Remembering Lacey Holsworth: How 8-Year-Old with Cancer Captured America's Heart

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Remembering Lacey Holsworth: How 8-Year-Old with Cancer Captured America's Heart
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EAST LANSING, Mich. — With a $1,500 Gucci purse draped over her shoulder, eight-year-old Lacey Holsworth pranced through Saks Fifth Avenue on Pradas with three-inch heels.

Her appearance on the Today show was 24 hours away, and Michigan State’s most famous fan was determined to look her best.

Like a star preparing for the Oscars, “Princess Lacey” had employees of the glamorous New York City department store scurrying to meet her every need as she modeled dresses that March afternoon. Eventually she purchased a pastel-colored outfit for her nationally televised interview about her friendship with Spartans senior Adreian Payne.

Lacey’s introduction to New York didn’t end there.

There was an elevator ride to the top of Rockefeller Tower that afternoon and a ravioli dinner at Da Nico in the Italian Village. A few hours later Lacey delivered food from Burger King to Payne’s room at the Grand Central Hyatt. When he finished his meal, Payne scooped up the girl he calls his “lil’ sis” and walked toward the door.

“C’mon, Lace,” he said. “Let’s go watch film.”

Minutes later, Lacey and her family listened from the back of a meeting room as Spartans coach Tom Izzo went over the scouting report for the next day’s NCAA tournament tilt with Connecticut.

The following morning, after her TV appearance, Lacey posed for pictures with Michigan State alum Magic Johnson at Madison Square Garden and scored a postgame hug from Payne—the cherry on top of a weekend she wished would never end.

“I love NYC!!!!!!!” Lacey wrote on Instagram, where a picture shows her raising her arms toward the sky on a busy Manhattan street, as if she owned the city.

The joy Lacey exuded in the Big Apple was similar to what Matt and Heather Holsworth had seen from their daughter earlier that month on Michigan State’s Senior Night, when she cradled a bouquet of roses as Payne carried her to midcourt.

She glowed again a week later in Indianapolis, where Payne and Lacey stood atop a ladder and snipped away the net at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, hoisting it high in the air as fans cheered and snapped photos after Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament.

Michael Conroy

Lacey’s parents had learned to embrace these moments during her two-year battle with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. They found peace and comfort in them, especially considering the question Lacey had posed to Heather only a few months earlier.

“Mommy,” she said, “am I going to die?”

Long prepared for the conversation, Heather hugged her daughter.

“Sweetheart,” she said, “no one knows when they’re going to die. Mommy doesn’t know when she’s going to die. Daddy doesn’t know. Nobody knows.”

But by 9 a.m. on March 31—less than 12 hours after returning from New York—the Holsworths did know Lacey’s fate.

An early-morning MRI performed at Sparrow Hospital in East Lansing revealed that radiation treatment hadn’t been effective in reducing the size of the tumor that was pushing against her brain. All options had been exhausted.

Lacey, doctors said, had less than a month to live.

“One day we’re watching her smile and cheer at a basketball game in New York,” Matt said, “and the next we’re being told she’s going to die.”

Matt and Heather didn’t tell Lacey about the prognosis. Instead they returned home determined to make her final few weeks as memorable as possible, whether that meant watching Disney movies, playing with dolls, baking pies and brownies or dancing to Taylor Swift in the living room.

A day later, the phone rang.

Even though Michigan State had lost to Connecticut in the Elite Eight, Payne had still been invited to the Final Four to participate in the slam dunk contest. Dejected that his season ended prematurely, Payne initially declined. But when organizers offered to fly Lacey and her family to Texas for the event, he reconsidered.

“Would Lacey be interested in going to Dallas?” Payne asked Matt over the phone.

The answer came quickly.

“Absolutely,” Matt said after consulting with his daughter. “Why not?”

Michael Conroy

 

***

He’s a future NBA millionaire who became one of the most recognizable college players in the country during his time at Michigan State.

Still, when Adreian Payne arrived in Dallas during Final Four week, all anyone asked about was Lacey.

Where’s Lacey?

Is Lacey still coming?

When is Lacey getting here?

Can we meet Lacey?

“By the end of our season,” Payne said, “she had turned into a celebrity.”

