Seventeen-year-old Charlee Hawkins loved life. A member of the Cullumber Ward, Gilbert Arizona Stake, she could always find something positive in the most difficult situations. Even when she faced her life’s hardest challenge of being diagnosed with cancer, Charlee kept smiling and found things to laugh about.
Charlee’s battle began at age 15, when a small bump appeared on her left index finger. She thought it was simply a result of practicing her golf swing as she prepared to play on the girls’ golf team at Gilbert High School.
When she had the bump removed, test results showed that Charlee had a very rare and very aggressive form of cancer, known as epithelioid sarcoma. The only effective treatment was surgery. Charlee’s finger was quickly removed.
Charlee handled the situation with humor instead of despair. She nicknamed herself “Nine” and never hid the fact that one finger was missing.
Five months later, during a routine test, doctors discovered spots in her lungs—the cancer had spread. They explained that chemotherapy wasn’t usually successful with this type of cancer and that it was impossible to remove the tumors. Charlee decided to give chemotherapy a try anyway.
The treatment made her lose her hair, but she refused to wear a wig and didn’t like hats. She told others that she might be the only “nine-fingered, bald-headed” girl they’d ever meet.
In January 2004 she celebrated what she called her “Handiversary.” It had been one year since her finger was amputated. She and her friends wore matching “Nine” T-shirts. She made hand-shaped sugar cookies with pink frosting and one finger missing.
Charlee attended two weeks of her senior year in the fall of 2004 but was too sick to continue. She had her heart set on graduating from high school, so she got her class assignments by e-mail and continued to work toward her diploma.
Charlee’s health progressively declined. The family set up a Christmas tree in her bedroom and celebrated Christmas around her bedside. Her Young Women class often came to visit her. Despite her trials, her friends and family never heard her complain.
By January 2005, Charlee’s strength was nearly gone. Sister Hawkins recalls a conversation she had with her daughter when Charlee was in excruciating pain. Charlee said, “I’m ready to go.” Her mother says she felt the Spirit guiding her as she explained to her daughter that Heavenly Father has a moment for each of us and that her moment was near. Then she felt the Spirit fill her daughter and ease her pain. Charlee said, “I’m ready to go home.”
“When she added the word ‘home,’ I knew that she knew that this place is only temporary,” says Sister Hawkins. “The veil must have been so thin that she felt safe because she knew that place was her home. It brought me such comfort and peace. I knew then that I had to let her go.”
The next day at school, classmates celebrated Charlee’s second “Handiversary” without her. They lined up for a photo with a sign saying, “We love you, Nine.” Charlee’s family provided the four-fingered cookies.
Four days later, on January 25, an assistant principal from Charlee’s school called to check on her. When she learned that Charlee wasn’t doing well, she asked if the administration could come and present Charlee’s diploma to her that afternoon. At 2:00 p.m., Charlee received recognition for what she had worked so hard to achieve.
Less than 45 minutes after her private graduation ceremony, Charlee died. Her life had touched so many. More than 1,500 people attended her funeral.
“She had an amazing attitude, a spirit that just radiated, and a great sense of humor,” says her mother. “That carried her, and that carried us.”
Charlee’s influence is still being felt. The family continues to hear from those who say her example encourages them to be better and to improve their lives. Some of her friends who are serving missions are using their experiences with Charlee to help teach the plan of salvation to others.
“She lived every day to the fullest,” says her mother. “I believe she did what she was supposed to do. She knew how to live, and she knew how to die.”