On Thursday, Kennedy Branham and her family departed Lexington and took off for the Bahamas.
And good riddance.
Good riddance to the past several weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, to pain and uncertainty, and fear.
Since February, Kennedy, a 13-year-old Lexington middle-schooler, has battled a malignant brain cancer — an "evil cancer," her mother, Erin Branham, called it.
But Thursday, Kennedy and her family began an adventure away from the hospital and ventured off to the Bahamian sun and surf, where she planned to relax, spend time alone with her family, and swim with the dolphins.
"I was hoping she'd choose the Disney cruise to Hawaii, but it obviously isn't my trip," her mother said, laughing, in an interview last week.
Though buoyed so far by the "absolutely incredible" outpouring of love and prayers and support from the Lexington community, Kennedy "needs a break … we all need a break," said Branham, who also has a 10-year-old son, Parker.
For, in less than two weeks, Kennedy will be back home again. Back for an MRI to see just how well her cancer treatment — six straight weeks of chemo and radiation, five days a week without fail — has worked.
This is what Branham has been told about Kennedy's particular form of cancer, glioblastoma, which is rare in little girls and has attacked the wrong region of her child's brain to be treated successfully:
"There are no survivor stories," she said. "There are no success stories."
"I have no idea what will happen if that MRI shows no response, or shows growth — I don't know where we go [from there]," she said. "[Doctors] are always going to give hope, and be positive, but if you research it, it kind of leaves you without hope. But, of course, you always pray for miracles. I pray for a miracle."
'You could have punched me in the stomach'
The first time you meet Branham, it's hard to not want to hug her, especially if you're a parent yourself and know a bit of her story.
Though young and fit and lovely, in her presence the weight of her daughter's illness upon her seems palpable.
She can be strong, speak candidly, and she can hold back the tears when she talks about her daughter (Branham's maiden name, Steele, is well-earned), but you know they are there just behind the surface — and she'll admit as much.
And though far from morbid, Branham is nonetheless realistic. She understands that the prognosis for her daughter is not good.
But Branham can't help but be more than a little stunned by it all. By all that has happened -- and it all just happened so damned fast.
Though Branham remarks that she often feels dazed and not always present, she can still vividly recall the beginning of it all. The first signs of Kennedy's cancer, she said, appeared a mere four months ago, in February.
It all started out innocently enough.
On Friday, Feb 10.
Kennedy, her mom said, got sick in the back of the car that morning, threw up a little bit and complained of a headache, but soldiered on and went to school at Lexington Middle School. Branham figured her daughter, who rarely ever got sick, simply had a common "stomach bug."
"Next day, she had a terrible headache," Branham recalls. "I said, OK, this isn't your typical stomach bug. I thought, she's 13, maybe she's just having hormonal-induced migraines."
The following Monday, her daughter still sick, Branham called Kennedy's pediatrician, who advised her to wait a day and see what happened with Kennedy's headache. The headache continued.
The following day, Valentine's Day, mom took Kennedy to the doctor.
"Everything checked out fine. Neurologically, she was doing all the things like she was supposed to do," Branham said. "[The doctor's] only concern was that there was not a lot of relief when she threw up. That was kind of disturbing. So she said just get this MRI done within the next few weeks."
The following day after going to school and feeling fine, the headaches struck again, and Branham, who works at Lexington Medical Center, decided not to wait any longer and scheduled the MRI.
The scan detected something, and a contrast MRI, which produces a scan with more detail, was suggested. Branham, who works in ultrasound at the hospital, knew enough to know that such a procedure was not a good sign — it was a sign that something had been detected, that something perhaps was wrong.
She was pulled into a room and told that they needed to make sure what they were seeing was real.
"You could have punched me in the stomach," she said. "Because I gasped for air … I knew then it was not good."
What the technician found was a 3.8 centimeter tumor. A craniotomy followed. "And two days later, on her 13th birthday, we found out the diagnosis," she said.
"It was a very poor prognosis -- and I just remember going into a trance, because I had to go back and face her. I didn't cry, immediately, because I had to go back and face her and be strong and celebrate her birthday."
Even with family around, Branham kept the news to herself, at least for awhile, she said.
"This was a Thursday, my brother's wedding was on Saturday. I couldn't ruin that day for them. I mean, this was actually Kennedy's wedding. She had been looking forward to this wedding for five years, ever since they got engaged. I mean, how do you break news like that?"
'Pray 4 Kennedy'
Little did Branham know at the time, but by breaking the news, it would unleash a torrent of love and support and goodwill that would eventually extend well beyond just family and friends, its tentacles spreading throughout the Lexington community, offering the family emotional, financial, and spiritual support.
"I'd just rather lay in bed everyday and cry," said Branham. "But you can't. You can't, for Kennedy. And seeing this community? I feel the support. And I know I have people to lean on … . Look at this community. It's amazing."
In four short months, Kennedy has gone from a little girl with cancer to a community and media cause celebre, evidenced by the hundreds of people around town who honor her battle and sport "Pray 4 Kennedy" paraphernalia — everything from rubber bracelets to t-shirts to vehicle decals.
Branham's girlfriends and family, among others, have taken the lead in arranging a nearly constant barrage of benefit events to raise money for Branham and her husband Charlie, from whom she is separated, to help chip away at the crippling costs of Kennedy's care, which Branham's insurance can't possibly cover.
Businesses and organizations have pitched in greatly, too.
"Just her O.R. bill was $150,000," she said.
And that's just for starters. "There's no salary that can possibly pay for all that," adds Branham, who notes that all proceeds raised for Kennedy are deposited into a trust overseen by an accountant.
Two others have been major catalysts in creating Kennedy nation, too. The first is family friend and local businessman, Chris Wooten, who owns in Lexington, Branham said.
"He's a very special person in our lives," Branham said. "[He said to Kennedy] we don't know why; we don't know what the plan is; but, you've been chosen — and you're going to change people's lives."
"I've known Chris for years. Kennedy loves him. We sat and talked with him, and I didn't really understand what he was saying," Branham adds. "But now, obviously, I'm a witness to it."
And then there is the now well-documented case of the Wildcats baseball team, The team shaved their heads for her.
Lexington High senior Rivers Bedenbaugh even took Kennedy to the high school prom. The dedication and love they have shown Kennedy, said Branham, is simply wonderful and staggeringly beautiful and selfless.
"I told the baseball team, it gets me through the day — their support," said Branham. "Seeing these teenagers, who are in the prime of their life, they're going to prom, and they shave their heads the week before. And every time they look at those prom pictures, with those shaved heads, they are going to remember Kennedy."
Every day is Mother's Day
Sunday May 13 was Mother's Day.
Another day on the calendar for some moms, a sanctified day for others. When asked if the day held any special meaning, any special significance this year, Branham pauses.
"I think with her diagnosis, with the seriousness of her illness, I have just treated every day like a Mother's Day," she said. "So grateful for my precious kids. I value every second. I take a little more time with them than I did before."
"You know, I have friends that come in and complain about their 15-year-olds or their 16-year-olds, and I hope I get to be aggravated by that someday.
"I guess I look at life now through a different set of eyes. I enjoy the simple things, where I may have overlooked them before. You know when you're cooking in the kitchen, and your son comes up behind you to hug you, and you just continue to cook? Now I'm going to turn around and embrace it.
"And Kennedy may call me to her room five times with her arms open for a hug — but I don't care, I'm going to give her that hug, and I'm going to lay with her, and I'm going to tell her how proud I am of her, and tell Parker how proud I am of him, and …" her voice trailing off, she shakes her head ever so slightly and bittersweet at the thought.