Media outlets in Michigan had touched briefly on Lacey’s story soon after Adreian befriended her during a team hospital visit two years ago. They exchanged phone numbers that day, and Adreian began leaving Lacey tickets to games, taking her to dinner and having her over to watch movies and play on his keyboard.

Two months ago, though, the tale went viral, with national sports websites, People magazine and Good Morning America all running in-depth pieces on Adreian and Lacey’s relationship.

Lacey had 1,490 Twitter followers at the beginning of February. Now she boasts more than 40,000.

“I had no idea it was going to be like this, no clue,” Payne said. “I was just doing what came natural. I tried to help someone and it went worldwide.”

In a single day last month, fundraisers at two Buffalo Wild Wings locations in East Lansing raised nearly $45,000 for the Holsworth family. Wearing an apron and carrying her own personalized notepad, Lacey served as a guest waitress, doing everything from taking orders to schmoozing with customers to flirting with the kitchen staff.

“Hi boys!” Lacey said as she approached the cooks near the deep fryer.

“Lacey has an aura about her that draws everyone in, especially guys,” Buffalo Wild Wings manager Abby Eiseler said. “They crumble at her feet.”

East Lansing native Jeffrey Martin, who didn’t even know Lacey, was so upset about missing the event that he set up a website that has generated more than $100,000 in donations to help with medical bills. Local firefighters passed around a helmet and filled it with cash, and Holt Junior High School students Preston Estrada and Devin Torrez raised $1,001 by selling #prayforlacey bracelets during their lunch hour. Torrez, 13, has Lacey’s picture on his cell phone’s screensaver.

“Everyone knows someone that’s been affected by cancer,” Izzo said. “But when you have an eight-year-old instead of a 78-year-old...the dynamic is so much different. It makes it more real, more powerful.”

Lacey’s upbeat attitude didn’t hurt either.

Even the most aggressive forms of radiation weren’t enough to dampen Lacey’s spirits. Instead of dwelling on her illness, she looked forward to and relished the experiences she had when she was healthy. It wasn’t uncommon for Lacey to attend a basketball game hours after a chemotherapy session.

When she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, a massive tumor around her abdomen and spine paralyzed Lacey from the waist down. Months later, after the tumor was dissolved through radiation, hospital staff members teared up as Lacey galloped down the hallway and past the nurses station as her father gave chase with her IV pole.

“I think Lacey had a certain amount of discomfort that may have just seemed normal to her,” said Lauren Colvin, a registered nurse at Sparrow Children’s Center who treated Lacey for the past two years. “We had to take into special consideration the number she would report when we asked her to rate her pain, 0-10.

“For her, a 4 or 5 was worse than most people’s 9 and 10. She was one tough cookie.”

Never was it more challenging for Lacey to put on a positive face than in Dallas.

The night before they left Michigan, Lacey’s cancer caused her to lose the use of her right leg. But when Matt suggested canceling the flight, Lacey began to cry. She was adamant they still make the trip. Her father—and Adreian—would simply have to carry her everywhere.

Lacey spent a large chunk of the weekend either sleeping or groggy from pain medication. The bright lights at SMU’s Moody Coliseum—where the dunk contest was held—caused stinging in Lacey’s eyes, but she hardly complained as she posed for countless photos with contestants, their relatives, members of the event crew and fans.

“I think she began to sense the impact she was having on people,” Matt said. “She didn’t care about fame or camera time. She just enjoyed making people happy. She liked making people smile.”

Lacey certainly accomplished that in Dallas.

Payne found a way to work Lacey into his dunk routine, approaching her on the front row and asking her to kiss the basketball for good luck prior to his thunderous reverse slam. Before Payne’s next attempt, Lacey handed him a “Superman” shirt—that was her nickname for him—that undoubtedly helped him soar through the air for another flush.

He finished third in the contest, but no one received a louder ovation than Payne.

The following morning, on April 4, Payne and Lacey were scheduled to be celebrity judges in a high school dunk contest across town. As she primped her in hotel room at the Le Meridian Dallas by the Galleria, Lacey seemed sad.

She’d gained 10 pounds in just two weeks because of swelling, and there was a protrusion on the side of her forehead.

“I just want to be normal,” Lacey had told her mom a week earlier after having a seizure. But now the right side of her face was paralyzed, causing her spirits to drop even more as she posed in front of the mirror after applying lip gloss.

