The teenagers had been waiting for this moment, when they'd be packed together in the underbelly of Tropicana Field, about to graduate from high school. It was only minutes away now, the Dixie Hollins High School ceremony. They fanned themselves with their name cards. They made each other promise ("No, swear!") to keep in touch over the summer. They bobby-pinned their caps to their heads. Then the music began and they walked out onto the field, where all the whistles, all the fold-out chairs and hollers and camera-clicks seemed to scream one thing: Lyndsey Staub was here.
Not at home. Not at the hospital. Here.
She walked out last, waving to the crowd already on their feet.
It had all seemed so far away last year, when the doctors at All Children's Hospital told her that she would probably not live to see her high school graduation. Lyndsey has had Wilms' tumor, a children's kidney cancer, since she was 3 years old.
Most children are cured easily of Wilms', but Lyndsey's keeps coming back. A few weeks into her senior year, she had to stop coming to school completely. The pain from the tumors in her back and ribs was too much. And the medicine she took for the pain made her head spin.
But Lyndsey wanted to graduate from high school. This was her goal. So she worked from home, reading The Great Gatsby and filling in algebra worksheets until, finally, she had earned her diploma.
"Are you okay, Lyndsey?" the principal, Dan Evans, had asked her when she arrived at the stadium on Wednesday.
An anonymous donor who had read about Lyndsey in the Tampa Bay Times arranged a limo for her family. Lyndsey had forgotten her pain pills, and so the limo driver had to circle back to her home in Kenneth City. She took two, and put three more in a Zip Loc bag that she stuffed down the front of her dress.
"Yeah, I'm in pain now, but I'm managing," Lyndsey told Evans.
"You know what we're going to do?" he said. "We're going to put on a brave face tonight."
And, really, you wouldn't have known Lyndsey had cancer at that ceremony, except for all the people who couldn't help but cheer for her.
Evans, in his speech: "When the doctors told a brave young girl in this audience that she may not make it to this evening, our school — everyone here — said, 'No way, not on our watch.' "
The valedictorian: "We are so proud of you."
The Rays, in a video message: "We'll be praying for you."
It's not unusual for a student to get a standing ovation from her family. Lyndsey got one from the entire crowd. Even the students stood up, the boys on one side of the aisle in blue, the girls on the other in white.
Somewhere between 80 and 100 people came to see Lyndsey walk. They glitter-glued posters and gave her bouquet after bouquet of flowers until Lyndsey started dropping roses on the ground as she left the field.
It had been a long day for Lyndsey. She has trouble sleeping at night, and usually stays in bed until the afternoon. But she got up at 9 a.m. for a TV news interview, and then she was in too much pain to nap.
When she left the stadium it was raining, and everyone wanted to hug her. Not knowing what he was doing, someone slapped her on the back, hitting her tumor. Everyone wanted a photo. Her mother, Lauri, warned them not to squeeze Lyndsey too tight.
She was in pain. And for that, and for the emotion of the day that she was never supposed to see, Lyndsey started to cry. But she smiled, too, and made sure everyone got their hug and their picture, and she thanked them for coming.
There would be time to rest later, when Lyndsey came home, when she was done with all the things she wanted to do.
Like go to college.
Contact Lisa Gartner at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).