Bride Sarah Swaim knew her flower girl would steal the show at her wedding last month. After all, 10-year-old Abby Furco is funny, spunky, and "stubborn in the best way." She's also "the first miracle I have ever witnessed," Sarah says.
When Sarah, a two-time childhood cancer survivor asked Abby to be in her bridal party, she wasn't sure if her flower girl would make it to the big day. At the time, Abby, also a child cancer survivor, was hospitalized for graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in her gut, a complication caused by her bone marrow transplant—the very same condition Sarah herself had suffered at one time.
"I remember so clearly when Sarah asked me if it was OK to ask Abby to be her flower girl," says Patty Furco, Abby's mom. "We didn't know what Abby's prognosis was at that time, but she was very sick. She had been on 24-hour dialysis for a month and no sign of kidney function, and her bone marrow wasn't keeping up with other functions. It didn't matter: Sarah wanted Abby to be her flower girl in person or in heaven. I was so touched."
Or as Abby says, "It made me feel honored and like we had a special bond." They do. Abby and Sarah met at a camp for kids with cancer, where Abby was a 6-year-old camper from Virginia Beach and Sarah, a 2012 St. Baldrick's Foundation Ambassador from Norfolk, Virginia, was a counselor. Maybe they clicked because they shared the same disease (both of their treatments were funded by the St. Baldrick's Foundation, the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants). Or maybe because, as Abby puts it, "she is funny, so am I"—but probably a little bit of both.
Sadly, shortly after camp, Abby relapsed and required a bone marrow transplant. Sarah reached out to offer support. "I think it was important for Abby to see someone who had gone through exactly what she was going through and that made it," Sarah says. "Because when I relapsed [at 20] and went through transplant, it was hard to find somebody who had went through it and lived. And that was scary."
After Abby's transplant, she was determined to go back to camp, straight from the ICU, and she did. But Abby's GVHD eventually landed her in the hospital at Duke, where, coincidentally, she saw the same doctors Sarah had once seen.
When they began discussing end-of-life decisions, Sarah drove immediately to the hospital. During her visit, she asked Abby to be her flower girl. "She gave me a very solid Abby Furco nod, and I gave her a big hug," Sarah says. "I of course didn't know if she would be there, and that was really difficult, but I knew that I wanted her there, so I asked her, and she said yes, and then she was there," Sarah says, her voice cracking. Abby was released from the hospital and given just 48 hours to live, but "in perfect Abby fashion," she refused those odds. She managed to live long enough to go back to camp, celebrate her birthday, travel to Italy with her family (a lifelong dream), and finally, conquer the aisle at Sarah's wedding.
"She was determined to not be in a wheelchair and to walk," Sarah says of the long processional. Abby even rejected Sarah's offer to find a chair for her halfway. "And she hauled down that thing and really did it. I could see that she was really proud of herself for doing that."
There was not a dry eye in the crowd when Abby made her entrance. "People were like, 'We're going to be crying because you'll be beautiful, but also because Abby will be walking down the aisle,'" Sarah says.
What was going through Abby's mind? "I can't believe I'm doing this," she recalls. "I took it slowly and carefully but did it in a way that it looked important."
"I think my favorite part about the day is that she was so Abby. She was so herself. When you're going through that stuff—it happened to me—you kind of lose yourself a little bit. … But she was spunky Abby."
When Sarah and her groom, Patrick Rostock, kissed, Abby said "Blech!"—and when Sarah got emotional, Abby told her to "get it together."
Later, at the reception, Sarah and Abby even performed a choreographed dance to "Shut Up and Dance," which they had learned at camp. "I looked at her every now and then and she was really soaking everything in and basking in the glory of herself," Sarah says. "She lasted almost the whole entire night."
"Having Abby there was pivotal in making the day joyful," Sarah says. "There was a moment during my ceremony that I lit a candle in a lantern for all of my friends who have passed away. I lose probably about two to three friends each year … I was just really happy that one of them wasn't Abby. To reflect on everything that I've been through, she's been through, everything I hope I've helped her through—I think it just made it complete."
Now in remission, and with the role of flower girl under her belt, Abby is looking to the next items on her bucket list: "I really still want to meet Katy Perry," she says. "I have since I was 7. Appear on the TV show Chopped [she wants to be a famous cook one day]. But for now I'll keep going to school each day and enjoying being a normal person."