“My smile looks weird,” she told Heather, who was quick to remind her daughter of how beautiful she was and how everyone was in love with her smile.

“She didn’t like the way she looked at the end,” Heather said. “But that didn’t stop her from putting herself on national television and smiling and showing her love and support for Adreian.

“She flew across the country while she was dying of cancer just to be by him, just to sit in his lap.”

Lacey had that opportunity at the high school dunk contest, where Payne left the judging completely up to her. Lacey chose what score to give each contestant, making her feel like the most important person in the gym. At one point, without saying a word, Lacey wrapped her arms around Payne, put her head on his chest and closed her eyes.

Courtesy of Steve Woltmann

"Out of the blue, she just started hugging me,” Payne said. “She didn’t let go. I have no idea why she did it or what caused it, but that’s a moment I’ll always remember. Lacey gave good hugs. She always squeezed real tight.”

When the contest was over, Lacey said goodbye to Payne and boarded a courtesy van with her parents and three brothers. During the drive back to the hotel she called Betsie Hundt, a 21-year-old college student whose mother, Linda, owns a pie shop near East Lansing called Sweetie-Licious that the Holsworths frequent.

Betsie, who battles depression, said Lacey came into her life at just the right time. She said she needed a reminder that her complaints and problems were petty compared to issues like the ones facing Lacey, who she views as a little sister.

Lacey and Betsie liked to play with dolls and have tea parties. They painted each other’s fingernails and read books and exchanged text messages. Betsie had all but decided to shave her head in support of Lacey last fall when she received a call from Heather.

“Lacey is crying,” she told Betsie. “She doesn’t want you to do that. She likes you the way you are. She wants you to keep your hair long and pretty.”

When Lacey had a seizure shortly before her trip to New York, it was Betsie—or “Biggie,” as she called her—that Lacey asked to see when she awoke after a 24-hour slumber.

Courtesy of Betsie Hundt

“I just laid in bed with her for hours,” Betsie said. “I held her and tried to be calm and soothing. We whispered about ice cream and dolls and fairies. I was just so happy to have her wrapped around me like that.”

Betsie figured more of the same was in store when Lacey called her from Dallas that Friday afternoon, her voice filled with energy.

“Biggie!” Lacey said. “I can’t wait to come home and play babies!”

Before hanging up, Lacey and Betsie made plans to play with their dolls Sunday evening.

They never got the chance.

 

***

As much fun as she had in Dallas, it was obvious Lacey was eager to return to East Lansing as the family drove to the airport early Saturday morning.

“I’m ready to go home,” she said. “I want to be around all the people I love the most—and I want to be cozy.”

By the time the Holsworths landed in Michigan hours later, Lacey had taken a turn for the worse. She was requesting additional pain medication and had difficulty carrying on a conversation. It was clear she was approaching her final days.

Lacey's older brother, Mitchell, was so scared his sister would miss his 13th birthday party the following month that the family decided to hold the celebration that night at the kids' grandparents’ house.

Even though she was groggy from morphine, Lacey perked up for a few hours, chatting with relatives about her trip and playing with her 11-year-old cousin, Ellie, who doubled as her best friend.

“It was almost like she was saying her goodbyes,” Heather said. “She was never really coherent after that.”

Lacey was able to talk Sunday, but she rarely opened her eyes. Hospice arrived on Monday as a handful of the family’s closest friends stopped by the house to see Lacey one final time.

Betsie brought Lacey a Barbie doll and a DVD, telling her they’d watch it when she got better. Lacey attempted to smile and then whispered the word “pictures.”

“She’d drawn pictures for my older sister and I when she was in Dallas and wanted to make sure we got them,” Betsie said. “Up until the very end, she was focused on making people happy.”

Betsie’s mother, Linda, also paid a visit. She’d met Lacey at her pie shop one year earlier, when Lacey told her she intended to work there. Linda hugged Lacey that day and nearly came to tears when she realized she was wearing a wig, an indication she had cancer.

Linda began hosting baking sessions with Lacey and Heather at her home—and also at Sweetie-Licious, where lines stretched out the door whenever Lacey was behind the counter in her pink-checkered apron.

