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TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2005

Till Death Did Part Them
Teens commit as girl faces fatal illness

By Jon Anderson

BIRMINGHAM (AP) — They were high school sweethearts who were supposed to graduate together from Hoover High this year, but bone cancer stole that moment from Caitlin Sweeney and James McDaniel.

Caitlin, a National Honor Society member who would have been near the top of her class, died a year ago in June at age 17. She won't be forgotten at Hoover High's commencement exercises Tuesday.

Her memory lives strong, particularly with James, who took her to be his wife about two months before she died.

The young couple didn't officially marry because they would have lost their health insurance, and Caitlin's medical bills were outrageous, her father, Joe Sweeney, said.

But both sets of parents gave their blessing to a "commitment ceremony" at Prince of Peace Catholic Church. As far as they were concerned, James and Caitlin were husband and wife. James, then 17 and a junior, moved in with Caitlin and her parents.

"I just wanted to be there for her," James said. "We both wanted to be able to spend as much time together as possible with the time we had left together."

Some people might question the wisdom of allowing 17-year-olds to marry, particularly when one is about to die, but they need to understand the circumstances, said Caitlin's mother, Cindy Sweeney.

James and Caitlin started dating their freshman year. They broke up but got back together in the spring of their sophomore year. In March 2003, Caitlin's bone cancer was diagnosed. She went through chemotherapy and radiation, but by October the cancer had spread to her spine.

She started more intense radiation, which caused her to lose a lot of weight.

Some friends withdrew

Some of her friends, understandably, didn't know how to deal with someone suffering from cancer and became withdrawn, but James never wavered in his commitment to Caitlin, her father said.

"He heard the word cancer, and he never left," Joe Sweeney said. "There was never any doubt in his mind that he was going to be there for her. . . He'd be there till midnight, till she fell asleep. Then he'd get up and go home and be at school the next day and come back as soon as school was over."

James took care of Caitlin. He changed her bandages and learned how to give her shots and medication.

"A lot of times, he was the one who was able to calm her down to where she was not in so much pain," Cindy Sweeney said. "He would read the Bible to her and play the piano for her."

By January 2004, Caitlin couldn't go to school. In February, on their two-year dating anniversary, James took her to dinner at their favorite restaurant, La Dolce Vita, and asked her to marry him. Their parents weren't surprised.

"It was one of Caitlin's dreams — having her dad walk her down the aisle in a white dress," her mother said.

Making dream come true

Time was getting short for her, and "we just wanted to make some of her dreams come true.

"It would allow them to express their love to each other, and it was important to them," she said.

James' mother, Gretchen McDaniel, said she and her husband knew how much James cared for Caitlin and how little time they had left together. They decided that life was short and the young couple deserved the chance to show their commitment to each other. She and her husband were concerned how James would cope with Caitlin's impending death but felt he was mature enough to handle it.

Ceremony moved up

The couple's ceremony was planned for June but was moved up to April 24 after Caitlin's condition worsened.

Because she was in a wheelchair, both her father and mother walked her down the aisle.

She had the biggest smile on her face that day, her mother said.

Her father said his only regret is that the ceremony wasn't held sooner when Caitlin was feeling better.

By that time, she was spending most of her time in a hospital-type bed with her leg propped up and in a tremendous amount of pain, he said.

On June 12, James woke up at about 10:30 a.m., and Caitlin was gone.

James said he was grateful for more time with Caitlin the last seven weeks of her life and to be lying by her side when she died.

Even though they weren't legally wed, the Sweeneys added the McDaniel name on Caitlin's grave marker.

"I felt like it was one of the last gifts I could give her," her mother said.

"He gave her the strength to live. I do not think she would have hung on as long if he had not been there with her," she said. "She taught him how to love and to be open to love, and she taught him to believe and to reach for his dreams."

James, now 18, has moved back in with his parents, but remains close to the Sweeneys. They live less than half a mile away, and he took Caitlin's younger brother to school with him every day this year. James, his parents and the Sweeneys have worked with a teacher to establish a scholarship in Caitlin's name.

The first one was given out Tuesday at a senior awards ceremony. James, who was voted "Most Admired" by the senior class, also received a surprise award for triumphing over the effects of a serious illness. His peers gave him and Caitlin standing ovations.

Asian culture

James for several years has had an interest in Asian culture, but in the past year he organized a chapter of Students For a Free Tibet and a trip to Miami to hear the Dalai Lama speak.

He made friends with a Tibetan monk and shaved his head (in memory of Caitlin, he said).

But James isn't all serious. He also organized a pacifist dodgeball team called the Dodgeball Dharmas. They never hit their opponents with the ball.

Instead, they get their opponents out by catching the ball only. They roll the ball back.

Despite countless hours caring for Caitlin, James kept a 4.04 grade-point average.

After two months studying in China this summer, he'll go to Lawrence University in Wisconsin on a scholarship.

"He's done some unbelievable things and has been through some unbelievable things," said Joshua Rutsky, his creative-writing teacher. "I don't think I've ever taught someone who's had to show such character so early in his life."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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