'An incredible outpouring of love': High school senior gets surprise graduation just for her
After a trying year in which her father battled colon cancer and heart problems, Georgia high school senior Annie Cusack was looking forward to sharing an uplifting moment with her family at her graduation.
But on May 17, the day of her graduation, the 18-year-old woke up in the middle of the night with severe pain in her side and had to be rushed to the hospital. It turned out to be kidney stones, and it meant that Annie would miss her graduation ceremony at George Walton Academy in Monroe, Georgia. It also meant that day she was worried her father might not survive to see turned out to be ruined by her own fluke health issue.
"It was awful,'' Kathy Cusack, Annie's mother, told TODAY.com. "My husband is an optimist, but I think for the first time, I felt what despair felt like. I was like, 'What else will go wrong?' That hurt the most to see what she wasn't able to be a part of."
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The Cusacks arranged to have school officials give Annie her diploma on the afternoon of May 20 when she returned to school. The gymnasium was still decorated for graduation, so she could come take pictures with the principal and headmaster and snap a few photos with her family and a handful of friends. Annie figured it would be a low-key affair — but she had a huge surprise in store.
When Annie entered the gym, more than 50 of her 89 classmates were dressed in their caps and gowns, ready to cheer her on as she walked on the stage to receive her diploma. All of her teachers and coaches also gathered to celebrate her one-woman graduation ceremony to make up for the one she'd missed.
"I figured I would just walk across the stage, get my diploma, and maybe a few of my teachers would be there,'' Annie told TODAY.com. "I wasn't expecting 50 kids and a bunch of parents, teachers and coaches. I see all these kids walk in, and I turned around and started crying. It was super overwhelming, because it hit me that everybody came just for me.
"It's just amazing that the school would do that for me and care so much because most schools wouldn't do that for a kid. It was really awesome."
After enduring the anguish of missing the moment with her parents and seeing her classmates' smiling photos from the official graduation ceremony, Annie was ultimately able to have all the moments the other graduates enjoyed. Her older brother, Joe, 24, was also able to make the impromptu ceremony.
"It was just an incredible outpouring of love, more than we could've ever asked for,'' Annie's mother said. "I'm still having a hard time processing it all."
Annie's father, Brian, was diagnosed with colon cancer in August 2013 and underwent chemotherapy treatments until March. That wasn't all: During surgery for his colon, he suffered a heart attack. Once his oncologist determined he was ready, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery on his heart on April 7.
"It was one thing on top of another with my husband's health, but Annie never really cried about it,'' Kathy Cusack said. "She just kept going. She's a big softball player, and at one point she told her dad she wanted to quit, but he told her to just stay positive and to stick to business as usual."
Annie said her father's attitude buoyed her.
"To not have somebody get down when they're going through it, it helps everyone else stay up about it,'' she said. "I wanted to have really good grades to make him proud, so I made honor roll, and I stayed with softball when it was rough sometimes. He made everything worth it."
Annie's father is now doing much better and even returned to work for the first time on Tuesday. The Cusacks said they are grateful for the support they received from George Walton Academy and principal Steven Whitley, who checked in on Annie regularly throughout the year as her dad battled cancer.
"My school is kind of a big family, and we all try to bring out the best in each other,'' Annie said. "This is what my school is all about."