The Stokely family sat in a football stadium on a warm Friday night just before Memorial Day 2001 to watch Mike Stokely graduate high school. He already had boot camp / basic training and a year in the National Guard under his belt and would be heading off for Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Gordon in a few weeks. His little sister, Abbey, almost nine, couldn't let go of him, even to have a photo taken with Mike and their brother, Wes. She swung on his arm adoringly - her look of love says it all.
Tonight, May 27, 2010 at the football stadium for Northgate High School in Sharpsburg GA, Abbey Stokely graduated last with her class. She has had a rough five years that started with Mike's death in Iraq. Five months later, she and I were broad sided by a driver who ran a stop sign at 45 plus and rolled and flipped us several times, shearing her right rear passenger door away. She spent 18 months recovering from her serious neck, back, and head injury. Those two events might seem enough to cause a student to graduate last.
But more came her way for just a month or so after she was fully recovered from the wreck. She was bitten by a tick and came down with Lyme Disease. In GA and the south there is a medical bias against diagnosing or even recognizing that Lyme Disease exists here and doctor after doctor refused to treat her for Lyme, saying she just needed psychological help due to her brother's death and the car wreck. She missed over half her class instruction time during her sophomore and junior years, essentially home schooling herself between extensive rest periods, migraines, sickness, dizziness, and other symptoms that doctors said was just "in her head" and not Lyme. She and her mother traveled out of state to see doctors who might treat her for Lyme and finally we found a doctor about two hours from our home in GA that started aggressive treatment for Lyme and she finally started getting better. That might be enough by itself, but especially with the continuing grief over her brother's loss and her own near death experience to cause her to be last, but more was to come.
As she ended her junior year her best friend for several years had become her first boyfriend - the one Mike was supposed to chase away. But I think he might have let this fine young man who had been so good to his sister in all of her grief, injuries and sickness stay around. A gentleman in every respect was Thomas Broadwater. A fine son and brother-in-law he might have one day made. They went to the prom together and a great night it was, but then the next day my mother / Abbey's grandmother fell seriously ill at age 81 and died a week later. Looking back, it is about the most normal thing that has happened to Abbey in these five years. Her "Nana" adored her as she adored Nana. Enough you might think. But not yet, for three weeks after burying her Nana, Abbey Stokely buried her best friend, her first boyfriend, Thomas Broadwater, who died from complications of surgery on one of his lungs.
So, you might think that was enough and it was almost too much for her to bear. Thomas was also her classmate and supposed to graduate with Abbey and 395 others tonight. This last year has not been easy to say the least. Surely, this explains why she was the last. She wanted her brother Mike to be there to cheer for her and she felt it so unfair that Thomas wasn't there to get his diploma. And that weighed heavily on her. We were tense to see if she would get through this graduation tonight, an emotional time for her to say the least.
But none of these things are why Abbey Stokely was last to graduate with her class tonight. Abbey Stokely graduated last tonight because she was the Valedictorian and by tradition the last to receive her diploma and graduate. Before rising to give her speech to send her classmates into the future, she watched with bittersweet pride as a member of Thomas Broadwater's family came forward to receive his diploma posthumously. Then, she nailed her speech in front of thousands of friends, family and strangers. Just as she finished, a downpour hit and drenched the graduates and the crowd. A mile away not a drop.
I first wondered why it rained there. But then, as I saw the rising full moon emerge from behind the clouds, The same Moon over Yusufiyah I watched night after night as Mike served in Iraq, even as I prayed for his safety and wished to feel close to him, knowing he had seen the same moon 8 hours before. It was then I wondered if it was Mike's tears of joy and pride for his sister that had just drenched us all.
The Moon over Yusufiyah was shining bright over Sharpsburg tonight.
And I was reminded again that the highest cost of Freedom is A Lifetime of Love.
proud dad of Abbey Stokely, Wes Stokely
and Mike Stokely KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah Iraq