With a heart of gold and a contagious smile, my childhood best friend continued to be the best and most kind person I knew in my life. Although she had one of the preppiest names around, Emory Rose Collins, she hung with us, the nobodies, but everyone in high school and college loved her--the nerds, the jocks, and the populars. Emory Rose was my best friend, my hero and my savior; she taught me how to live and love to the fullest even when life is filled with tragedy. Emory Rose Collins was a hero and this is her story.
Emory Rose was born and raised by a loving mother and father, Rachelle and Mitch, and was the oldest of three, two girls and a boy. I met Emory at age three at preschool and I’m told we became best friends, however, we did have many disputes over whose baby doll was whose or who go the pink cup versus the purple cup. By age seven we were in second grade, in different classrooms with different teachers, but we walked to and from school together. Emory’s mom, Rachelle, became very sick and in that year, she had to quit her job and start treatment. The day after Emory’s ninth birthday, Rachelle passed, leaving Mitch alone with a nine, five and two year old. Although my family and the rest of the neighborhood provided meals and child care, it was obvious Mitch struggled a lot. However, by the time Emory turned eleven, she had become the new ‘mom’ figure in the Collins home--she learned how to cook, clean and do dishes, and helped as much as possible. By age fourteen, tragedy found itself back into the Collins home, when Junior died by a car. The one time he didn’t look both ways when crossing the street when riding his bike—he was dead on arrival.
Although the two deaths in Emory’s life caused heartache and heartbreak, Emory stayed amazingly calm, cool and collected. She never showed anger, sadness, or frustration in public, but she did let it out on the tennis courts. Where was I during all of this, you ask? By her side every step of the way, attending cotillion classes and culinary classes with her.
I’m sorry if it seems like I’m flying through her life, but this is just the background on her before the real acts of kindness and heroism begin.
It was senior year of high school, an early spring day when I looked in my mailbox and saw a large envelope from Pensacola University, the only college Emory Rose and I applied to. I ran through the backyards of my neighbors until I got to the Collin’s house. We both opened our large envelopes together, and squealed and jumped for joy when we read that we had both gotten in--myself on an academic scholarship for chemistry and Emory on a tennis scholarship.
This is where the real story begins--college. We both remained very busy and active in clubs and sports through freshman year--Emory and I being avid participants in the volunteer club--helping, talking and mentoring patients at the nearby hospital. It was after about ten weeks when I realized that Emory was taking notes on all the patients who needed something, whether be for survival or for bettering of their lives. Bethany was a woman we met, a mother of four, but after hitting an IED in Afghanistan, she lost her eye sight, and a year and a half later, she gave birth to twin girls who she couldn’t see. All Bethany wanted was to see her baby girls grow up. An eleven year old boy, Carson, in liver failure. Carson was on his way to join his family in Heaven due to this genetic disease. Not being high enough on the transplant list, he only had a few months to live.
Lewis, a sixty-eight year old man with an artificial heart, desperately needing an actual heart. Lewis’s daughter was getting married in sixth months and Lewis wanted to walk her down the aisle without tubes and pumps coming out of his chest.
Katherine, a twenty-year old student, suffers from dramatic second hand smoke in her lungs. Her family smoked so much around her that her lungs are that of a seventy year old who had smoked two packs a day for fifty years. Katherine wanted to be able to run, jump and laugh without having to gasp for air.
There were many others ,but Emory didn’t make it seem as important as the first four.
The summer going into sophomore year, I knew something wasn’t right with Emory. She was tired all the time and had massive migraines frequently, and on top of that, she had nose bleeds and swollen lymph-nodes. I asked her about it multiple times, figuring she had lymphoma--what he mother died from, but consistently denied me access into that side of her life. It was the first time she had shut me out of her life and I didn’t life it. However, she did tell me that after tennis season ended, she would be un-enrolling from college to go and travel the world and she wanted me to join her. I didn't know what to do; yes, traveling the world had been my dream since I was little, but leaving school behind, I wasn’t sure, so I told her I would think about it.
One rainy day, she called me up and asked if I could accompany her to her meeting with her tennis coaches--I agreed, but was apprehensive about what may happen. “Coach, this is my best friend, Aria, she came along because there is something I have to tell both of you,” Emory said, and signing to me.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I spoke while signing.
“Likewise. What can I do for you, Emory?” Coach Alberston asked.
“I have received some troubling news in the past month. I have found our that I have lymphoma and a brain tumor. I have cancer,” she confessed. “I don’t need you to feel bad or pity me, but I just wanted to let you know. I will try my hardest at every single practice and match but know I will have to skip a few trainings and practices due to treatment and time to rest. Please don’t dock my talents to a lower ranking because of this, just let me continue to earn my spot on the team. I don’t want to tell anyone, so please keep this between us.”
“I am very sorry to hear that, but I know that you are a fighter so you will fight this and you will be fine on the team. I wish you the best.”
From this meeting we headed to the hospital for her first chemo appointment and for the next week, I cleared her drain of hair. She was totally bald, and it just got harder from there. Emory began struggling with tennis and her focus due to her brain tumor. She would stay home from class one day every ten days due to migraines. However, she fought through and never complained about it.
It was one week before the end of tennis season when I agreed to go travel Europe with her. So we both un-enrolled from school, my parents totally disagreeing with my decision, but I had to, I needed to, I wanted to. So, one week after, we found ourselves in Edinburg, then Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague, Frankfurt, Brussels, Parish, Zurich, Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Barcelona and ended in Madrid. After three months, we had seen more of the world than either of us had ever seen. However, without treatment for that span, it was clear that Emory was dying.
Two weeks after getting back to the States, and being admitted into the hospital, drug and treatment free, my best friend, the world traveler, the bravest person I have ever known, died. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she took her final breath and then shut off her monitor from beeping. The doctors rushed in and took her into surgery to begin their harvest of her organs.
Thanks to Emory Rose Collins, Bethany was able to see her gorgeous ginger twin girls, Carson was able to go back to school as a happy elementary student, Lewis able to walk down the aisle with his gorgeous daughter, the bride, and Katherine was able to breathe her first full, clean breath of air since very early in her life. A woman named Tiffany received a right hand, a very difficult procedure, and seven others received life saving organs from Emory.
Not only did Emory Rose save these twelve people’s lives, she gave hope and inspiration to others in her situation. She gave bravery and courage to those struggling with the thought that their life will end soon, she gave a gift of good news and random acts of kindness. Emory was the most humble, genuine and brave person I have ever had the pleasure meeting. Not only did she do all this, she made my life better, everyday by being a part of it.
At age four, I got meningitis, which caused me to be deaf. I enrolled in signing classes, as did my whole family and at age six, my family, myself and Emory new how to sign. In third grade, Emory led a class to anyone in our school who wanted to learn how to sign. The class continued into middle school, high school and college. By the time we left for Europe, we had guessed that over five hundred people had learned to sign, at least enough to have a small conversation with me. I was the only deaf student at any of my schools, so having a friend take that big of an interest in me and my needs deserves a spot in my life forever.
Emory Rose Collins changed lives, and to this day, at age thirty-five, a brain surgeon operating on ‘inoperable’ tumors, I still share her story wherever I go.