The past week, I’ve thought a lot about the opening scene of my all-time favorite movie, which depicts two bright stars in a black night sky (aka angels) listening to an outpouring of prayers for a distraught man named George Bailey.
But instead of emanating from a snow-covered Bedford Falls, fervent prayers to God in recent weeks have soared from the town of Toledo, bathed in sunshine but filled with people worried over the health of two teenage girls.
Small-town unity has been on display in the form of banners, signs, Facebook posts, and emails updating people about operations undergone by two girls who served as Toledo cheerleaders — Rylee Birdwell and Jessica Hull.
Rylee, who graduated in June, collapsed suddenly with seizures a week ago Thursday. When rushed to the hospital, doctors found a brain tumor. She underwent an extensive surgery July 29 to remove the mass, but it was deep and part of it remains. She’s still in the hospital, surrounded by her parents, Keith and Lorinne Birdwell, family members, and friends. She’s been upbeat on Facebook and ready to fight for her survival.
Jessica, who will be a senior at Toledo High, collapsed in mid-May with what people described as a brain aneurysm. She was rushed to Mary Bridge Hospital in Tacoma and underwent brain surgery, but she required another operation Thursday. She is the daughter of Marty and Lisa Hull.
I keep thinking back to my daughter’s preschool days, when she held her first friends’ birthday party at the Napavine Burger King. Both Rylee and Jessica attended. Jessie’s mom, Lisa, ran to a nearby store for candles to put on top of the Hershey’s sundae pies. Other parties followed — swimming at Thorbecke’s and painting T-shirts at Michael’s.
During spring breaks, Lisa and I often planned a day with our kids—her son, Coty Jasper, and my son, Paul, with our daughters Jessie and Nora—playing laser tag, go-karts, bumper boats, and miniature golf at Bullwinkle’s in Wilsonville. One time we even tried ice skating.
We’ve watched these girls grow up — and as adults so often say, it happened all too quickly.
Then the unthinkable occurred.
Last week Rylee’s mother, Lorinne, thanked the people supporting her daughter.
“The outpouring of love and encouragement near and far and especially in our hometown has been nothing but amazing,” Lorinne posted. “Please know that we are speechless! Our sweet girl is such a fighter and we are slowly seeing signs of movement on her left side.”
Doctors described that feat as “nothing but a miracle considering the amount of disturbance they had to do to that part of the brain,” she said.
It’s amazing to see how Jessica has bounced back after her first brain surgery, and I’m praying she’ll continue to heal well and graduate after a wonderful senior year of high school. I’ve also been praying that doctors will be able to remove the entire tumor from Rylee’s brain.
I’m definitely not alone. Friends have posted updates on Facebook all week from Rylee’s mother. The number of people praying for her reminded me of the chorus sent heavenward on behalf of the fictional George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The sound of the prayers from Toledo must have been deafening, and God has been faithful in caring for both teenagers.
That’s what Lorinne believes.
“As I sit in the quiet of this room and listen to the machines that keep her fight alive, I am reminded of the power of all the prayers that are being said,” she wrote. “My heart is at peace in knowing that this fight is not just ours, but you all have made it yours as well. We are pressing forward each day because of all your love.”
So often young people graduate and can’t wait to leave their hometowns, but during times of trouble, the unity displayed by people in a small community is priceless. Local businesses hung banners. The Ritchie Brothers sign flashed support. And people prayed.
Lorinne wrote something after Rylee’s surgery that stuck with me.
“If I could say anything in my quiet moments to you all, it would be to hold your kids closer as we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” she said. “I woke up focused on my catering world Thursday morning as I have done for so long now and ended the day with my worst nightmare.”
I’ve never been one for hashtags — they’re beyond me — but here goes: #jessiestrong #ryleestrong #Toledostrong #GodHeals.
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at email@example.com.