It was just a couple weeks ago when Lizz Hoard, owner of Elizabeth Hoard Photography and my own wedding photographer, called me about 3 year old St. Jude Patient, K'meil. What started out as a business talk between his mom, Leyah, and Lizz turned into a story of her son's current battle with cancer. Essentially, she wanted photos of her child like any other mom, but long story short, "It's not good," Lizz told me.
K'meil has been diagnosed with neuroblastoma a rare cancerous tumor that seems to always affect children based on research at St. Jude. He has just finished his second round of chemo therapy and currently wears a port in his chest. The cancer has metastasized and spread to his bones, and he will soon be going through a bone marrow transplant as well.
K'meil's dream was to have his picture taken with a horse and maybe even ride one. That's when my phone rang. Lizz photographed me back in November in my wedding gown with my horse as a gift for my husband. She asked me if I thought we could use one of the horses, and even if he couldn't ride, the horse could be in the background. At that moment, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a dodge pickup truck pulling a gooseneck trailer with two horses in it headed to Alabama for an endurance race. I looked over at my cousin, Jennifer Whittaker, who owns Mystic Rose Arabians, teaches riding lessons and whose life is literally horses, kids, and more horses and told Lizz, "I think if he wants to ride a horse then he will ride a horse. He could probably have his pick of colors from Jennifer's lesson horses if he wants." And just like that, K'meil's dream of riding a horse was coming true. We scheduled their family shoot/horseback riding around his chemo treatment's at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and set the date for April 5th.
Except it got even better. Lizz and I started talking again about a week later. She had set the whole family up with new outfits for their photos. Then she said, "I would love to be able to offer professional hair and makeup to Leyah too." Same thing. Second time. "Hold on." I texted Faizah who most people have heard me rant and rave about on a regular basis. My hair and makeup artist friend. I knew she would say yes if she wasn't booked. Back to Lizz, "Fai said she can do it." Lizz and I are basically beside ourselves with excitement at this point.
But then I had another idea. I texted St. Jude Nurse/mother of my god-children, Anna DeVine, and told her the story. Talk about someone whose life has been touched by St. Jude patients. They rock her world every day, and she rocks theirs. She's more than just a nurse. She has this really amazing appreciation for life and all of the little every day ups and downs that make it what it is. She told me today, "As hard as it is, you just gotta stop and find the things to laugh at sometimes." I asked her if we could use her property that backs up to my family's property where I grew up. There's this amazing orchard of pear trees that I've been dreaming of taking pictures in for quite a while now. I knew before I even asked that she would say yes.
When the day came, we all met out at the DeVine's house and Anna of course welcomed everyone into their house on a Tuesday night amidst her normal life with three kids of her own. As fate (or not fate at all) would have it, Jennifer and I decided that her 22 year old, retired endurance mare, do it all power pony, lesson horse, teacher, and friend to many many kids, Autumn Kismet, was the best fit to give K'meil his ride. The crazy thing about our Kismet (Kissie) - she was an "accident." Kissie is the product of a horse getting out of his pasture. When Jennifer was 17 she got a call asking if she wanted the baby. It's clear what her answer was.
Today, Kismet has carried both Jennifer and I in over a thousand American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) competition miles. She and I grew up together. We learned to ride "by ourselves" together, dressed up in costumes together, rode through city streets in parades together. She was there when my first horse died and stood next to me head hung to the ground as we buried her. She carried me through my first 50 mile ride together and taught me among others many life lessons - determination, hard work, and responsibility to name a few. We were nationally ranked in the Southeastern United States for the 2006 competition year, and finished the AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) and AHA (Arabian Horse Association) 50 mile National Championship together in 2008. She suffered an injury as a baby that left scars on her legs for the rest of her life. At 14.1 hands tall, this little mare is considered pony height. She's basically a barrel and her trot is one of the most uncomfortable things you will ever ride. The big boned, sweeping trot, 15+ hand horses towered over her at vet checks during our races. In short, all odds would say that Kismet should not have been able to accomplish the things that she has. However, Kis is a fighter. She has a determination and will to keep going and how fitting that this retired horse gave another little fighter his dream ride.
As Jennifer led him around the field with one hand holding on to him the whole time and more people on the other, K'meil laughed and smiled and petted Kismet. In fact, we could hardly get him to get off of Kismet. His laughter was innocent and authentic - a laugh that most of us probably don't use enough. A laugh that would have you convinced that there was absolutely nothing wrong with this little boy.
It's amazing how we don't take life for granted when we stop and watch a child fighting a life threatening disease get to fulfill his dream. It's amazing how much time we spend with the people we love when suddenly that time isn't guaranteed anymore. But what's more amazing is that there are Anna's, Jennifer's, Lizz's and Faizah's in the world whose lives are devoted to this every day. There are teams of researchers, doctors, nurses, marketing directors, an entire fundraising staff, hospital volunteers, marathon runners, you name it and St. Jude has it, who give their time every day to bettering treatment, finding a cure, raising money, and making it possible for more kids like K'Meil to get to live out their life to it's full potential. The reality is, people everywhere are affected by cancer, and sadly, K'meil isn't the first cancer patient that Lizz or I have photographed. So to Jennifer, Faizah, Anna and the whole DeVine family, Lizz, all the St. Jude nurses and doctors, thank you. To everyone who has donated their time, run a marathon in honor of a kid, participated in a fundraiser, thank you. Leyah, thanks for trusting us with the most valuable thing in your life - your family. To our do it all, Kissie Horse, thanks for being an old pro and giving this little boy the ride of his life. And to K'meil and all the kids at St. Jude, thanks for fighting, for not letting cancer steal your joy, and for reminding the rest of us what truly matters in life.
Hug your kids a little tighter, ride a horse, run barefoot through the grass, tell the ones you love how much they mean to you. Life is a gift - let's make the most of it.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital here in Memphis, TN is funded entirely by donations. No child's family ever has to pay for treatment, making it possible for kids all over the world who have been diagnosed with cancer to become patients. If you would like to join us in supporting St. Jude and help continue this incredible mission, you can donate in honor of K'meil here: http://giftfunds.stjude.org/kmeilandkismet
Photography: Kaitlyn Stoddard (K. Stoddard Photography & Fine Art) and Elizabeth Hoard (Elizabeth Hoard Photography)
Horse: Autumn Kismet of Mystic Rose Arabians | Owner : Jennifer Whittaker
Hair and Makeup: Faizah Husniyah
St. Jude Nurse: Anna DeVine
Property Owners: Anna and Kelly DeVine
***Please note that the adults who made it possible for K'meil to ride Kismet were cropped out in some photos for aesthetic purposes and also so that he could have his photo riding "all by himself." Multiple people were holding on to him throughout his ride/shoot.