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Her turn for a fairy tale

Published April 1, 2007

[Times photo: Keri Wiginton]
Crystina McKenna, 18, reacts after trying on her prom dress for the first time at Patricia's Boutique on March 17. "It's perfect," said Crystina, who was awarded a "Cinderella's Prom" sponsored by the Brooksville Junior Service League. Two other Hernando High seniors also earned the award.

Cinderella had a simple wish: a pretty dress and a night to dance. Crystina McKenna, 18, harbored a more complicated longing. She wished for her mother's survival or an end to her pain, knowing the cancer wouldn't give both. If the Hernando High senior shared any wish with the fairy-tale heroine, it's the wish to undo the painful and the unfair, or at least forget for one night. Then, as if by magic, came the pretty dress and a night to dance.

Crystina marks time the way a child marks time: second grade, third grade, fourth grade.

"They found a tumor in her heart when I was in third or fourth grade. In seventh grade they said she was in remission. My grandmother died in eighth grade. Mom relapsed in ninth grade. In 10th grade, things started to get really bad."

In September, the hospital sent Karen McKenna home to die.

Karen suffered "terminal agitation" - the wakefulness of the dying. She and her husband slept on couches in the living room. Bobby kept watch with a baby monitor. The retired Clearwater firefighter blocked the door to the carport so she wouldn't fall down the stairs.

Crystina didn't tell her friends. She talked about prom dresses and college plans. She went to work at Sears on State Road 50.

In the afternoons, after school, Crystina sat on the couch beside her mother and held her hand. Sometimes they sat that way for hours.

* * *

Crystina Colleen McKenna was her mother's only child, the "miracle baby" doctors said she'd never have. Her father nicknamed her "Magee," and calls her "the best kid in the world."

Crystina calls herself the "weird one" in the family; the one who'd rather read than party, who prefers art to pop music. She has a Claddagh tattoo on her biceps. She recently dyed her bangs platinum blonde.

"We were lucky. I was lucky," Bobby McKenna said. He and Karen married 28 years ago this June.

Karen was his best friend. She wanted so badly to make it to her daughter's graduation.

Then, in December, the cancer spread to her brain.

"I got into bed with her," Crystina remembered. "She kept saying she was sorry she had to leave me, and sorry to put me through this. She said, 'I won't always be here but I'll always be with you.' She fell asleep holding my hand. That was the last time I recognized her as my mom."

* * *

This is the first year the junior service league awarded the "Cinderella's Prom," choosing three girls based on their grades and extracurricular activities.

Crystina didn't know about the contest. Her guidance counselor called her into the office in early March, and handed her the certificate.

"I asked her, 'Is this about my mom?' And she said no," Crystina remembered. "So I read it again. It said 'You have been awarded a Cinderella prom.' And I thought, 'What the hell does this mean?' And I started crying. I wanted to go so bad."

Crystina had already decided not to go to the prom. A few weeks before Crystina won the award, her mother lost her battle with cancer.

Karen McKenna died Feb. 19. She was 48.

* * *

Crystina tells the story dry-eyed and fast, like she's afraid to stop.

I went and saw her on Saturday. I was sitting next to the bed, and I started crying, and she hadn't woken up for anyone, and she sat up and started yelling at me, 'Why are you crying?' She was really out of it. She forgot she had cancer. She didn't know why she was in a nursing home. She was holding my hand and screaming and crying and asking, 'Why can't I go home? Why can't I go home?

On Saturday, any time I said "I love you," I got an "I love you" back, and she recognized me and knew who I was. On Sunday, I rarely got an "I love you" back. It was like she was mad at me because I couldn't take her home.

On the Monday, Feb. 19, I was at work at Sears. My dad came in with my uncle and I just knew. She had been sick my whole life, but ...

She died holding his hand and wearing the shirt I got her for Mother's Day. It said, "I love you mommy."

The next day was so hard because I knew she was gone, and as much as I prepared myself for it, I wasn't ready for it. I told myself, "This is going to happen." But nothing you do is enough. Nothing you say is enough. You never say goodbye enough.

* * *

Crystina chose a purple ballroom gown with a pin-tucked skirt studded with gleaming rhinestones and corseted waist.

She tried on the dress for the first time in front of the three-way mirror at Patricia's Boutique. Other girls came with their mothers. Crystina brought Alyssa Stevenson, her best friend.

Store owner Patricia Lambright laced up her dress. Shoes appeared. Crystina twisted and turned, pushing her long hair up on her head.

Now jewelry. Lambright hooked enormous rhinestone earrings from Crystina's lobes.

"Sometimes less is more," Lambright prudently warned.

Not for Crystina. She added a glittering scalloped necklace and a tiara.

"Do I have to bring this stuff back?" she asks with disbelief.

No, she doesn't.

* * *

Mothers have wishes, too.

Karen McKenna started a tradition with her daughter, borrowed from the movie, Stepmom. They agreed to meet in their dreams. They picked Ireland, at the Blarney Stone.

Before she died, she dedicated Lee Ann Womack's ballad, I Hope You Dance to her miracle child.

Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens

Promise me you'll give faith a fighting chance

And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance

"It's so bittersweet because now that she's gone, we know she's not in pain," Crystina said. "But she's not here."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (352) 754-6127.

[Last modified March 31, 2007, 19:23:38]

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