Ally Woodbury knew something was up Saturday when her mother took her shopping for a ball gown. A gown to make Ally feel “like a princess,” her mom said.
After asking “Why?” a dozen times, Ally just accepted it. Struggling with cancer, she has learned to live her life in moments.
They picked out a movie star- glamorous one in forest green. A backless satin number that ended in a three-foot trail of satin that rustled with every step. A size 6 skimming over her lithe figure and broad shoulders; shoulders that whispered of Allyʼs former passion of dance.
Then her father gave the 17- year-old a present, a string of real pearls. And of course, both her parents wanted her to “try everything on” to show the rest of the family how beautiful she looked.
Weird. And wonderful.
Around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, a knock at the door. A child wearing a “Rookie Elf” hat handed her a dozen roses and a very special invitation: In a few hours, she was to play a part in the Kansas City Balletʼs production of “The Nutcracker.”
"What?!!" she said. “Weʼre going to ʻThe Nutcrackerʼ? What?”
She read the invitation once more.
“Youʼre in it,” corrected her mother, Pat Woodbury, relieved to be shed of the secret sheʼd carried for days.
“Are you sure?” Then Ally smiled — just a tiny smile — as odd little details began coming together. All those mysterious phone calls to her mother from “her friend.” The quick glances of her brothers and sister-in-law. The pearls. The dress.
Allyʼs special Christmas gift was arranged by the Elves of Christmas Present, a group that works anonymously to make Christmas extra special for families who have struggled with painful illnesses or events. An elf who works at University of Kansas Hospital told the Chief Elf about her.
Ally,who says she is“5 feet 2 on a good day,” used to dream of dancing. For 11 years she studied dance at the Dixie Bell Dance Center in Shawnee. She taught younger children.
Then her legs started to hurt. Shin splints, doctors told her. Then stress fractures. Six months passed and her legs still hurt. An MRI in February revealed an uglier diagnosis: Ewingʼs sarcoma, a bone cancer, was burrowing itself deep into her right shin. To her dad, Tom Woodbury, it felt as if he had been punched in the stomach.
A surgeon removed the infected bone and replaced it with one from a donor. The cancer slithered away and stayed out of sight for 20 months. But it returned this year with a vengeance, settling in her spine, pelvis, femurs, ribs, bone marrow, skull and right clavicle.
Ally doesnʼt allow herself to dream about dancing now. Her dream is to beat cancer, as cyclist Lance Armstrong did. Sheʼs proud that she is taking the same regimen of cancer-fighting drugs he used. Sheʼs read his books and magazine articles about him. And as she talks of him, she twists the yellow “Live Strong” bracelet she wears every day and every night.
But hours later, she removes it. Performers in “The Nutcracker” donʼt wear wrist- watches, let alone yellow cancer bracelets.
* * * * *
Inside the empty Midland Theatre, controlled chaos is just beginning.
Already a dozen dancers pirouette on the stage, stretch muscled legs, ease sculpted backs into deep bends.
If Ally is nervous about her part, she doesnʼt show it. (She has danced 10 recitals, and earlier this year she appeared before Congress to ask for more medical research funding.)
She greets ballet master James Jordan, a tall man who moves with the grace of a professional dancer, which he is. He escorts her to wardrobe, where she selects a deep purple tulle skirt and a lacy camisole.
For her performance sheʼll wear a wig from home. She tightens its scalp grip because it must carry the weight of an extra pinned-on set of curls. No makeup, but Allyʼs cheeks glow a soft pink any- way.
Few around her know that her legs hurt, that her back throbs with pain. Ally dabs her runny nose with a tissue; she has a cold, too.
Her mother prays Ally doesnʼt develop a temperature. That would mean an emergency trip to the hospital and the sadness of missing the opportunity of a lifetime.
Ally waits in a folding chair, saying nothing, watching everything.
Deanna Hodges, 24, walks up, her own cascade of curls tickling her neck. She extends a gloved hand. “Iʼm your grandmother in the scene,” she says and grins. Ally smiles some more. Sheʼs escorted to a couch as more dancers explain what her role will be. Ally will be a young aunt or maybe a granddaughter, sitting on the couch at a party.
A party. For Ally and her family, real par- ties have been few these past months. But this scene is beginning to feel very real and very surreal at the same time.
Dancers surround her now, greeting her, each trying his or her best to calm any nerves.
Matthew Donnell, a 24-year-old decked in face paint and a mustache as Herr Drosselmeyer, shows Ally his trick, and a flash of fire leaps from his fingers.
The stage is alive now. Snow bags are filled and hoisted high. Some curtains rise; others drop. Men climb ladders four stories high, strapping themselves into position to man the spotlights. Stage mothers herd tiny dancers into dressing rooms, arranging hats and dresses. A dryer hums in a room right off the stage. Beyond the curtains, the dull roar of the audience grows louder by the second.
Then the lights drop and an inky black settles on the stage. The chatter hushes. A muffled announcement follows as the dancers whisper with Ally, stopping only when the words “... special guest, Ally Woodbury” echo through the theater. Neither Ally nor her mother heard exactly what was said, save for her name.
Hidden behind a curtain, Ally and “grandmother” sit quietly on the couch, waiting in darkness for the party scene to begin. Around them, dancers rush on stage and freeze, like mannequins. As the lights glow bright and brighter, the curtain goes up and the stage blossoms into a room in a long- ago home. A party is in full swing. “Elderly” grandparents, along with one “auntie” or “granddaughter,” sit on a couch taking it all in.
Ally becomes one with the ballet. Each dancer includes her in a mock greeting and laughter and joking. Ally is “concerned” when Claraʼs brother breaks Claraʼs nutcracker. She “eats” a sugarplum that another dancer pops in her mouth. When the children clap with glee, Ally claps, too, joyful and happy. The stage is transformed into a swirl of petticoats and bloomers, dresses and tuxes, sparkly earrings and fur-trimmed capes.
In the dim blue light of backstage, Pat Woodburyʼs cheeks glisten. Her daughter in “The Nutcracker.” Despite all of Allyʼs struggles, and all those she faces in the future, for this moment Ally shines in a dream she had thought long gone, snatched away by illness.
“Itʼs magical, isnʼt it?” whispers Jordan, the ballet master. Woodbury lets her tears fall. Her husband, sitting in the audience, in the center row with the rest of the Woodbury family, is crying too.
If only they could freeze the moment and make it last forever.
* * * * *
Too soon it is over. Too soon, Ally is walking through the darkness back to a dressing room, trying to avoid the oversized heads and long tails of five “mice” on a nearby stairwell.
But Ally is stoic. Perhaps sheʼs over- whelmed, perhaps sheʼs overly tired. She doesnʼt say. And after thanking those who helped her onstage, she joins her family in the audience during intermission, her trail of satin gathered before her.
“Ally!” a woman yells from the crowd. Ally turns to see a familiar face: Jill Ballou, a pediatric nurse from KU Hospital, a nurse who has helped Ally from the beginning. A friend who has been there for the bad days and the good.
A friend who just happened to be at “The Nutcracker” this night.
Ballou was stunned when Allyʼs name was announced before the performance. “Sheʼs one of my kids,” she wanted to scream out. “I canʼt believe it!” She gave thanks for choosing this night to see the ballet.
Ally grabs Ballou and holds her tight. Each holds the other, and hugs and hugs. And finally the tears come, long before any words.
“You were great,” Ballou whispers. “Merry Christmas.”
Ally nods yes.
LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star