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Daughter’s courage lifts this father’s spirit every day

She was up early on Father’s Day, trying not to make noise as she pushed her wheelchair into the kitchen. It was a little after 6 a.m., and my daughter Amelia figured I was still asleep.

I’d already started the coffee and was puttering around in the vegetable garden. Upper Kyle Canyon at Mount Charleston was noisy with songbird symphonies, and our two terriers were stretching their legs in the yard.

When I returned to the house 15 minutes later, my amazing 17-year-old already had sliced apples, bananas and strawberries and added blueberries to our breakfast fruit salad.

“Happy Father’s Day,” she said. “I hope you like it.”

It tasted as good as it sounds, but if it had held the flavor of the mud pies we’d prepared back when she was 3, I wouldn’t have complained. It was Father’s Day, and I was the luckiest dad in the world.

If that scene sounds idyllic, it was.

But every day with Amelia is special.

Diagnosed with a catastrophic brain tumor in 2004, she survived multiple surgeries, full-body radiation and withering chemotherapy. The cancer relapsed in her spine in 2005, and only high-dose chemotherapy and a stem-cell rescue saved her.

She paid a terrible price. The second chemotherapy nearly killed her and left her paralyzed with substantial damage to her eyesight, hearing, bones, and memory. She suffered horrible nerve pain that no amount of medication could consistently soothe.

Somehow, she managed to recover enough to go back to school. She attended when she could, studied when she could and tried her best every day. By doing so, she gave her mom and dad the strength to carry on even after their marriage broke up.

Her second year back from the hospital was better. Although she seldom went through a day without visiting the nurse’s office, she pressed on through middle school and on to Arbor View High School.

The population of the school is larger than many Nevada towns. But the administrators, teachers and fellow students have been sensitive and welcoming to Amelia. She’s prospered despite many challenges most people never think about.

She just finished her junior year and gets a little stronger by the day. Outside of school, girlfriends and the obligatory social networking that obsesses kids these days, she loves to cook, draw, take pictures and beat her old man at rummy.

She helps keep up an herb garden, and is learning to drive with hand controls on abandoned back roads in the Spring Mountains just like her dad did 40 years ago.

She goes to physical therapy twice a week to work her damaged limbs. Sure, she dreams of walking again, but she knows the odds against it are long. That fact doesn’t prevent her from trying, or from moving on in her life with the use of a wheelchair.

When her dad gases the Subaru and embarks on his back-road trips throughout the Great Basin, she’s always game. Even when she can’t stand his taste in country-folk-jazz-blues music.

Amelia never complains about the tough cards she’s been dealt. She plays the hand with character and class, and puts in her best effort each day.

We’re hard to miss wherever we go. Although she’s becoming fiercely independent, there are still some physical obstacles she hasn’t yet figured a way to overcome. As you might imagine, stairs are tough, and sometimes I am needed to lift her and carry her.

She always apologizes for the imposition, but I’m honored to do the job.

After all, Amelia lifts my heart and carries my spirit every day.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at 383-0295 or at jsmith@reviewjournal.com.

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