Michelle “Shelly” Thornton was like any other little child. Spirited, funny and curious.
What made her daily walk different was her long-running battle with cancer (neuroblastoma).
But even with that burdensome diagnosis, the Copley Township girl’s family always made a yeoman’s effort to carve out for her as normal of a life as possible with lots of fun activities thrown in just because.
Shelly died Wednesday. She was at home with her mother, Allison, and her grandfather, Jim Thornton. She was 8.
“She passed this morning in her sleep after the pain became under control, Jim wrote on the CaringBridge Journal, adding that she did not have “enough strength to fight the horrible disease that has ravaged her body.”
His earlier prayer — entered at 11:41 a.m. Feb. 16 — was answered:
“We love her sooo much. But we want her out of pain. Maybe it’s selfish of me, of us, but, Jesus, please ease her pain. Please take her into Your loving arms and let her romp through the clover, let her laugh with Nana, let her sit on (great) Grandpa’s lap and eat strawberries prepared by him … Let her make You smile. Please answer my prayer, dear Jesus.”
Shelly’s beloved grandmother, Jim’s wife and Allison’s mother — Bonnie Thornton or “Nana” as she was called — died Oct. 22, 2011, after a six-month battle with small cell lung cancer.
“Shelly was in remission at the time,” Jim Thornton said of his wife.
“Bonnie would always say, “See, I’m taking the cancer so Shelly doesn’t have to have it.’ ”
“But four days after we buried my mom,” Allison said, “Shelly’s cancer came back.”
I had the great pleasure of meeting Shelly in December 2008 aboard the Polar Express, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s holiday train ride. Her ride and that of several seriously ill children had been arranged by now retired Akron police Sgt. Tom Dye with the tickets purchased by several civic-minded organizations.
Our paths crossed again shortly after her grandmother was diagnosed and the Spirit of Goodyear blimp operations crew, at my urging, took them for a ride.
The then 7-year-old Shelly assumed the role of reporter that day, drilling assistant chief pilot Michael Dougherty big time.
“So, have you ever hit a tree before?” she wanted to know.
“No, I never have,” Dougherty answered, unsure if that disappointed Shelly or made her feel safer.
“Shelly was originally diagnosed at 3½ with septic arthritis of the hip,” her grandfather said. “But seven weeks later on Good Friday it was determined she had Stage IV neuroblastoma … She underwent chemotherapy and her stem cells were harvested in an attempt for her to have a stem cell transplant.” But that didn’t happen. “The doctors said, “Sorry there’s nothing more we can do.”
The Thorntons were told that Shelly had about six months.
But they weren’t ready to accept that expiration date.
So they made their rounds to several other hospitals, traveling as far away as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Rainbow Babies and Children’s in Cleveland for treatment and ultimately to University Hospitals in Cleveland. Along the way, Shelly had a tumor surgically removed from her brain in 2010 at Christmas time and in 2011 gamma knife surgery to remove another tumor from her brain. She had other treatments off and on in various places, her grandfather said.
“She was just so magnetic,” he continued. “She never met a stranger she didn’t like. She would often go up to them and give them a big hug…”
Shelly was in second grade at Hillcrest Elementary School.
“Unfortunately, she was only able to attend the first three days of the school year before she got really sick,” her mother said.
Shelly was wiser and more thoughtful than those far older as evidenced by her grandfather’s Nov. 24, 2012, 9:56 a.m. journal entry:
“Well, Turkey Day has come and gone, and we had a nice meal (enough said). We went shopping on Black Friday (no, not Thursday at 8 a.m., nor Friday at 6 a.m.) but after lunch. Shelly has outgrown most of her fancy dresses, and with the Ed Bear fund-raiser coming up on Monday, we went to JC Penney’s for a new outfit. Although Shelly was in a lot of pain, power shopping seems to bring her out of it (she got that from Nana). … ‘No, Papa, we don’t mix stripes with plaids.’ ”
After the two got home, Shelly realized she needed to go back to buy some slippers that she had forgotten. “So, off we go (it was snowing and blowing), but Shelly didn’t mind, and then we picked up pizza on the way back. On our way back to Penney’s Shelly asked me for a couple of dollars. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘To give them to the bell ringer!’ This little girl sure has a big heart.”
That she did.
Calling hours for Michelle “Shelly” Thornton will be 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Billow’s Funeral Home (Fairlawn Chapel). The funeral will be 1 p.m. Monday in the main sanctuary of Akron Baptist Temple, 2324 Manchester Road, Akron. Interment is at Lakewood Cemetery.
“It’s been a long road, and we’ve run out of options,” Jim acknowledged with finality in his journal entry on Jan. 16 at 12:31 p.m.
“I really don’t know what else to say. Our pain will not end when Shelly’s does.”
Hopefully you and Allison will find that sweet peace in time, knowing that you did all you could do to find that cure, and to show her in all ways just how very much she was loved.
Knowing that she’s with Nana now and remembering her laughter on the blimp that day and her innocent, fairytale-like chatter:
“If my arms were long enough I could reach the clouds.”
Perhaps they are now.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.