Tasty as it was, customers weren’t showing up on “Lacey Day” for the princess’ peach-raspberry pie. They simply wanted a glimpse of her smile.

“You just felt better about yourself after you met her,” Linda said. “I went to her house that night and squeezed her hand and told her we were all going to live like her and love like her. She squeezed back and moved a little bit. They said she could hear me.

“Her face was so beautiful, so peaceful. She wasn’t frowning. She wasn’t scared. That used to worry me so much, that she’d be scared.”

One person who didn’t come by was Payne.

Matt contacted him after he returned from Dallas and informed him that Lacey only had a day or so to live. Payne had been to the Holsworth home numerous times before. He’d seen the “A.P. Wall” in Lacey’s bedroom that was covered with his pictures, newspaper articles, photos and jerseys. He’d baked brownies with Lacey in the kitchen, colored with her in the living room at Christmas and watched the Disney movie Frozen with her on the couch.

“I’d wanted to see it for a long time,” he chuckled, “and she was the only one who would watch it with me.”

Each time Payne left, Lacey stood on the porch and waved until he couldn’t see her anymore in his rearview mirror. That's how he wanted to remember Lacey. He didn’t want the image of her slipping away on the couch.

Payne was 13 when his mother died of an asthma attack as he cradled her in his arms.

“That’s the last thing I remember about my mom, the last picture I have in my head,” Payne said. “My last picture of Lacey is of her in Dallas at that dunk contest. She had fun that day and I had fun that day. We both smiled a lot. That’s the ultimate thing.”

Shortly before 11 p.m. on Tuesday—after their three sons had said their final goodbyes—Matt and Heather Holsworth knelt by the side of their daughter, who was resting in a cot at the foot of their bed. Hours had passed since Lacey had been able to communicate, and they didn’t want her to fight anymore.

They clutched Lacey’s hands.

“You can relax, Lay-Lay,” Heather whispered. “Think about laying on a beach in the warm sun.

“Everything is OK. Just dance into the light.”

Matt told his daughter he loved her, and Lacey’s lips began to quiver. She was attempting to speak, but the words never came.

“I know,” Matt said. “I know you love us too.”

Lacey nodded her head.

Seconds later, she was gone.

“It was a blessing,” Heather said. “We literally held her hands through the gates of heaven.”

 

***

Tiaras, coloring books and stickers had been arriving weekly from all over the country, but when Matt and Heather checked Lacey’s P.O. box a few days after her death, it was a pair of letters that stood out the most.

The first was from a man who has multiple sclerosis. He wrote that he’d grown tired of fighting and had decided to end his own life. After seeing Lacey on Good Morning America, however, he suddenly felt inspired and motivated to continue his battle.

The next came from a single mother who was struggling emotionally and financially. She, too, was having suicidal thoughts when she came across Lacey’s tale. Lacey’s smile and energy altered her outlook, she wrote, and now she refused to give up.

The Holsworths have received e-mails from Spain, Israel, China, Australia and the Philippines in the last two weeks, and donations continue to flow. Hours after her death, ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale phoned Matt and vowed to raise $250,000 for a cancer research grant in Lacey’s name.

Sitting on a park bench with Heather last week while their sons played on a nearby basketball court, Matt said it “warms his heart” when he thinks about the impact Lacey had on both friends and strangers.

“She’s the strongest person I’ll ever know,” he said.

Heather agreed.

Courtesy of the Holsworth family

“Lacey’s life mattered,” she said, “and it will continue to matter. Her legacy will live on. We promised her that before she died.”

Hundreds of Michigan State fans honored Lacey the day after she passed by scribbling messages to her on “The Rock,” a massive boulder on campus that has served as a makeshift billboard for students for decades. Izzo and Payne gave impromptu speeches at a vigil there that night.

A week later more than 2,500 supporters flocked to the Breslin Center—the basketball arena where Lacey became a fixture in the stands—to pay their respects during a “Celebration of Life.”

Little girls in tiaras were peppered throughout the stands along with college students in Spartans garb and adults in pastel shirts and dresses. Lacey’s family asked attendees to wear bright, happy colors.

Michigan State's players and coaches were on hand along with doctors and nurses from Sparrow Hospital. Linda Hundt passed out “Lacey Cakes”—a chocolate brownie with powdered sugar and pink icing, Lacey’s favorite—to nearly everyone in the building.

