EVERY PETRARCH NEEDS A LAURA, every Clapton a Layla. Maria Bartiromo, the CNBC anchorwoman, gained a different kind of fame in a punk ode by the late Joey Ramone (who rhymed her surname with “I wanna know-oh”). A Lubbock girl’s boyfriend, Jerry Allison, who was one of the Crickets, persuaded Buddy Holly to rename their new song, “Cindy Lou,” for her, and Peggy Sue Gerron lucked into pop immortality.
Now another Texan, Elisabeth Reed Wagner, has been immortalized in verse. The country hit “Elisabeth” was inspired by her struggles with neurofibromatosis—a disease that causes tumors along nerves—and, later, with the cancer that would kill her on April 11 at the age of 21. Cancer and death are everyday tragedies, of course, faced with some measure of courage and grace by millions. They should all get a song; Elisabeth, at least, did.
Her childhood neurofibromatosis had produced bumps and café au lait spots here and there and a tumor along nerves of the left side of her face and neck. She also dealt with discomfort and a raspy voice. None of it seemed to matter to Elisabeth. “She wasn’t normal, but she never acted any way but normal,” says her father, Mark. Growing up in Plano, she faced all of the symptoms with a spirit that was positive without being saccharine. Mark recalls that, from the age of ten, whenever her voice caused people to ask if she had a sore throat, she would reply matter-of-factly, “No, I have a tumor on my vocal cord.”
The doctors had warned her parents that neurofibromatosis tumors sometimes become cancerous, but they had said it was rare. During Elisabeth’s freshman year at Texas A&M, they discovered that a tumor in her neck was malignant, and she went home for surgery and radiation therapy. She returned to school for her sophomore year, but in May 2001 doctors found cancer in one of her lungs, and the ensuing cycle of illness and treatment lasted until her death. “She never once said, ‘Why me?’ or ‘This isn’t fair!'” says her mother, Suzanne. “She just said, ‘What do I need to do to get better?'”
As it happens, Elisabeth’s aunt Liz Rose is a Nashville songwriter. Inspired by her niece’s fight, she and her friend Kim Patton-Johnston wrote a ballad in tribute: “Elisabeth / You make the world a better place / With the kindness of your smile and your love / And your beauty will live on and on.” A demo tape made its way to Billy Gilman, the thirteen-year-old country music phenom. “I instantly felt chills down my spine,” he recalls. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do this!'” That was when Rose let the family know about the song.
Mark came home from work one day and said, “Elisabeth, do you know who Billy Gilman is?”
“He’s that shrimpy boy” who sings country music, she answered.
Although Gilman has been derided by many as another too-young performer with great pipes but no depth, he got “Elisabeth” and found the feeling in it. So did listeners, who have bought more than 500,000 copies of Gilman’s Dare to Dream CD. The song’s video, which has played often on Country Music Television, shows people around the world holding up an “Elisabeth” banner. Billy and Elisabeth met last October at the Texas State Fair, when he invited her onstage and gave her a banner.
One day, Suzanne recalls, after yet another doctor’s appointment, she sat next to her daughter in the car and began to cry. Elisabeth tried to console her, but Suzanne countered, “You should be having a good time. You should be in college, like your friends.” Elizabeth replied, “Mom, my friends don’t have a song written about them!”
The night before she died, her father says, she could not speak. She had been on a respirator for weeks, and pain medications made it impossible for her to write legibly. She traced letters in his hand, insisting that he say each one aloud so that she knew he understood her final words: “I think I’m going to die.” And then, “Thanks for the comfort.”
Back in December Elisabeth’s younger sister, Catherine, had prepared a surprise: She sent home movies of family members and friends hoisting the banner to Country Music Television, which spliced clips into the original video and aired it. Elisabeth was “just stunned,” Suzanne recalls.
Later, Catherine edited her own version, using more of the personal images. The family showed her video, less professional but more powerful, at the memorial service.
Galveston native John Schwartz is a reporter for the New York Times.