She used to be all there, nice and neat, until pieces of her started disappearing. I don't know where she has gone or even if she will be back. ... Her name was My Plan. -- Christian Bryant, senior English essay
This is not a sad column. Not today, of all days.
Yes, there is sadness present. You cannot bury your first-born daughter, dressed in her graduation gown as the casket lowers, without sadness and grief becoming like stray dogs who never, ever leave.
You can't say goodbye to your sister or your best friend, the one who was loyal like the sunrise, without knowing sadness in a way teenagers should not.
But this is not a sad column. It's a Thanksgiving Day column.
"Life is a gift. Our children are a gift,'' said Robyn Bryant, Christian's mom. "I am so thankful.''
Tall, blond, brilliant and funny in a quiet, witty way, Christian wanted to be an environmental engineer. Headed to Georgia Tech. About to start her senior year at Girls Preparatory School. About to start her final season on the cross country team.
But days before the start of her senior year, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. And a new, unexpected race began. A new set of plans emerged.
I trust that something positive is coming out of having leukemia. ... This may not be a part of My Plan, but it is a part of God's Plan. -- Christian
"She never complained,'' said Robyn. "Everything she did was so positive.''
In the fall of 2011, Christian began receiving treatment at Erlanger hospital's Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders. Within days, she was in remission.
But complications -- very rare complications -- from her treatment would cling like vines, never letting go.
Last Christmas, she had a stroke, leaving her unable to speak for several days. But one morning, when Dr. Eric Gratias -- her oncology doctor, pronounced "gracious" -- walked into her hospital room, she started speaking.
In a British accent.
"She tried to tell him the stroke made her talk like that,'' laughed Robyn.
Christian decorated the halls of the center. She started a recycling program there. She did her homework during chemo treatments. Went to English class after receiving treatment earlier in the day. She and Gratias hatched a plan to collect used, First World medical equipment and send it to impoverished countries.
"She wanted to change the world,'' Robyn said.
I have begun to formulate a New Plan. ... I know I will be okay. -- Christian
In March of 2012, after the shingles she'd contracted had entered her spinal fluid and double vision made it difficult for her to read her Bible, Christian was readmitted to the hospital.
"And she never left,'' said Robyn.
Her body began to shut down: shock, fever, infection. For months, her heart rate had been strong. Fast.
Like she was on the last lap of a very important race.
On May 26, her runner's heart began to finally slow down. From 150 beats per minute, to 100, to 50.
"To zero,'' said Robyn.
By her bedside, with a broken heart, Gratias spoke almost in divine ways: she broke the tape, he said. She won the race.
Scripture talks about the grain falling from the chaff, the seed falling to the soil. Through her death and illness, Christian gave life to so many.
Hundreds of people ran in her honor during the Seven Bridges Marathon. Many had never met her; they'd just heard of Christian.
The young woman signed on to room with Christian at Georgia Tech has dedicated her major -- biomedical engineering -- to the memory of Christian. They met once. In the hospital.
Friends who were like sisters and others classmates who barely knew her have told the Bryants of the massive influence Christian -- and her last race -- have had on their lives, decisions and testimonies.
Her parents established the Christian Bryant Foundation (www.thechristian bryantfoundation.com), with the long-range goal of helping the center become a free-standing hospital, and the short-term goals of providing assistance to families at the center.
Me? I was her teacher. But really, she taught me. About courage. Faith. How laughter can always outshine pain. How life should be lived.
"She made me want to be a better person,'' Robyn said.
So this is not a sad column. Really, it's a birthday column.
Because today -- Thanksgiving Day -- is Christian Bryant's 19th birthday.
And what else do you do on a birthday but celebrate life?
Living each day as it could be the best day is the New Plan, and I accept it with determination and a positive outlook. -- Christian Bryant, last line, senior English essay.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...