First steps are a momentous occasion, taken uncertainly, tentatively. First steps open up a brand new world of independence, movement, growth.
As a baby, Aubrey met her milestones — walking, talking — on time. When she was 3 years old, her parents enrolled her in her first dance lessons. Aubrey quickly fell in love.
“We thought she’d go to dance until it was time for her to start t-ball or soccer,” said her mom, Melinda. “But from the start, it was always dance.”
When she was on stage, Aubrey was transported to another place, her eyes sparkling as brightly as the sequins sewn into her dance costumes. “It made her happy,” said Melinda. “Aubrey lit up whenever she was on stage.”
A turn for the worse
Aubrey practiced 10 hours a week and danced on a competitive team, always eager to learn new types of dance. She loved it all — musical theater, ballet and tap.
But in June 2017, Aubrey began to have difficulty during practice. “We noticed she wasn’t spotting her turns like she used to,” Melinda said. “She wasn’t picking up her dance routines as quickly and she was having problems remembering her steps.”
Aubrey began to throw up almost daily and her eyes started to cross. She was in and out of doctor offices, but no one could pinpoint what was wrong.
“Finally, her pediatrician saw her eyes cross,” Melinda said. “He scheduled Aubrey for an MRI that same day.”
The test results were devastating: Aubrey had a rare cancerous brain tumor called medulloblastoma.
Learning a new routine
Gone in a flash were the dance practices, the competitions, the leotards and tutus Aubrey loved to wear, replaced by a list of unknowns: brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
But there was also St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which meant doctors and nurses, Child Life specialists and physical therapists — an entire team of people coming together to save Aubrey’s life.
Soon, Aubrey’s days at St. Jude became a routine to which she learned all the steps. She had appointments with her doctors, attended school, met with physical therapists. When her physical therapists said she was ready to stop her sessions, Aubrey begged them to let her continue, so that she could focus on regaining her balance and stamina, and so they kept working with her.
The only thing no longer routine were Aubrey’s dance lessons, which had stopped.
“We missed dance pictures,” Aubrey told her mom. She missed her friends and she missed her dance teacher. She missed the hard work she put into dancing each week.
Aubrey’s Child Life specialist heard of an opportunity that would — if in ever so small a way — help provide what Aubrey was missing back home.
A St. Jude photographer was looking for a patient who danced, and who would be interested in having photos taken on the stage of Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theater, with its backdrop of glittering chandeliers and majestic red velvet curtains. The Orpheum, at the corner of Memphis’ Main and Beale, is a showplace of theater and dance that has dazzled audiences for nearly a century.
Aubrey’s name was the first to come to mind.
A new stage
On a wintry afternoon, Aubrey stood in front of a dressing room mirror at the Orpheum, preparing to take the stage once again. She carefully applied mascara and blush. Since losing her hair as a side effect of chemotherapy, Aubrey had been sensitive about being photographed without a hat or scarf, but she surprised her mom that afternoon when she waved away the headscarf.
Instead, she took Melinda’s hand and slowly, carefully walked through the backstage area. Arriving at the stairs leading to the stage, Aubrey grasped the handrail and took her first steps back onstage.
The camera lens snapped, capturing a moment at once ethereal and symbolic.
“Aubrey is brave and beautiful,” Melinda said. “Seeing her on stage felt like coming home, it felt like life getting back to normal.”
Aubrey recently finished treatment and now visits St. Jude for regular checkups. She’s excited to get back to school and see her friends, but even more excited to finally begin dancing again.