'Born to Be Onstage'

An Oxford youngster celebrates remission and the end of chemo onstage with her musical idol.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

At first glance, Lily Ann Baker may seem like plenty of other 6-year-old girls. She’s the owner of an endearing grin, and she is temporarily gap-toothed thanks to the loss of a few baby teeth.

Her little laugh lights up a room — or a computer monitor during a Zoom interview. And her big brown eyes sparkle when she gives a moment of thought to her interviewer’s questions.

She’s a girl of discerning tastes. Her favorite colors are pink, purple and teal. She’s quite fond of mini corndogs, though she said she knows they’re not the healthiest of edibles. She has a penchant for pizza, but prefers square to round and plain cheese to loaded.

“But I will eat pepperoni,” she said.

She has a cat named Rainbow Cupcake, and, whenever it’s safe for schools to reopen, she’ll enter first grade at Lafayette Elementary School. Until then, she’s quite content jumping on her trampoline, watching shows on her iPad and playing on her backyard play set.

Lily loves music and could see herself spending life on a stage, singing her heart out. Sure, it’s a bit early for her to declare her life’s profession, but she admits she’d also like to be a spy and work for the CIA.

“I’ve been wanting to be a spy for years,” she said. “It’s just something I’ve always been interested in.”

Lily has a keen awareness of something with which no child ought to be familiar — acute lymphocytic leukemia. But happily, she’s also recently become acquainted with the word remission.

The Diagnosis

Nichole and Lee Baker received the terrible diagnosis for their brown-eyed girl March 14, 2017, a month after Lily’s third birthday.

The family’s first stay at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was two months. Later, Lily spent part time in Memphis and part time at home in Oxford, and for two and a half years, she and her mom made the trip to St. Jude every Thursday.

Despite suffering side effects of chemotherapy, Lily cultivated colossal courage that continued to serve her well throughout her battle with cancer.

Of course, Lily lost her hair, but her mom reminds her of how cute she was when she was bald. These days, her long, curly blonde hair belies her former baldness.

“There were times she’d throw up every day,” Nichole said. “She had mouth ulcers; a blood clot in her leg put her in the ICU, and she almost died; she had shingles and meningitis.

“The chemo had to be stopped to allow doctors to treat other issues. It was terrifying.”

Lily, listening to her mother share painful memories, interrupts with her own story to share.

“Remember when Chippy was swinging on my IV pole?” she said.

Chippy is Lily’s Elf on the Shelf and visited Lily during a Christmas spent in isolation.

“I’m so glad to learn this is what she remembers of a near-death experience,” her mother said with relief.

No More Chemo

During their Thursday trips to St. Jude, mother and daughter often listened to music by Lauren Daigle, a favorite of Lily’s.

As the countdown to her daughter’s final chemotherapy treatment continued, Nichole wanted to find something special to do in Memphis on such an important occasion.

“In my search for a special surprise, I found that Lauren Daigle was going to be in concert that day in Southaven,” Nichole said. “I knew that was it — that was going to be the surprise for Lily. I got online to get tickets, but ended up waiting.”

Days later, Nichole was in New York City on a girls’ trip with a friend and several others she’d just met.

“At one point, I found myself telling these women I hardly knew about Lily and how I wanted to surprise her with this concert on her final day of chemo,” she said. “One of them said, ‘Don’t buy those tickets yet.’ She took out her phone and texted her uncle who knows someone in the music business who worked with Lauren Daigle.”

On Oct. 10, 2019, dressed in matching T-shirts emblazoned on the front with “Straight Outta Chemo,” the Baker family showed up at the Landers Center in Southaven. Not only concert tickets awaited them but also an invitation to a meet-and-greet with Daigle before the show.

“First she met with a father and daughter, then they left and it was just me, Lee and Lily,” Nichole said. “Lauren and Lily talked and laughed and sang. They had the best time. When Lauren finally had to go on stage, she went one direction and we went another. Lily turned around and yelled, ‘You rock, Lauren Daigle. You got this.’”

About four songs into the concert, someone from Daigle’s staff tapped Nichole on the shoulder and asked what she’d think about Lily going up on stage. For Lily, there was no hesitation.

“My mind was blown,” she said. “I was born to be onstage.”

Standing next to one of her musical idols, Lily was celebrated for her courage and the culmination of chemotherapy. She also sang along on “Dry Bones,” her favorite Daigle song.

“She has more heart than the rest of us in that one little body,” said Daigle to her audience. “She is made of grit.”

Reflecting on that life-affirming day last October, Nichole still cries.

“She almost died multiple times,” she said of her daughter. “I couldn’t think of anything big enough or grand enough to do to celebrate her last day of chemo. But meeting Lauren Daigle, getting applause and a standing ovation from thousands — this is what she deserved.

“After the diagnosis, we were on edge for three years, not knowing what the next day would hold. We just had to learn to trust in God and go day by day. Now I feel we can finally breathe.”

Visit http://www.invitationmag.com/post/center-stage-celebration to see the video of Lily’s performance.

Oxford, Mississippi | United States

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