By Dan England
On a gray day, as BBs of snow hammered at their kitchen windows, Paul and Tara McGill talked about their first pregnancy, the one when doctors found a problem and asked them if they wanted to keep the baby.
They were 23, had been married barely a year and weren’t sure they even knew how to raise a baby at all, let alone one with serious health issues. They knew, Paul said, that they would keep her, but they also knew it would be hard, and…
Kaley, that baby who is now 11, burst into laughter, the kind of laugh that’s larger than any an 11-year-old-girl should have. Paul and Tara stared at their daughter for only a second before laughing themselves. You’re stuck with me, that laugh said. Isn’t it great?
They’ve grown accustomed to that laugh. That’s the laugh that’s filled their Timmath house despite her skeletal dysplasia. That’s the laugh that helps Kaley keep a positive attitude despite trials that “for lack of a better word, sucked,” Paul said.
Kaley’s gone through 60 surgeries and procedures, had rods installed in her back, worn braces and body casts, endured more pain at her young age than most feel in their lives and has a 4-year-old sister, Adelyn, who is taller than her and likes to turn out her bedroom light because it makes Kaley yell for her mother to turn the light back on. Kaley, somehow, laughs through it all, especially the light switch trick because even Kaley has to admit that’s kind of funny.
She falls a lot and can’t catch herself because her arms don’t extend far enough, and then she prays that her bones, as fragile as a grandmother’s vase, didn’t break, and then she talks about how her feet do hurt, and her neck aches, and how she underwent spinal fusion a couple years ago, so she will never grow again. Sure, she hates surgery. She hates the anesthetic.
“I have no problem with them cutting me open,” she said through a flurry of giggles.
Paul and Tara are a little amazed at all that laughter and optimism. It’s not as if they told her to put on a happy face. They knew she was in pain. She just never really showed it.
“That has to be something you’re born with,” Paul said and shook his head. “I don’t know what we would have done to make her that way.”
It’s made it easy to raise her. She keeps things light, especially on those days when all of it seems a little overwhelming. She rubs off on others too. In fact, her attitude led her doctor to suggest that she would be a good ambassador for Children’s Hospital, where she received her treatment. She was 8 but talked like a teenager, at least the polite, thoughtful ones, perhaps the result of her parents reading to her all the time because she couldn’t go out and romp like the other kids. When she learned how to read on her own, she found she loved it. She’s now on the third Harry Potter book, and Kaley will squeal at certain parts in her room.
Becoming an ambassador led to the cupcakes. You may have heard about the cupcakes; Kaley’s Kupcakes. It all started when she was the MC at the hospital’s annual gala, and the president of Kings Soopers, a big donor, was there, and Kaley brought him a batch of her cupcakes. Kaley doesn’t love baking, but she LOVES putting on the frosting, and not just because she can lick her fingers when she’s done. She loves designing them. She loves being creative.
She mentioned all this to the president of the grocery store chain, and he had an idea. She could sell the cupcakes at the store. Could she make a few thousand? Kaley laughs at this.
“They thought I had my own bakery,” she said and laughed.
Kings Soopers, instead, produced the cupcakes at the store bakery for her with her design and sold them the first week of every month. Kaley got some fame as a result. She was on the TV news. People recognize her in the grocery store. The fundraiser ended in February after a year, but she raised $60,000, or $59,000 more than she was supposed to raise as an ambassador.
Kaley continues to work as an ambassador, but now she speaks at fundraisers for the hospital. Her first speaking appearance was in front of her elementary school classmates because her fellow third-graders didn’t believe her when she told then she was 8. They thought she was in pre-school. Her next was in front of 700 donors and big-time businesses people. Now she averages a couple of events a month, even if Paul tries to limit her engagements so she can still be a kid, no matter how much Kaley tells him she loves it.
“The problem is, she’ll speak at one,” Tara said, “and then two others want her to speak at their events.”
She’s had some good experiences as a result. She got to meet the Colorado Avalanche hockey team, and she once got to meet Peyton Manning, which thrilled Paul (probably more actually) as much as her.
When Kaley isn’t reading, she will watch TV. Her favorite show used to be “Cupcake Wars,” a reality show about people who design cupcakes, just like she did.
She still loves making cupcakes — a poster on her bedroom door says, “Dear Cupcakes, I Love You” — but she loves other things now as well.
She just turned 11, and as the oldest sister (Lily, her other sibling, is 8), she hasn’t really thought about the future, other than a desire one day to start her own charity, “Kaley Kares.” But she does like knowing that there are options out there for her. Her new favorite show is “The Little Couple,” about a businessman and doctor who are under 4 feet tall.
The show’s been good for her, her parents say. The first time she saw it, she saw these two small, extremely successful people living relatively normal lives despite the odds, and she turned to her mother and father.
“They’re like me,” she said.