Sometimes you have an experience with someone that changes your life forever, for always. This was the case for me, all because of a brave little girl named Shy.
In 2002 I met an incredible Pastor and his family. He asked me to come lead worship for an event at his church. It was one of the first events I had booked after my college graduation and I was so thankful someone would believe enough in me to give me the opportunity.
Everything went as planned at the event and I was on cloud nine. Afterwards I packed up my music stuff and prepped for the long drive home. Before I could leave there was one more thing to do. The Pastor wanted to introduce me to his daughter named Shytana. At only 11 years old Shy was in a fight for her life, although you'd never know it from the ever present smile across her face. I listened intently as the family told me about the brain tumor Shy had been battling for the better part of a year.
It was the first time I had encountered a family walking so intimately with cancer and I was both overwhelmed and captivated by their story.
As time went on I became friends with the family, but especially their precious little girl. When Shytana came to Oklahoma City for doctors appointments I somehow found myself tagging along.
At 21 years of age it was my first peek inside the world of cancer. It was instantly one I would never forget.
What struck me the most wasn't the intensity of the journey this family was enduring, it was how they managed to do it with such grace. Shytana would apologize to nurses for the tears she shed before having to be poked. Her mother would greet the doctors earnestly, smiling as they spoke softly to her. Her face never showing a hint of the fear or worry I'm sure was always close to the surface.
I didn't know why I felt such a strong desire to be by their side, but I did. Certainly it was because I felt so connected to this family. But I also felt comfortable in my role of being the comic relief of sorts.
One day I went into the room with Shytana and her Mom while she was having an MRI done. Important detail-I'm a tad on the claustrophobic side. When I saw them putting her inside that little tube I started to feel all kinds of woozy. Next thing I knew everything went black and I was on the floor with doctors and family members peering over me. Sorry Shy, I told her, you're the one fighting cancer and here I am stealing your thunder! She laughed about it like crazy that day, and in the years to come. Despite my embarrassment I was secretly happy my mishap put such a huge smile on her face.
I didn't know it then but God was already using those encounters for my own battles I would fight in the years to come. When Joel was diagnosed with cancer I immediately went back to my time with Shy and her family. Because I had walked a little bit of their journey with them, I had something I could draw from.
I had learned how to advocate for your loved one, how to stand in the gap for them.
I learned how to love with fierceness, and to believe deeply for their healing.
I learned how to walk life's toughest moments with peace and grace.
I learned to laugh during the darkest times.
I learned to radiate joy when hope seems lost.
All of these things were taught to me by an effervescent 11 year old girl, who was battling a life altering tumor...and winning.
She inspired me in every way possible.
When you've almost lost your life you learn not to take advantage of second chances. As the years went on Shy went into remission. The little girl grew up, got married and had her first child. We would keep up with one another on social media. I heard from her a little while back with a message, over a decade later, still teasing me for passing out during her MRI. She was a lady now, ever the beautiful one, living out her second chance with all she had. I was thrilled for her.
But life can turn on a dime and in this case it did once again.
A few months ago I was devastated to hear Shytana's brain tumor returned. She fought it again, I'm sure with as much strength and grace as she did the first time. Only this time, her healing did not come on this side of Heaven. Shytana passed away last week at the age of 25.
In the days since her passing I have thought of her often. I thought about the privilege I had in walking beside her family in one of the most trying times of their lives, although you would never know it.
It wasn't a coincidence I connected mightily to their story. It was for a purpose, a deeper one than I could've imagined at the time. Quite simply, knowing her changed my life. It changed my life then and is still changing it now. At the core, what Shytana taught me was to be "joyful in hope, patient in affliction". That's a lesson that molded every part of who I was, who I am.
I'm grateful to have learned it early on, to carry it with me forever; all thanks to the bravest little girl I'll never forget, a girl....named Shy.