From the time she could talk, what Sophia Myers said she loved best about herself was her heart.
And it was the 7-year-old’s kind and compassionate heart in the face of great suffering that brought a community of friends and strangers together in prayer and service to the child.
Sophia died at the place she loved best — home — with her parents, Josh and Angel Myers, by her side.
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The Oak Park Elementary student’s death came just two days shy of eight months after doctors diagnosed her with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG. She is third Ocean Springs area child to die of DIPG since 2010.
Sophia’s goodbye was excruciatingly painful for her family as she lost, one by one, the abilities that defined her.
Soon after her February diagnosis, Angel Myers posted the devastating news on Facebook: “Pray for my bug, my love, my world,” the first of many posts that would so eloquently express her faith, fear and the fierce love she and Sophia’s father had for their baby girl.
“If you pray, please pray. Pray for a miracle. Pray for healing. Pray for quality time for her.”
In the last weeks of her life, the once active and sassy little dancer, fashion diva, princess, athlete and classmate spent her time confined to a wheelchair or her bed.
Still, she enjoyed quiet but fulfilling moments with her parents, loved ones, close friends and those who came to honor her.
The Ocean Springs High School swim team stopped by to present her with a certificate naming her an honorary member of their team.
Beauty pageant winners came in their crowns and pageant dresses to visit Sophia — who could no longer speak but still longed for the day she could accessorize her princess gowns for fashion shows at home with mom.
Church groups stopped by to worship and pray with Sophia and her family.
Her pre-school teacher and a nurse at Sophia’s pediatrician’s office came frequently to read books to Sophia, a girl they had both loved for so long.
Ocean Springs High cheerleaders came along with Oak Park Principal Jennifer Pope to cheer on the child who still managed to find laughter when her suffering was severe.
‘So full of life’
For Sophia’s first-grade teacher at Oak Park, Heather Sumrall, losing Sophia means losing her “spunky little sidekick,” the one she said “stuck by my side throughout the majority of the day.”
“I could always count on Sophia to brighten my day,” Sumrall said. “Sophia loves to tell jokes and make others laugh. She was so full of life and laughter.”
Her teacher looked forward to seeing the creative little student.
“I loved to see what color her hair would be each day,” Sumrall said. “She loved to put hair chalk in her hair.”
And she was a child whose love for animals was fierce and deep.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving last year, Oak Park hosted a canned food drive, and Sumrall agreed to take a pie in the face from the student who brought in the most donations.
Sophia was determined to win and she did.
“I will never forget her laughing as she smeared that pie in my face,” Sumrall said. “Sophia will always hold a special place in my heart, and I love her dearly.”
“Bug” was her parent’s favorite nickname for Sophia, who was also called “SoSo” by friends, family and classmates because she was “so, so strong.”
Her parents had divorced, but after Sophia’s terminal diagnosis they united in their love for her, and their determination to find a cure and minimize her suffering.
“Sophia changed my life the minute I found out she was growing inside of me,” Angel Myers said. “She is the best thing that ever happened to me and Josh.”
Sophia was a prankster who dressed as a ninja to turn up the thermostat when her dad had it so cold in the house that mommy was freezing.
She was a competition dancer at Donna’s Dance in Ocean Springs who still dreamed of a day she would perform again.
She was her daddy’s little lunch buddy, running buddy and biggest fan.
When the cancer took away Sophia’s ability to walk, she continued to laugh and joke, dance with her arms and head and lip-sync to songs by her favorite artists, including Britney Spears.
Her parents engaged with the DIPG community, whose members speak out about the lack of research funding or treatment advances for this rare cancer. They also post daily Facebook updates, so often devastating, on the conditions of children suffering from DIPG.
The community poured love and attention on the family. A meeting in Las Vegas with singer Spears was arranged; the family also went to Disney World; fundraisers helped cover medical bills.
Sophia’s bedroom overflowed with stuffed animals and other gifts she loved.
Sophia remained brave — despite the tests, shots, intimidating brain scans, radiation treatments and everything else she had to endure.
During her illness, Sophia was admitted to five hospitals in four states.
Still, the cancer continued to spread.
After doctors told the family there was nothing more they could do, Sophia’s treatments ended, with the exception of medication for pain.
Her parents took one final trip to make memories with Sophia, to Florida in late August, but they had to return early and rush her to University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile.
By late September, her parents brought her home by ambulance to spend her final days.
Sophia, unable to speak and wheelchair-bound, found comfort in the moments she spent snuggling with her mother and father.
She still played her little jokes. She granted her mother unlimited kisses, but Daddy and all the other men in the family had to pay up for theirs.
‘Adores her dad and me’
In the end, Sophia relied on her eyes to “love” and “talk” to her family.
“Her eyes speak louder and more eloquently than I have ever heard anyone speak,” Angel Myers said. “Her frustration, her love. I can tell you that she adores her dad and me. We so adore her.”
Her eyes, her mother said, also told her family of the desire of a child to be whole again.
“They long to get out of bed,” Angel Myers said. “They long to walk. They long to talk. They long to play. They long. They long and desire to live. They long to be a regular, healthy 7-year-old. But they also smile. She smiles and laughs with her eyes. Her eyes, they sparkle, they are so alive.”
As a baby, Sophia’s parents watched their daughter’s chest rise and fall with each breath to make sure she was OK.
In the last days of her life, Sophia’s parents found themselves doing it all over again, but this time with the fear and pain of two parents who knew they were losing their child.
Her parents ordered books and movies about heaven that they shared with her.
When the suffering continued, Angel Myers added the impossible to her prayers about faith and healing:
“Merciful Father, please heal her or carry her home. Please don’t allow the suffering. Please don’t let my baby suffer, God. Please send her angels to comfort her. Let her see, Jesus, Father. Please don’t let her be afraid.”
Before Sophia died, she started to drift off and stare into space.
Her mother asked her if she had seen her guardian angel. Sophia nodded her head, letting her mom know an angel was there.
For a community of friends and strangers, the loss of Sophia is deep and painful.
For Pope, the Oak Park principal, remembering Sophia means honoring a little girl who skipped into school each morning “with her arms open wide waiting to give me the biggest hug and say, ‘Good morning and I love you.’ ”
“She would stretch out her arms every time she saw me — whether I was in a classroom, in the cafeteria, or walking down the hall,” Pope said. “We started out each day with a hug, and she wouldn’t leave in the afternoons without giving me a big hug.”
Sophia was the little girl with a love for life and a “zest for learning.”
She was also the little girl who always went to Pope each day to compare fingernail polishes.
“I would even get glitter on mine, but hers were even better,” Pope said.
Sophia, she said, was the girl who had a zest for learning and a quick wit that included talking about how she got her mommy to straighten her wild curly hair each day before school.
“I asked her to wear it curly (one day) so I could see how beautiful it was,” Pope said. “She came to school one morning with curly hair . . . and said, ‘So, what do you think?’ ” Pope said. “Of course, it was absolutely beautiful.”
With a big smile, Sophia said, “Well, get a good look because I probably won’t wear it like this again.”
Pope recalled. “What an amazing girl. She has truly touched so many lives.”
For those who are mourning Sophia’s death, her mother has but one request.
“Do not be angry at God for what is happening to Sophia,” Angel Myers said. “Instead, join me in glorifying Him for creating such a beautiful, perfect child.”