By Catherine Hedge
My Little Sister Francie isn’t someone you meet. She’s someone you experience. Even shorter than I am, Francie has always been the family dynamo, like the center of a tornado…No, a hurricane whirling into your environment and blowing all your pretensions and glums away.
I’ve always thought of myself as fairly shy and quiet. In fact, the quietest member of my family. But that’s because I’ve compared myself to Francie. That’s like thinking you are clumsy because you’re dancing for Dame Margot Fonteyn or unmusical because you’re playing along with Rachmaninoff.
I once saw Francie, a professional children’s entertainer , transform a rowdy community Thanksgiving crowd from chaos to quiet within thirty seconds of her walking on stage. I watched over 200 teachers huff and puff along with Francie and the nasty old wolf. Whole auditoriums full of cynical middle schoolers melted into her hands. At Fort Riley Middle School, they clamored for autographs when she finished. We made copies of her PR photo and autograph and handed them out. Five years later, we learned, a high school senior still had one hung over his desk. After one pre-school performance, a 4-year-old told her, “When it’s time, I think I’ll hire you for my wedding.” I swear that no one, not even Dick Clark could get a crowd to hokey-pokey like Francie.
But now, my favorite Tasmanian Devil is in the fight of her life. After a two decades long career of professional story-telling and singing, of accolades including regional Emmy nominations, Parent’s Choice Approval awards, California State awards, and Sacramento Arts Educator of the Year Award, she is being robbed. A thief, an undiagnosed neurological disorder is stealing her strength. She says, “I feel like I’m Superman, suddenly surrounded by Kryptonite.” ( Ed Goldman, Sacramento Business Journal )
A woman who once played competitive tennis, rode her bike in 50 mile day trips, and MC’d California State Fair stages in 100 plus degrees, Francie now struggles to walk unaided, must sit to finish a sentence, and has had to say good-bye to the career that has sustained her and my two nieces. She continues to teach children’s literature part time at Sacramento State, which provides health insurance and a small income. But she can do little else.
What she has not lost, however, is her indomitable spirit.
I remember when she was about six, Francie was sleep-walking. Dressed in a t-shirt and underpants, she held her arms in front of her like a prize-fighter. Her chin was jutted out and she was mumbling something like, “Get ‘em! Get ‘em!” Though I was in seventh grade at the time, I remember stepping back from this fierce little being and yelling for my mom to come wake her up. I knew absolutely I wasn’t going to tangle with her. I’d lose!
This is the same pugnacious, persistent approach Francie has toward her current situation. She does have difficult days, but shares them with few. She’s frustrated about not having a diagnosis, though the options, ALS, Muscular Dystrophy, among others, are pretty scary, but she turns her doctors and counselors into advocates and they are fighting alongside her.
Her community fights for her, too. Despite her initial reservations, friends organized a huge benefit for her at Fairytale Town, a regional park with Mother Goose characters dating back to the 1950’s. You know…the kind where you turn a key in a story box and hear a song that matches the surrounding. Well, Francie inhabits those boxes with her songs and stories…she is truly the voice of Fairytale Town. On November 2, a huge crowd gathered to “Celebrate Francie.”
The organizer, Terry Foley, stated: “Francie touches people’s hearts and particularly the hearts of children…It was a no-brainer that people would want to come together for her. If you had to choose a person for which you were going to do something, you might as well choose someone that everybody loves, and everybody loves Francie.” (Corrie Pelc, Valley Community News)
Suddenly a woman who is very private when offstage, Francie has become the center of a media whirlwind. Newspaper interviews, radio spots, flyers, huge signs, the whole community of Sacramento knows of Francie’s troubles and of her struggle to overcome them. What they may not have counted on, however, is how deeply touched they would be by the woman they describe as “Perennially perky”.
I would like to share with you both some excerpts written by Francie and by writers for The Sacramento Bee and other regional publications.
They will show you why I am so thankful to have this resilient woman in my life:
“‘I have come to realize that it is not all about this,’ she [Francie] said, gesturing to her lower body. ‘I’m not sure the kids care so much about it.’ She has signed on for a couple of small events at Fairytale Town in the coming year. She will bring her stool, she said, and perform with every ounce of energy she has left. In the future, her performance venues will be more intimate, her acts less dynamic, but her commitment to children will continue until her body gives out. ‘I want them to know that I didn’t choose to stop performing,’ she said. ‘I loved every minute of it. It was glorious.'” (Cynthia Hubert, Sacramento Bee)
“For 22 years, Francie Dillon has entertained children and families with her mix of music and storytelling, everywhere from Fairytale Town to area schools to hospital bedsides.
“[Of the benefit] Dillon says the money raised will allow her to take the steps she needs to adapt her past career as a children’s entertainer to a new one that works within her current situation, as she knows she still has more to give.
“‘I can’t believe that the universe is willing to let me just dissolve without making further contributions, I cannot believe that is the plan,’ Dillon says. ‘I believe I’ve got something to give that will benefit and be of service, and now it’s my job to discover that. This benefit will give me the breathing room to make that happen, and to me the greatest gift of all is the room to discover it.'” (Corrie Pelc)
“While I’ve heard Francie Dillon’s work as a singer, songwriter and storyteller many times (I am, after all, a daddy), I never met her until she was given the award for Arts Educator of the Year …I’m president its volunteer board). And while I realize this is a town known for giving standing ovations at the opening of envelopes, I can report that the one Dillon received here was one of the most heartfelt, teary-eyed salutes I’ve ever seen. Dillon almost missed it — she was paying attention to climbing down the stage steps after delivering a touching, hopeful and spontaneous acceptance speech, and didn’t realize the audience was standing up for her. ‘Wasn’t that something?’ she says, her eyes misting and her voice growing husky.
“Dillon has hazel eyes, an impish blonde hairdo and a solid, once-athletic body that she still propels heroically, using forearm braces. The ‘monkey arms,’ as she’s chirpily dubbed them, were suggested to her by former Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago. “Heather told me that there were two things to keep in mind when I came down with whatever this is,” Dillon recalls: ‘Keep your sense of humor and don’t let your body define you.’”…. (Ed Goldman)
He continues the following week after Francie had written him a heart felt thank you for his strong arm, when she needed it so desperately: “I’m going to remember this email, or try to, every time I get annoyed because it’s raining, my car won’t start or my server is down. I wish you a wonderful weekend in the kindest of universes.”
And Finally, the letter Francie wrote to her benefactors after her Celebration:
“…here is a …YouTube link to a Rascal Flatts song that I play every time I get in the car. http://youtu.be/R_q84a86LIA Because the truth is… I do love my life…every part of it…and truthfully the life lessons I’ve learned, the love you have all extended to me, may never have had the opportunity to be fully expressed if I wasn’t HERE…right now with WHAT IS…and I wouldn’t trade that feeling and life awareness for anything in the world. If possible, I might have asked the universe to find another way of teaching me this…but….Being what it is….I am eternally grateful!! Love You all.
Thank you for bringing me back to life.
And thank you, Francie, for bringing your life to me.
Your Big Sis.