The lights fell. The music started. Dana Carpenter’s phone died.
She didn’t think much of it as Alabama took the stage. The memories were in the packed stadium of the Florida Strawberry Festival, and not on some lighted, plastic screen. And her 11-year-old daughter, Megan, was under good care. Her older brother, Chad was watching her at their country home.
But with each changing chord of the guitar, Chad was trying to reach her.
The band launched into a song:
Oh, I believe there are angels among us.
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours.
Chad hung up the phone and rushed to his sister’s side. She was convulsing. She was unresponsive. The ambulance came. It took her away.
All the lights in the house were on when Dana Carpenter pulled into the driveway of the house.
When she entered, her children didn’t come to her. And then she saw there was a message on the recorder. Chad’s voice was shaking in a panic. They were at the hospital.
Chad had been her angel.
Megan suffered more seizures at the hospital before she was transferred from Plant City to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. After the family was reunited, all they could do was wait for an answer.
Megan loved the Florida Strawberry Festival. So her mother knew she wasn’t feeling well when Megan decided she wasn’t going to the concert that night. Did that have something to do with what was happening to her?
The doctors did test after test. They asked question after question. Megan had gained some weight earlier in the year. They had to keep letting out her evening gown for the Junior Royalty Pageant the month before. And her usually flawless skin had started to be speckled with acne. Was it just coming of age and hormones?
Several days went by, and the doctors gathered the family around a table. They knew it was serious.
Megan had adrenal cortical carcinoma, a rare cancer the hospital had never treated before. There was no known cure. Her prognosis was bleak: just a few months. Carpenter stood up and backed away from the table.
“I am not going to accept this,” Carpenter said. “This is unacceptable.”
There was modern medicine. There were doctors. But Carpenter believed something more powerful was going to help save her daughter: prayer.
Megan survived for five more years on that power. And in those five years, she became an angel to many.
PRINCESSES AND ANGELS
The princess tent at Relay for Life is perhaps the most popular booth on the grounds of the Plant City High School stadium. The school’s cosmetology department organizes it, painting the nails and faces of all the little girls who come through. At the end, the Florida Strawberry Queen waves her wand over them and recites a magical blessing.
The tent is in honor of Megan.
“She would hate it,” Carpenter said.
Megan didn’t like to talk about her cancer. She went through three rounds of chemotherapy and eleven surgeries. She lost her hair in gobs on her pillow. She refused to wear a wig, because it wasn’t her. And she didn’t like to watch the younger children go into treatment because she knew what lay ahead.
But Megan was the way she was because she was resilient and and selfless. Instead of a wig, she had a baseball cap to match every outfit. She denied an offer from the Make-A-Wish Foundation because she wanted other children to have the chance to make their own. And she stayed connected to her faith and church family, and helped others do the same.
“Megan touched a lot of people with her faith,” Carpenter said. “She brought everyone else up.”
It’s evident that Megan was known everywhere she went. From flying with a baseball cap on the Plant City Dolphins cheer team to a standing ovation at a Junior Royalty Pageant she competed in two days after finishing radiation, everyone found Megan to be an inspiration.
“The doctors used to say, ‘We don’t know why she’s still kicking,’” Carpenter said.
She had a reason to be.
“She changed a lot of kids’ hearts who were going astray,” Carpenter said. “She was the chosen one. Even though I would rather have her here.”
But now that she’s gone, the angel herself is still changing lives.
At every Relay for Life ceremony around the world, the lights shut off for a special moment no one can forget. Participants decorate bags in memories of those who have died from cancer. In Plant City, a candle is placed inside each one that dots the track, turning the stadium into a glowing circle of faith and support.
There is a moment of silence. And then a slideshow to remember all the faces who have gone. It is hard to find a dry eye in the crowd.
“The luminaria ceremony is so important to Relay because of its symbolism,” Britney Koch, luminaria chair, said. “The luminaria handbook says this about the ceremony’s purpose and symbolism: ‘The luminaria ceremony is a ceremony of remembrance and hope. It symbolizes a time to grieve for those we have lost, to reflect on our own cancer experience or that of those closest to us, and to find hope that tomorrow holds the promise of a cancer-free world.’”
For Carpenter, it’s a touching moment.
“(After your loved one dies) if you sit alone by yourself, you can get down,” Carpenter said. “But when you’re around people who go through the same thing … it’s a healing.”
A large portion of Plant City’s luminarias are decorated for Megan. Her friends gather, still wearing their pink ”Our Angel in Heaven” bracelets, and some with their own daughters who have visited the princess tent. Chad is now a Plant City police officer. His friends join in during the night to support him.
“You don’t even know some of these people and her name will be on (their luminarias),” Carpenter said. “It’s so sad, but it’s amazing that she’s touched so many.”
The Alabama song is never far from Carpenter’s mind.
Oh I believe there are angels among us.
To show us how to live, to teach us how to give.
To guide us with the light of love.
REMEMBER A LOVED ONE
To purchase a luminaria, current Relay participants can contact their team captain for a form.
Those who are not registered with a team can come visit us at the Plant City Relay Rally at 6 p.m. March 23 at Plant City’s First Baptist Church on the south third floor, 503 N. Palmer St. Find the luminaria station for more information.
You can also purchase them on the day of the event, April 10, at the luminaria tent on the south end of the field. Luminaria monies are a donation directly to your team of any amount. At the event, you can decorate the bag however you’d like.
For any other questions, contact [email protected] or (813) 716-7947.