For Peggy Holder, watching her only daughter walk down the aisle was like a dream come true. “It was a fairy-tale wedding for someone who deserved it so much,” she said.
In 1996, at the age of 17 and just after graduating from high school, Cheri Holder was diagnosed with juvenile dermatomyositis. After looking back on it, the signs were probably there, said Peggy, but Cheri chose to ignore them. Cheri’s aunt was losing her battle with ovarian cancer at the time.
Cheri had always been a good athlete, playing softball in high school and hoping to earn a scholarship to play in college. This dream was put on hold as it became more difficult to even lift the bat. Then came the JDMS diagnosis.
Throughout her ordeal with JDMS, Cheri went through many ups and downs. “She would start to feel so much better,” said Peggy. “Then she’d get laid back down.” Cheri suffered a staph infection that spread throughout her back, putting her in the hospital for more than a month. At her worst times, she couldn’t dress herself, bathe herself, or do many of the simple tasks most people take for granted. She never complained or pitied herself but instead saw this as her mission, her mother said.
When she became strong enough to use the computer, she met several other myositis patients through the MAA network, and they began supporting one another through emails, letters, and phone calls. She and Autumn Donohue, another patient, met face-to-face with great excitement for the first time at the 1999 MAA conference after they’d been great long-distance friends. Cheri joined chat rooms to pass the time, and it was there she met Andrew Nelson. Without meeting in person for six years, they built a special friendship that would eventually lead them to the altar. “He talked to her during some of her worst times,” said Peggy. “But her spirit was still there.” He told Peggy at one time how much he admired the person Cheri is – her strength and her beauty. Anyone who knows Cheri will tell you she is a fighter.
The family didn’t dwell on the “why me” and “what if” that so often come with disease. It hurts to know your child is going through this and to watch her suffer, said Peggy, but they knew it wasn’t in their hands and used it to learn. Cheri learned more life lessons than she could have been taught in any college course. Many of these she learned while watching her mom, with whom she shares an extremely strong bond. (“We’re the most bonded mom and daughter that has ever been,” said Peggy.) Cheri urges parents to always be there, encouraging their children to be happy.Most important, they kept a positive attitude and always held on to their sense of humor. “You sometimes have to laugh at things that may not seem funny,” said Cheri. “Because that might be the only way you will be able to get through it.” Peggy even went so far as to say that she and Cheri had so many more opportunities with this disease than they would have without it. They traveled more, they went to movies together, and Cheri probably would have never met her new husband if she hadn’t had the illness. Following her own advice to others, Cheri still takes one day at a time and doesn’t take anything for granted.
“Don’t give up faith,” said Peggy. “It will affect your life, but it doesn’t have to be your life.” Find humor in life itself, she continued, and remember there are countless others with problems, too.
Cheri and Andrew were married on September 13, 2002, in a beautiful ceremony in Las Vegas. Among the guests were three of Cheri’s special friends, all myositis patients, there to help her celebrate. Cheri and Andrew now enjoy cooking together and prepared a Thanksgiving feast for his family this year. Recently, he took her to the batting cage, where she found the strength to hit 90 out of 100 balls pitched. Next year, they will honeymoon in Ireland.
“I can honestly say that I wouldn’t change a thing about any of the experience,” said Cheri. “I would not want to go back because the experience of the disease has made me who I am today.” From her struggles, Cheri became an even stronger person, Peggy believes. She’s very much in touch with her own feelings, her own beliefs, and her own dreams. And Cheri has shown that nothing will stand in her way.