Meadowdale's Ashley Aven is battling a terminal case of leukemia, but she refuses to give up and is inspiring others.
LYNNWOOD — The words cover less than a single page in a thin spiral notebook, but the handwritten ledger is part of what Ashley Aven lives for.
She calls it her to-do list.
Enjoy dad’s lemon chicken dinner. Visit the zoo and aquarium. Walk with her graduating class at Meadowdale High School.
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Aven likes to look ahead, like a lot of 18-year-olds, but doesn’t dare look too far. She has already defied the odds that doctors at Children’s Hospital gave her on Jan. 2, when her parents were told she had two months to live.
“We’re four months into this two-month nightmare,” says her father, Bill Aven.
That nightmare started last July 8, when the Avens where hit with a three-word sucker punch: Acute myeloid leukemia.
Ashley, who would have been a senior at Meadowdale this year and a starting outfielder on the softball team, thought she had the flu or anemia last summer when her “whole body hurt” and a fever spiked to 104. She wound up at Children’s Hospital, where she spent six months enduring three agonizing rounds of chemotherapy.
But her cancer levels never got low enough for a bone-marrow transplant, and her body couldn’t withstand more full-fledged chemo.
Ashley Aven could have curled up in bed and given up. But she keeps swinging away, committed to carrying her fight into extra innings. She has become an inspiration to many, including the Meadowdale softball team she now helps coach.
Her mantra remains: “I’m not going anywhere.”
For Aven, this isn’t about denial, but determination to live life to the fullest.
“I’ve got stuff I want to do”
Go home, the doctors said. Live life. For eight weeks. Two months.
Ashley doesn’t buy it.
“You know, Dad, I call bull on this two-month thing,” she said during one of their many drives to the hospital from their Lynnwood home. “It’s just not going to work out. I’ve got stuff I want to do.”
She started her to-do list — don’t you dare label it her bucket list — shortly after being sent home.
Graduation? Dale Cote, Meadowdale principal, has her honorary diploma — Ashley has been unable to attend any classes this school year — ready in his office any time she wants to pick it up.
Aven wasn’t supposed to see her 18th birthday April 6. Yet she and the family — including 20-year-old sister Leticia — spent it in Palm Springs, Calif., visiting her grandmother. In February, they went to Disneyland courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Ashley plans to go to her senior prom and recently started talking about a Las Vegas trip in May.
“We’ll see,” Bill said.
“If I can fight, you can fight”
Ashley misses softball and her teammates. They refuse to let her go, drawing strength when she’s around. The team presented the girl they call “Speedy,” because of her quickness, with a letterman’s jacket earlier this year. Players wear patches with her No. 2 on their jerseys, and she is listed on every lineup card.
The team struggled early, starting 1-6, but has won two out of three since Aven attended a practice.
“If I can fight, you can fight,” she told them.
She has been the first-base coach in back-to-back wins.
“She’s my inspiration,” senior infielder Jade Lennstrom said.
More than once Aven has said, “Cancer doesn’t have me, I have cancer.”
She doesn’t want to be treated any differently than before.
“The only thing is that I look different. I have short hair,” said Aven, now with a half-inch, baby-soft do.
Losing her dark brown locks three times to chemo has been one of the toughest parts of this illness. The first time, continuous clumps of her shoulder-length hair on her pillowcase convinced her to let her nurses help her shave it off.
“I feel so free,” she told her parents.
Soon after, Bill and her 14-year-old brother, Eric, shaved their heads, too.
“I’m not going anywhere”
Ashley rarely opens up about her illness and prognosis, and who can blame her?
“I don’t really think about it that much,” she insisted.
But she listens, absorbing it all. Ashley could barely keep her eyes open recently while her mom talked about the family’s shattered finances. Their insurance had lapsed two days before Ashley was diagnosed as Bill had changed jobs.
When Tamara said she has money set aside for a funeral and memorial, Ashley snapped to attention.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Ashley said.
“I know you’re not,” Tamara answered softly.
Tamara tries to be the pragmatist, the rock of the family.
“I had to tell Ashley that she’s dying,” she said.
That excruciating conversation came after a mid-January meeting Bill and Tamara had with doctors. As Ashley walked through the hospital cafeteria with her parents, she demanded to know what the doctors said.
“Let’s talk about it when we get home,” Tamara said.
“No, I want to know now,” Ashley insisted.
The three found a table.
The message was grim. “There is no cure, Ashley, and you will die from this, and it’s terminal, and we’ll fight it and keep up the attitude,” Tamara said.
Ashley began to cry.
“I want to go home now,” she said finally, wiping away her tears.
It was quiet the whole way home.
The illness has drawn the family close. Ashley and Tamara sleep together — Bill, a round, loving man, snores too loud — and watch endless hours of TV, particularly on the Lifetime channel. Lots of “Law & Order” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” And “Ellen,” always “Ellen,” a favorite at the hospital.
A large banner signed by Meadowdale students hangs on the wall of her bedroom. Signs of support are everywhere, including several softballs signed by opposing teams. She has been asked to throw out the first pitch at the May 8 Washington softball game.
“Please don’t let me die”
She is so brave, so focused on beating the odds, it’s easy to forget how much emotion is locked inside her. She rarely lets it out.
When Bill teared up recently talking about the day doctors told him to take Ashley home, she quickly caressed his arm, grabbed his hand and put her head on his shoulder.
Even with mom, who battles fibromyalgia, Ashley rarely shares her feelings and fears. It’s heart-wrenching when she does.
Tamara recalls one especially difficult day when Ashley revealed the depth of her despair.
“Mom, I don’t want to die,” she said. “Please don’t let me die.”
Bill copes in part by writing in an online journal he started soon after Ashley’s diagnosis.
Bill frequently signs off with “BIG DEEP BREATH.” That became his mantra after he stood outside Children’s Hospital one day “having a moment.” An old man saw him.
“Take a deep breath,” the old man said.
Leticia, who lives nearby and visits regularly, doesn’t like to talk about her kid sister’s health. Eric, a freshman, sees a counselor at home and said he gets a lot of support at school, especially from his three best friends, who help him sell the colorful $2 support bracelets with Ashley’s name on them and the phrase “Deep Breath.”
Eric smiles a lot, but worries about his sister.
“Sometimes in math class, I just kind of sit there and stare at the intercom and I’m just thinking they’re going to call me down to the office and tell me my sister passed away,” he said.
Bill and Tamara worry, too. Ashley is more fatigued and body aches persist, signs the cancer may be growing again.
“I know she’s getting worse,” Tamara said.
Time is ticking, but Ashley doesn’t believe even a doctor can predict life and death.
“They don’t know when a person’s going to die or not,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can say, ‘You’re going to die on this day,’ or ‘You’re going to die in two days.’ They don’t know.”
After all, Ashley Aven has stuff she wants to do. She isn’t planning on going anywhere.
Sandy Ringer: 206-718-1512 or email@example.com