When I met Brad for coffee on February 7th, 2019, I had no idea how my life would be changed. We spoke for over two hours about his story, my story, his life and Christian. I brought the idea of photographing his family’s moments — the good and the bad.

As the last grains settled into our coffee, Brad explained that he almost cancelled the meeting because of the news they had learned that day. The oncologist had called to tell the family that Christian’s cancer fought the medicine, once again, and he now had a total of five tumors in his brain cavity. I cried with a stranger for a child I had never met.

Christian and I pose for a photo after quietly leaning on each other’s shoulders from a long day at Riley Hospital for Children before an early dinner at Tacos 46. Christian and I commonly enjoy each other’s company during these bonding and emotional trips to Indianapolis. Photo Courtesy of Brad Daugherty

It was then that Brad told me Christian and his twin sister, Grace, would be celebrating their birthday together the following Sunday, February 10th. It was then that I realized I would forever be connected to this family: I was going to document this young boy’s moments of love, laughter and happiness around this family of six.

I didn’t make this choice, I didn’t make this decision, I just knew it was where I was meant to be.

Sometimes life chooses you because it sees you as a candidate, it sees you as someone who can make a difference, and it sees you as an influence in this world. I believe Christian is this person, and I am meant to tell his story.

——— ——— ———

Five days after initially meeting Brad, I met the rest of the Daugherty family. We enjoyed some heart-shaped Papa John’s pizza together while laughing at the sound conch shells from Hawaii make. I immediately fell in love: this family is mine plus some. They are goofy, wacky, fun and loving. The love is unlike anything — in every moment you see how much they care for each other.

The following weekend, we spent over 40 hours together! Between the family being recognized at Ball State’s Dance Marathon and a Delaware County Championship Wrestling event all the way to the biggest birthday party this town has ever seen.

Christian, me and Grace posing for a photo before I leave after an eventful day. The kids have accepted me as a member of their family, and leaving every night can sometimes be the hardest thing I do — especially when they bug for me to spend the night and watch movies with them! Photo Courtesy of Brad Daugherty

When people say a community comes together in a time of need, I believed it, but I had never seen it. Christian and Grace’s party was where I saw it for the first time.

Chairs, tables, decorations, carnival games, a bounce house, giant birthday cakes, food, water, candy and more were all donated from the Muncie community to help the twins celebrate their birthday. Over 100 families (meaning over 300 adults and excited children) came to give the family their blessing, love and sincerest prayers.

Christian and Grace went home with more gifts than I thought possible, and the rest of us returned home with a happily heavy heart. . 

——— ——— ———

The scariest and worst words I have ever heard: “rushing Christian to the ER.”

I was watching my parents’ dog when I got the news that the Daugherty’s were rushing to the emergency room with Christian on April 27. I fell to my knees and burst into tears. Amanda did not hesitate a beat when saying I should meet them at the ER, something I could never have imagined hearing just a few days before.

I know I was brought into the Daugherty’s lives for a reason, and I know they were brought into mine for many. Spending 3-4 days a week with the family, I have found myself forgetting that Christian is as sick as he is. I often find myself talking about how, aside from the scars, Christian is just a normal kid: he plays outside, he plays video games with his best friend and he has straight As in school. Something which triggers you, makes you remember and makes me cry as I type this out is necessary to remind me how lucky I am to know and love Christian and his family.

Once I got to the ER, Christian’s face lit up! He was so excited to see me and begged me to play Candy Land with him! I snapped a few photos, and played three games with him and his Uncle David. After the oncologist confirmed there was no bleeding from his brain, a huge sigh of relief was unanimous throughout the entire room. Three days later we would all be back at Riley to meet with Christian’s oncologist, Dr. Alex Lion.

Brad and Amanda prepped me the night before for what we would talk about at the hospital. I nodded my head, but knew I didn’t fully understand the extent of emotions I would feel the next day. Giving hugs, we all went to bed (and me on their couch as has become common the night before Riley trips).

I cannot describe how painful April 30th was. I know I have only known the Daugherty’s for three months, but I now pray for every single family who ever has to see the purple Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) form. This was the single worst signature I have ever seen in my life, and watching two of the strongest people I know shed tears, was simply debilitating. Christian insisted on cuddling Amanda; Amanda ran out of the room; Brad signed the form; and Christian tried to make me laugh. I smiled just for him.

I cried as I took photos, I sniffled through the videos and I hugged every pulmonary team member, cried into Amanda and Brad’s shoulders and shivered as I prayed with those left in the room after.

I wasn’t able to help in the moment, but how useless I felt during these moments, I captured vulnerable and painful moments, but I felt as if I was just another body breathing the little oxygen left in the room. It took me days to digest fully what happened. It’s been three weeks and I’m still working through the pain and emotional toll this single signature took on me.

After the days’ events, I called my mom and cried. I went home and hugged my parents, played with my dog and fell asleep crying.

When I began this project, I had no idea what was going to happen. I had no idea how much I would love the Daugherty family and how much I would learn about not just the world, but myself. With everyday, I thank the God I didn’t know I believed in until I met the Daugherty’s for putting them into my life.

As I leave for a summer internship, I am torn, crushed and pained at the idea of leaving Christian four hours north. With my phone constantly at my side, I worry every hour about how he is. The last thing I could ever dream of is not getting to him in time. Not just for the story, not just for his family, but in a selfish way, for me to know he knows I was always there.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

As I continue to tell their story, and as I continue to fall more and more in love with this family, I feel nothing but blessed to be involved. The kids have began to ask when I’d be coming by next, if I could spend the night with them and if they can take a “big camera” selfie with me. I have inside jokes, I’m “Acid-Girl” alongside 10-year-old Elijah who is “Acid-Man” and I no longer give fist-bumps, rather foot-fives.

The Daugherty family has accepted me as one of their own — the seventh member of the family and has already invited me to join on trips three months in the future.

When I first reached out to Brad about this story, I had no idea I was reaching my hand out for a chance to change my life. Christian, thank you for showing me a new way to live, how to always find happiness and believe in the future and world.

You will always be my Flash.