Survive When You Have To


CherriDance when you can.

By Cherri Ellis

Photo by Liesa Cole

The first time I became aware of Deirdre, it was because I had stumbled across a photo of her online. I was producing a public service announcement for cancer awareness, and I was idly searching for images on my computer. Taken through the painted panes of a window, the photo showed her from the back, sitting in a chair outside on a friend’s roof.  She was petite and completely bald in the way that can only mean chemotherapy, and she looked like if you made a sudden sound she might take flight and flutter off across the sky. She was 18 years old then, and in the middle of treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was an incredibly rare medical case, as the disease is more common in men than women, and the average age of diagnosis is between 67 and 75.  Not only did it suck for all of the regular reasons that having cancer sucks: medicines that make you sick, losing your hair and eyebrows, watching the people who love you suffer, wondering if you’re going to die…it actually double sucked for Deirdre because it had only been four years since she had been in a head-on car collision and broken her back. Having to learn how to walk again and then battling a rare cancer was a heck of a way for a girl to spend her teenage years.

As luck and modern medicine would have it, though, Deirdre survived. Not only that, but she managed to do so without letting the adversities harden her edges. When life’s little atrocities happen and you manage to get through them, it can change you. Survival by default takes the worst thing you’ve ever gone through and turns it into the best thing you’ve ever done. The trick is to not be completely defined by the challenge. By surviving, you automatically win the game and get to ring the bell, but it is up to you to enjoy the rest of the fair.

By the time I met her, she was a full-grown single mother of a very smart teenage boy. (How smart? Five-time-state-chess-champion smart.) She was enjoying the fair, busy with friends, family, and community work, such as feeding the homeless and chairing Artwalk. Already an advocate for the arts, she recently “came out” as an artist herself, publicly selling the work she started creating privately as a form of therapy. (Her quirky and whimsical mixed media pieces are packed with pattern and color and can currently be found at Naked Art Gallery.)

One night Deirdre was volunteering in the VIP section of Cask and Drum Festival when a cute guy walked in. He had come to see one of his favorite bands, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and he was alone because his buddy had bailed on him. He ordered the only IPA they had and when Deirdre handed it to him, he told her then and there that he had decided to just hang around and flirt with her for a while. He did so with focus and enthusiasm, finally convincing her to go somewhere else for a drink when she got off. She did, they did, and they have been together ever since. They met in October, were engaged by April, and in June they got married in Caldwell Park. Creighton came pre-packaged with full-time custody of a boy and a girl ages 2 and 5 respectively, so they made an instant family of five. Life hit turbo speed.

The younger children had been through a difficult custody situation and needed some counseling and tremendous reassurance at home to get their little feet back on the ground. The 2-year-old needed glasses.  The teenager was a teenager. Deirdre had to have skin cancer surgically removed. A few weeks later, while having lunch at El Barrio, she began to speak and was actually unable to talk. She could feel the thoughts inside her brain but she couldn’t physically create the words. They rushed to St. Vincent’s and discovered that she was having a transient ischemic attack (TIA), like a mini stroke. She left the hospital OK, but was taken off birth control pills.

One day a few weeks later, Deirdre noticed that two certain body parts were newly huge, and she wasn’t looking at her hands. She beat a path to the drugstore, mentally checking off all of the reasons that she couldn’t be pregnant. She had had her tubes tied. She had been on birth control pills for the hormones. She had had an ablation, where the inside of her uterus was literally cauterized. She bought the kind of test that made the actual words “pregnant” or “not pregnant” appear, and within seconds, they knew. One high-risk pregnancy later, they became a family of six with the arrival of their perfect new baby girl. They are over the moon.

When Deirdre was sitting on her friend’s roof with no hair or hope and immersed in abject misery, she had zero idea that the future held such immeasurable joy.  When you’re on the roof, you can’t hear the word “Mom” sweetly ringing in your future.  Things can be one way for years and years, and then one day, something tiny will start a chain reaction and all of the elements of your life will shift and reposition to accommodate the new. Something bad happens like a TIA and something beautiful comes out of it like a new baby girl.

My theme for this year is to survive when you have to and dance when you can. When things get tough, always keep one ear open, listening for life to drop your beat.

And as for those two crazy Birmingham kids, Deirdre and Creighton, I don’t want you to think that this is just another happy ending. It is more like a happy beginning.  And it is so lovely to see them dance.

3 Responses to “Survive When You Have To”

  1. Matt says:

    What a beautiful tribute to one of Birmingham’s most beautiful couples! Birmingham is blessed by their kindness and energy!

  2. Kathy Hammonds says:

    Loved reading this! I met Deidre when Logan was a first grader. She was my head room mother that year. She IS a very warm , creative and loving person. I am so happy to see her as the mom of a large family. She deserves every happiness.

  3. Salley Wilkerson says:

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story! Bless this family!

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