Al Goldis

“Lacey wasn’t a kid actor pretending to be someone,” Linda said. “She was a real little girl that we all knew, a girl next door who believed in magic and Santa and everything that was good in the world.

“Everyone is hurt. How could this little girl die? Children and death don’t go together. Yet she amazed us all by continuing to smile. It was beautiful. I’m not surprised she touched so many people.”

Lacey’s service included an audio message from Heather, who called her daughter “a tomboy in a tutu” and talked about her love of rap music (2 Chainz, in particular) and dancing.

The most moving portion of the ceremony was a 32-minute video commemorating Lacey’s life. In one clip Lacey clapped and jumped for joy when her parents surprised their children with tickets to Michigan State’s season-opener. The mood changed moments later when photos were shown of Lacey after undergoing painful radiation treatment that left her face red and splotchy.

“The video didn’t even begin to touch on some of the horrors she endured,” Heather said the following day. “But she absorbed all of it. She just kept giving and giving and giving until she didn’t have anything left.”

Tears flowed throughout the arena when footage played of Lacey making brownies for the Michigan State basketball team. Heather, who was holding the camera, approached Lacey as she stirred the batter and asked her to reveal her secret ingredient.

“Love,” she said. “But I don’t put that in until the very end.”

That way, Lacey explained, each player would get an equal piece of her heart.

“She would literally blow kisses at the brownies before she put them in the oven,” Heather said the next day. “It was her way of blessing them to ensure that each player received some love.

“Especially A.P.”

Payne sat with the Holsworth family during last week’s service, but he passed on the opportunity to address the crowd.

Lacey’s death has hit Payne hard. He was with teammates at Buffalo Wild Wings when Matt called him with the news shortly after midnight on April 9. He left immediately, retreated to his apartment and fell asleep.

He awoke around 4 a.m. when his phone started buzzing with consolatory text messages and voicemails. Lacey’s parents had announced her passing on Twitter a few hours earlier.

“That’s when it became real,” Payne said. “I cried the rest of the night and into the day. I’d fall asleep, wake up, read tweets and cry. Then I’d fall asleep again, wake up, read more tweets and start crying all over again.”

Payne thought about driving to the Holsworth home to offer his condolences to Heather and Matt, but he couldn’t.

“They needed someone to lean on,” he said. “They needed me to be strong for them and for their boys. At that point I wasn’t able to be strong.”

Payne left for California two days later to attend the Wooden Award Gala, where he received the first-ever Outreach Award from the Los Angeles Athletic Club for the time he gave to Lacey and the joy he brought to her life.

The attendant who checked in Payne at the Detroit airport stepped over the baggage belt to give him a hug. When he arrived in Los Angeles, Payne received tweets from strangers inviting him over for dinner— “You deserve a home-cooked meal,” one woman wrote—while others asked for pictures and expressed condolences.

Payne appreciated the gestures, but his mind was in another place. He’d thought about skipping the event altogether, but Izzo convinced him that Lacey “would’ve wanted him to get on that plane.”

Payne said the most difficult part of the trip was the gala, when video of Lacey from the Big Ten Network played for the audience. A lump formed in Payne's throat as he watched Lacey cheering after one of his dunks, and he fought back tears as she talked about how much she loved her "Superman." ESPN’s Jay Bilas, the master of ceremonies, conducted a brief interview with Payne after he made his way to the stage to a standing ovation.

“I was watching Jay's mouth move, but I wasn’t hearing a word he was saying,” Payne said. “And I have no idea what I said either. I was in a daze. Everything was in slow motion. It was all surreal.”

Two weeks later, Payne is almost out of tears. He still struggles with Lacey’s death, but he’s also taking comfort in the impact their relationship had on so many lives.

Including his.

“The main thing I learned,” he said, “is that the more you give, the more you receive. Lacey made me a better person. She taught me how to love and how to fight instead of letting things tear you down.

“I’m glad our story got exposed. I’m glad people read about our relationship and that it touched so many people in so many ways.”

Payne paused and looked down.

“It’s crazy,” he said softly, “but I can still hear her voice. I can’t even remember what my own mother’s voice sounds like. But I still hear Lacey’s voice in my head every single day.”

 

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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