Sara felt around. She called up one of Lyndsey's doctors. "I can't really tell," she said into the phone. "It's a sudden onset and I just examined her on Monday and it wasn't a problem then, but she's not sleeping at all. She looks — she looks very tired."
Lyndsey's pain patch and pill prescriptions had recently been bumped up. Maybe, Sara said, Lyndsey would need even more for the pain. They could put her on a portable IV, even.
Lyndsey then began to sob, coughing and sniffing and curling her body into her T-shirt. "I don't want to become more stupid than I already am."
Sara said they didn't have to do it. Or they could just try the IV short-time. But the idea of taking more of the pain medicine that makes her brain feel like mush had already taken hold of Lyndsey. This was May 1, the day her teachers had hoped Lyndsey would finish all her final exams. She had completed only one.
"I just — I just want to be normal. I hate this. I hate it," she whispered. "I can't eat. I don't know. I feel like I can't do anything. I tried eating today. I felt so nauseous afterward. I tried working on my exam. I just can't — stay — focused."
Lyndsey checked into All Children's that night. Her tumor had grown a quarter of an inch since January, but they didn't see a new problem to treat. It was probably just an irritation from her cough. Lyndsey was glad to go home. She did not want to wake up in the hospital the next morning, May 2, the 10th anniversary of her father's suicide.
Shortly thereafter the phone rang in Sinatra's office at Dixie Hollins High School. It was Lyndsey. She'd finished The Great Gatsby. Two down.
• • •
"This is not an end. Only a beginning."
Dixie Hollins High School graduation invitation
Lyndsey picked at her Publix sub until it was time to go to Tropicana Field. It was May 14, three weeks and one day before graduation, and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, where she recently received treatment, had arranged for the Rays to honor Lyndsey with a video about her life after the second inning of that night's game against the Red Sox.
She hadn't been going much of anywhere these days, except the hospital. Sometimes she'd hang with Rachel and play video games, shooting zombies.
"Last night we were playing, and I died," Lyndsey said, laughing in her seat behind home plate and launching into a story.
She mentions that she finished her math exam. Three down, two to go. Lyndsey was almost done with economics, and she'd finish it in the next few days. All she'd have left would be a poem to analyze for English IV: the mood, the setting, the meaning.
But she wasn't feeling so good, now, on this outing to Tropicana Field. "It's so cold in here," she said. Her back and underarm area were hurting, and now her head was, too. Her family had taken two cars in case Lyndsey needed to leave early.
It was hard not to wonder whether she would be back there next month, wearing a graduation gown over her Chuck Taylors. Would she hear the applause of Lauri and Papaw, of her old teachers, of her best friends, of everyone at Dixie? Or would she be in one of her usual places: Home, or the hospital?
Sitting next to Lyndsey, Rachel began to tell her about what the ceremony had been like last year in left field, where the chairs and stage were set up. Whenever anyone got their diploma, their face was blown up on the stadium scoreboard. Some of the kids made faces. The boys wore Dixie blue. The girls wore white.
Rachel pointed to left field. "Look," she said. "It's all right there."
Sixteen years of cancer.
Thirteen years of school.
Seventeen more days to see which one wins.
Lisa Gartner can be reached at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).