When you are waiting and worrying, sometimes it pays to stay busy. So Jo McDonald and Corinna Williamson stayed busy while they waited for news.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When you are waiting and worrying, sometimes it pays to stay busy.
So Jo McDonald and Corinna Williamson stayed busy while they waited for news.
The two women figured the best way to pass the time would be to try to help their friends, Kim and Todd Walker, who live in Fayetteville’s Murray Hill subdivision off McPherson Church Road. McDonald is the kind of neighbor you trust with a key in case you lock yourself out.
They started in the den of the Walkers’ home, took hold of the vacuum cleaner as if by grabbing it around the neck they would somehow help strangle away the possibility of bad news.
They put a load of laundry in the washing machine, started in on the bathrooms, headed upstairs. As they worked, they talked about 13-year-old Reese Walker, Kim and Todd’s youngest. Reese had complained of pain in her left hip, and doctors had sent the family to Duke University Medical Center for tests.
By the time McDonald and Williamson had almost finished cleaning a home that has housed two busy adults and four active children, the message came.
Reese Walker had been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a malignant cancerous tumor growing near her spine.
In a season reserved for giving thanks, people have given the Walker family many reasons to feel thankful.
‘They’re like family’
Being the parents of four children means you know just about everyone. You make friends with the other parents of the children where your kids go to school, attend church, play sports.
Kim and Todd Walker knew just about everybody even before they had children. They grew up in Fayetteville. Kim was a cheerleader at Westover High School, and Todd graduated from Pine Forest.
“She was gorgeous,” Todd Walker said. “Gorgeous.”
He remembers without hesitation: April 9, 1987. That’s when they went on their first date. They were married four years later. It seemed they were always smiling, always having fun, always trying to manage hectic schedules. Their children were just like them: blond, good-looking and athletic. They were a family always at the center of something or other, from church league basketball games to block party cookouts.
“They’re not just neighbors,” McDonald said. “They’re like family.”
Life wasn’t always perfect. But, always, there was love.
Like her older brother and sisters, Reese played a variety of sports, but it turned out that lacrosse was her favorite. A member of the community’s first recreational team, she was featured in a newspaper story about the rising popularity of lacrosse three weeks before her diagnosis.
Reese had been complaining of pain in her left leg, but there was no reason to suspect it was anything more severe than her older siblings’ experience with growing pains. During a routine visit to the pediatrician for viral symptoms, a physician’s assistant advised getting Reese checked by an orthopedist, who recommended an MRI. Dr. Dan McBrayer took a look at the MRI and referred Reese to Duke.
Reese turned 13 years old on Jan. 15. Five days later, the diagnosis came. Doctors devised a treatment plan for a large tumor that was deemed inoperable.
‘We Ride Together’
Team Reese seemed to organize overnight. The teal-colored wristbands and T-shirts began showing up everywhere. Even country singer Luke Bryan was photographed receiving a wrist band during a performance in Greensboro.
Someone set up an account for online donations, and someone else arranged for meals to be brought and left in a cooler outside the Walkers’ front door.
Friends came and painted rooms in the Walkers’ home and completed home-improvement projects that had been put on the back burner.
And then there were the people from across the state with connections to lacrosse.
“Our kids have played all sports, but there is nothing like the lacrosse community,” Kim Walker said. “They have been unbelievable. Seriously.”
Players from the University of North Carolina and Duke University visited Reese in the hospital, sent gifts and took photographs wearing Team Reese bracelets.
Wes Davis, Reese’s Fayetteville lacrosse coach, notified the folks who oversee youth lacrosse in the state. They sent a letter of support, ending with the slogan “We Ride Together.” That became a social media hashtag that stuck.
“People, honestly, as soon as the word got out, we started getting cards, letters, checks,” Kim Walker said. “People would just send cards, people I didn’t even know, like someone’s Sunday school class. Like the meal train, before I knew it, that was up and running and filled up for three months.
“I feel like saying thank you; it doesn’t sound like enough,” she said. “People are just so generous. There’s no way we could have done this without them.”
A couple of youngsters set up a lemonade stand on a school holiday and raised nearly $300. Another young neighbor held a bake sale and raised $400.
Williamson, a hairstylist, told some of her clients about Reese.
“They may not know her, but they know how much I love her,” Williamson said. “They have been so good to her. It’s been a blessing.”
Of 13 chemotherapy treatments, Reese endured complications with 10 of them that put her back in the hospital.
She’s tired of cancer. A 13-year-old doesn’t want that kind of attention. Perhaps the best gifts of all have been the ordinary moments her young friends have spent with her.
In August, the news wasn’t good. A scan showed cancer in her left shoulder and left thigh and spots on her lung.
“Of course, Todd and I fell apart and everybody else did, too,” Kim Walker said.
But Team Reese regrouped and kept going, hoping that the treatments would eventually prove effective.
In October, Reese reached the end of her chemotherapy regimen, and the family headed home to Fayetteville. It was a Friday night, and there was a lot going on, including high school football. But as they neared home, they could see a crowd of friends and family gathered. Welcome-home balloons were everywhere.
“For me, sometimes it’s hard to see things people do right in the world,” longtime friend Tina Baker said. “I think it’s amazing to see the way people have responded. I hope that they feel the love people have for them.”
Last month, doctors ordered another scan and the nerve-wracking ordeal of waiting for the results began again.
Meanwhile, family friend Joan Poole was organizing another surprise for Reese. Though Reese wants nothing more than to return to school and play lacrosse again, the cancer treatments sometimes leave her zapped of strength and energy. Poole and a small group of donors surprised the family with the gift of a golf cart.
It was that same day that doctors called. This time the news was good.
The lesions on Reese’s shoulder, thigh and lungs were now gone and the tumor had shrunk.
The future remains uncertain. But for today, the house is clean, the family is close, the kindness of friends and strangers has carried them through. All is calm, all is bright — well, with four children and a 2-year-old grandson, maybe not calm.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Todd Walker said. “Without everyone’s support, I’m not sure how Kim and I could have ever gotten through this.”
Kim Hasty is a reporter for The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer.