Yesterday at 1:30 p.m., heaven gained a new angel.
I’m devastated by the loss of precious Darby Jones, one of the “Original Posse” in The Johnny Stallings Arts Program. I thought I had wrapped my head around the thought of losing her but of course, when it really happened I wasn’t prepared at all. Today, when I pulled into the parking lot of Merrimack Hall, I immediately broke down…knowing that I will never again see Darby dance on our stage hit me like a brick wall. I thought of all the times I’ve seen her pull into the parking lot with her mom, beaming from ear to ear because she was so excited to get to dance class or to perform in a show. I remembered back to our very first class on October 8, 2008. Darby was bald and in the midst of a round of treatment for her third bout with leukemia. Weak and pale, she was determined to get through those first few months of class, no matter how exhausted or sick she was.
Merrimack Hall became one of her favorite places…the place where she lived out her dreams of being a star. We have presented many luminous performers on the stage at Merrimack Hall – people who have won Emmys, Tonys and Oscars. But none of them could hold a candle to seeing Darby perform on stage. I will miss her so much.
Most of my concern today has been for her teammates. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by since Darby relapsed last May that someone from the Project UP gang hasn’t talked about her. Just yesterday, one of the kids said, “Hey, you know what? My friend Darby isn’t going to die or anything. She’s just in the hospital for a long time.” I have agonized over how the kids would deal with the loss of their friend and teammate, knowing that many of our students might not have a frame of reference for the finality of death. I shouldn’t have worried.
The Project UP kids told me things today like, “Did you know Darby is in heaven now? I bet she’s dancing up there.” Or, “Darby has died but she will always be in our hearts, won’t she?” Or the best one, “Could you be quiet for a minute? I’m trying to talk to Darby right now.” One girl said, “I’m going to miss her a lot but she’ll be here every time we dance,” as she pointed to her own heart. Once again, I underestimated our students and their capacity to grasp what’s really important in life.
And so we will grieve the loss of a beautiful child, a child who taught us so much. The lessons I learned from Darby were to accept everyone just the way they are; to start and end every day with a smile; to enjoy every single thing you do every single day; to say I love you to the ones you love…a million times a day. Darby showed me what courage looks like, not just as she battled cancer but every time she came to dance class. Darby showed me what joy looks like, every time she smiled. When I looked at Darby, it was like getting a little glimpse of what God must look like. I ache for her parents as they face the staggering loss of their only child. I will remind myself that Darby was a gift in my life and that even though five years wasn’t enough, I was blessed to know her for as long as I did. And every time our students take the stage, I know Darby will be with me, right here in my heart.