I never met Summer Dale. In fact, I’ve never met her father or stepmother, Al Dale and Cynthia Gentry. I’ve heard of Al, of course. He’s the Hall County boy who for almost 20 years was a correspondent for ABC News. I’m not sure what Cynthia does but it involves travel to exotic places like Croatia. I suspect the two of them are always the most interesting couple at any cocktail party.
I came across them on Facebook. The common denominator was North Georgia writer Candice Dyer. She’s accumulated one of the most eclectic Facebook friends groups imaginable. I was dumbfounded the first time I saw a posting by a writer, whose book was at that very moment on my night table, wishing Candice the happiest of birthdays.
Writers, poets, musicians, good ol’ boys and cracker queens— their paths all cross on Candice’s page. And more than that. She officiates over what, in another age, would have been a scintillating salon or a Appalachian version the Algonquin round table, throwing out off-the-wall conversation starters and then letting her far-flung group of fellow travelers have at it.
So that’s where I ran into Al and Cynthia. Al, with his biting wit and undisguised disdain for business-as-usual Georgia politics and Cynthia, who set the Internet on fire with her fury when, over and over, someone stole the Obama signs from their Atlanta yard and left bags of dog poop in their place.
When I started reading their postings last spring, it took a while to get up to speed. I didn’t know the back story. I noticed there was mention of twins, a boy, Jordan, and a girl with the evocative name of Summer. Then a picture: Al with a incandescently beautiful young woman. Her shaved head and kohl-lined eyes gave her an other-worldly appearance. Summer.
Summer was 15 when she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. Some family friends had plastic bracelets made up and stamped with “Team Summer.” The idea was that Summer and friends could sell them with half the money raised going toward Summer’s medical bills, and the other half making up a donation of Summer’s choosing.
It would have been easy to write a check to a hospital or research foundation but, instead, Summer created her own nonprofit. She selected personalized gifts for kids she met during her myriad hospitalizations. One little girl received an iPod Touch to help wile away the time during long drives to the hospital. There were gifts of gas cards, laptops, an esteem-restoring photo session for a young dancer, robbed by cancer of not only her hair, but part of her leg as well.
Last winter, Fox 5 News medical reporter, Beth Galvin, did a story about Summer’s mission. In only a year, Team Summer raised over $50,000.
Just a few days ago Cynthia was posting thoughtful links about the government of Wales and her joy at Elizabeth Warren’s election victory and then, last Sunday, there was this: “We are so sorry to report that we lost our sweet Summer tonight. She was 16 years old. She died peacefully in her bedroom, surrounded by her entire family. We are heartbroken.”
On Monday’s evening newscast, Galvin reported the story of Summer’s life, death and legacy. Her voice broke as she said simply, “I love this kid.”
On Facebook, friends, both real and cyber, tried their best to offer messages of comfort and condolence. I was particularly drawn to Bruce Sellers’ words: “The Dutch always wish ‘sterkte’ at a time like this ... it’s simply a wish for ‘strength’, both for you and your family. Hang in there.”
Cynthia posted a poem, “Fire”, a tribute to a complex young woman and that most complicated of relationships, the one of stepmother and stepdaughter. It read, in part:
“That moody, sneaky, funny, wicked, compassionate, hilarious girl.
No one ever had wit like that. Where is it? If it floats around the room I want to catch it.
I ache for her to p--- me off just one more time.
If only I could pull a long, long brown hair from my brush and wonder which makeup had been tampered with, too.
Don’t make her into a saint. She was too authentic and alive for that.”
Summer’s large blended family, Al and Cynthia, mother Lynne and stepfather Charles Williams, twin brother Jordan, stepbrother Jared and half brother Kris will all gather with other family and friends on Sunday not for a funeral but for a celebration of this remarkable young woman’s life.
Attendees have been asked to wear purple, Summer’s favorite color. Instead of flowers, the family suggested donations to teamsummer.org so that her work can continue.
I’ve never met Al and Cynthia and now is not the time. I’m not comfortable showing up, a stranger from the Internet, at Summer’s celebration. But I will wear purple on Sunday and I’ll write a check to Team Summer.
Al, Cynthia, Lynne, Charles, Jordan, Jared and Kris — sterkte and shalom.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.