One afternoon in 2013, Maddie Morris and her mom were in the kitchen making guacamole for their lunch.
“I threw an avocado at her, and she didn’t catch it,” Shelly remembers. “Alarm bells were going off in my head because she really just let it hit her chest.”
Shelly and her husband, Chad, noticed Maddie holding her hand up against her chest, but before they thought she was just playing and being silly.
After asking 9-year-old Maddie why she didn’t catch it, the little girl said, “My hand doesn’t work.”
That was the moment when Shelly took Maddie to the hospital. “[Shelly] called me at work right afterward,” Chad recalls. “I met her there, and we found out what we didn’t want to find out. That was not a good day.”
For the next 10 hours, the family played the waiting game while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. Finally, they had the answer: a slow-growing tumor.
“She probably had it in her head for a while,” Chad says. “It was about 2.5 golf balls big, which is kind of huge for a tumor.”
Especially for a tumor in a young child’s head, Shelly adds.
Though the doctors scheduled surgery for the tumor for two to three weeks later, it was still dangerously pushing against her brain, causing her to lose control of her hand and interfering with her vision.
“Maddie still went to school and tried to keep things normal. We still went to work,” Chad said. “We tried to have a little extra fun—a few emergency runs for ice cream.” But the wait was still difficult.
Eight hours were set apart for the operation. Chad recalls feeling terrified sending his daughter into surgery.
That’s when the family received a picture from Jenny Mason, Shelly’s cousin, sporting a mustache. The unexpected picture brought smiles to the Morris's faces, and the trend quickly spread.
“So much of all those days was somber and full of worry and dread. Over the next [several] days, we got hundreds if not thousands of pictures of people saying, ‘Mustaches for Maddie,” Chad says.
Jenny Mason came up with the #MustachesforMaddie photo campaign after she took Maddie shopping to lift her spirits and noticed the young girl’s love of mustaches.
People got creative, putting mustaches on dogs, cats, and cars and making them from different materials including paper, peanut butter, and even toothpaste.
In fact, as Chad notes, Maddie has always loved mustaches. “She has a collection,” he says.
“In third grade, we’d stay in from recess and we’d draw pictures of babies with mustaches,” Maddie says with a smile.
“It was just kind of nice because when we’d be sitting in the hospital, whichever parent was with me, and they’d just look it up [on Twitter] every once in a while and show me the new pictures, and it would just be fun and happy to see,” Maddie says.
Maddie spent two weeks recovering in the hospital, but luckily the doctors were able to remove 90 percent of the tumor from Maddie’s head. Unfortunately, 10 percent was hard tissue, and the doctors were unable to remove it. The risk for removing the hard tissue was much higher, so the doctors left it alone. But after the surgery, a cyst started growing on the hard tissue that was left, and two years later Maddie went in for a second surgery.
The Second Surgery
After the first surgery, Shelly recalls that the pediatric neurosurgeon “was just talking about things and [mentioned], ‘With that 10 percent you never know—maybe it could just fall right off the brain. It’s happened before.’” She continues, “I just thought, ‘I like that answer.’ And so for two years almost, we were praying at every family prayer and every meal that Maddie’s tumor would fall off her brain.”
Shelly says there were two doctors working on Maddie’s head during her second surgery as they successfully removed all the soft tissue.
But Maddie was still facing radiation because of the remaining parts of the tumor the doctors couldn’t remove.
“When they turned around [to finish the surgery], that little piece of hard tumor that was stuck to her brain had just fallen right off the brain, and they plucked it right out of her head,” Shelly says. “So it was straight up an answer to a lot of prayers that happened oddly in the way that we had hoped.”
The recovery was easier the second time around, too.
“I didn’t get any really bad headaches, and I was out of the hospital in like three days,” Maddie says.
Today, Maddie is healthier than ever and although she goes in for routine check-ups, there is no sign of any more growth. But neither Shelly, Chad, or Maddie have forgotten the kindness people showed them during the trying time in their life.
“When you see all these people being so kind, you can’t help but want to see more compassion in the world and more kindness in the world,” Shelly says.
Both Chad and Shelly are authors of fantasy books in addition to their everyday teaching jobs. One day his publisher approached Chad with a request to write a book. “He told me, ‘You don’t have to write her story, but I think you could write this type of a story and it could work,’” Chad recalls. “Which was amazingly overwhelming because I don’t write that kind of book.”
But Chad accepted the challenge, and with Shelly’s help, the book Mustaches for Maddie has just been released, though there are some details that are different in the book. For example, during Maddie’s first surgery she was 9 years old, but in the book, Maddie is 12.
Shelly and Chad say the service they received during Maddie's illness inspired them to create the “Compassion in Action” campaign, which is explained in more detail on the back of the book.
Flint loved to draw. In fact, he's furiously trying to finish his comic book so he can be the youngest winner of the "Find a Comic Star" contest. He's also rushing to finish because he has an eye disease that could eventually make him blind.
At school, Flint meets McKell. She's new and doesn't seem to have trouble making friends. She does have a problem with how some of her new friends treat this boy they call "Squint." He seems nice and really talented. He also seems like the kind of person who wouldn't laugh at you. That's important, because McKell has hidden talents of her own but is worried about what will happen is she shares them.
Squint is the inspiring story of two new friends dealing with their own challenges who learn to trust each other, believe in themselves, and begin to truly see what matters most.