When I woke up this morning, both my arms were still asleep, numb and tingly. My rising panic gave way to relief when I finally realized I didn't have some terrible disease. I was just hugged out. Between Sunday evening and Monday afternoon, I dispensed more than 1,000 individual hugs (and a few groups hugs). Here is the first of several installments of tributes to Erin's life. This piece, masterfully written by Robert Borden, appeared in the paper last Saturday. Thank you, Robert. Thank you also to Robert's mother, Shirley Borden, who corresponded with Erin regularly, and who recognized in Erin a kindred spirit. I'm reproducing it with the archive photo that ran with the story. This picture always made Erin laugh, because Dave McDermand had to take so many shots to get us to look serious. Erin always claimed it was the only time the three of us ever looked serious simultaneously.
Erin Buenger was a girl with a big heart and a terrible disease. She also had a courage that put the rest of us to shame.
The 11-year-old Bryan girl died peacefully Thursday morning, seven years after being diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor in young children that begins in nerve tissue and spreads.
The disease is a heavy burden for a child to bear, but Erin refused to let it get her down, friends and family said. She fought the disease, not just for herself, but for other children with the disease and other forms of cancer.
She took the battle to the halls of Congress, where she lobbied U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards to support the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act of 2006. It was the first of two trips to Washington, D.C., that she made to lobby for support of the bill. The Waco Democrat readily signed on to the measure and, in the process, became good friends with Erin and her family.
When making her second trip to the nation's capital, Erin told an Eagle reporter, "When I was in the hospital, [treatment] took forever, forever, forever, forever to work. I think if we could get more money, then [treatments] would work faster and I could have more free time."
Walter Buenger, Erin's father, said Edwards remained in close touch with his daughter, spending a Sunday afternoon with the family in the middle of last fall's election season, even going out to eat with the family. Erin still had a flower-bedecked "Welcome Chet" sign that she made for his visit on the wall in her bedroom. Edwards last visited Erin about two weeks ago.
"She always lit up when she was with him and he lit up when he was with her," Walter Buenger said.
When she was in fifth grade at Mary Branch Elementary School in Bryan, Erin asked Edwards to be her "visual aid" in a presentation she was making to her fellow students on how laws are made. He readily agreed and sat on stage for more than an hour while she made her presentation, referring to the representative as "my helper, Chet."
On Friday, Edwards said in a statement: "I first met Erin when she came to Washington with her mother to lobby for medical research for children with rare diseases. From the moment I met her, Erin stole my heart with her courage and positive outlook on life. In listening to her talk about the joys of everyday life, one would never know she had ever had a bad day."
He said Erin had more courage than anyone he has met, and "to have been her friend was one of the greatest joys in my life."
"Erin showed me the purity of her heart when, despite her own fight against cancer, she sent me an e-mail every day for three weeks and three gallons of Blue Bell Ice Cream when I had minor larynx surgery. Some children are just so special that I have to believe God wants them back to make heaven a better place."
Despite being diagnosed with neuroblastoma when she was 5, Erin never let it get her down. Her parents remember her remarkable ability to connect with people of all ages.
"She liked meeting people and had the ability to make a deep connection with people, treating them like a special friend," her mother, Vickie Buenger, said.
"She was not a cancer patient. She was a person who had cancer," Vickie Buenger said. "She appreciated all the experiences that opened up for her. You could not find a more complete embracer of opportunities to be involved."
Throughout her school years, Erin insisted she be treated like any other student. She had a passion for soccer, playing on a competitive soccer team and she rode horses. As a sixth grader, she was in the Inquiry Academy at Jane Long Middle School, where she competed in UIL contests and served as treasurer of the student council. Her mother said that, despite prolonged absences from school, Erin was on the honor role every six weeks and never brought home a grade lower than a 96 on a report card.
Two weeks ago, Erin had two works of art on exhibit at the Bryan Art Fest at Bryan High School. Since January, she had made some $2,000 stringing lanyards to hold ID badges, selling them to raise money for neuroblastoma research.
She completed work on a cookbook to be called Erin Cooks, with proceeds also going to research when it is published. Some of the recipes she developed while in the hospital for treatment.
At the time of her death, she was working on a fused glass art project with several older women at Bryan's First Presbyterian Church.
In late February, when her class took a school bus trip to Houston to see an exhibit called Body Works, Erin insisted on going, saying it was nice to travel to Houston and not have to visit a doctor or clinic.
Walter Buenger said his daughter's approach to life was "full-tilt."
"If there was a project to be done, she'd say, 'Let's do it.' If there was fun to be had, she'd say, 'Let's have it.' If there was schoolwork do be done, she'd say, 'Let's give it our best,'" he said. "If there was a treatment to be taken, she'd say, ' Let's take it' and then move on."
Vickie Buenger said some people would use adjectives such as smart or witty or kind to describe her daughter; others might add nouns such as good student or good soccer player.
"I think of her in action verbs," she said. "If she was going to read, you'd better have plenty of books on hand. If she was going to play, she was going to play really hard. If she was going to work, she was going to work really hard. Everything has to do with action verbs."
After her daughter's death Thursday, Vickie Buenger logged on to Erin's laptop computer. There, she found a list of things Erin was looking forward to doing, including learning how to fence, how to cook fondue and how to make a pot of tea.
Even at her sickest, Erin Buenger always believed she was going to get better, and it was hard for those around her not to believe the same thing, her father said.
"She had a remarkable ability to see the best in every situation, to be happy, with a quick sense of humor. She could see that everything wasn't always about her," he said.
Services for Erin
Erin Buenger's family will host a "party/celebration/visitation" in honor and memory of Erin from 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday in the Fellowship Hall of First Presbyterian Church, 1100 Carter Creek Parkway in Bryan. There will be a slideshow of photos from Erin's life, her favorite songs will be played and there will be a chance for people to share special memories.
Visitors are asked to wear bright colors to the event, because Erin "had no prejudice against any color, as long as it was bright and eye-catching."
At 2 p.m. Monday there will be a memorial service for Erin, also at the church.
In lieu of flowers, those who wish may make a donation to Erin's Let's Do It Fund at the First Presbyterian Church to fund children and youth activities at the church or to Lunch for Life/Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation at www.nbhope.org.