Sherri Graves Smith was as sick as she could be, but her college roommate and one of her best friends Veleta Rogers was about to get married and she had no intention of missing it.
She knew Rogers would’ve understood if she backed out, but Smith had never let a friend down and she wasn’t about to do it now.
And so she endured the three-hour drive from her home in Marietta to Montgomery, Ala., and at exactly 6 p.m. the next day, Sherri was the first bridesmaid down the aisle, weak and in pain, pretty as a picture.
It was classic Sherri Graves Smith, her husband Chuck said. Selfless. Determined. Dedicated.
It was also the last time Smith would see his bride walk without assistance.
By then, the cancer had gotten the upper hand, and after nine years of fighting, it looked like Sherri might not make it.
If there is a bad time to get cancer, doctors found it in Sherri at the worst possible time. She was on top of the world. After seven years in the legal division at the Coca-Cola Co., she was looking forward to a new venture with the company, one that meant a move to Vienna, Austria. More than anything, she was excited about reconnecting with her old flame Chuck.
The couple met shortly after he spotted her at a football game nearly 20 years earlier on the night of Oct. 3, 1986. Sherri was a cheerleader for the Deshler Tigers, and Chuck was there to support his team, the Cherokee Indians.
When he finally got the chance to ask her name, a mutual friend introduced them, but Chuck was frozen in place.
All he could manage was a hello.
He would eventually muster the nerve to call her. They dated a few times but things fizzled pretty quickly even though he knew in his heart of hearts, he and Sherri were meant to be.
“I loved her,” he said.
They would lose touch with each other, but his love remained through high school, college and other relationships, some serious, some not so much.
Chuck, at least, would marry and have a son. The day he dissolved his marriage, fate intervened and one night out he spotted Sherri celebrating with her family and friends at a local restaurant.
“I walked over and told her happy birthday, because of course I remembered, and that was our reconnection,” he said.
It was July 2007. They started where they’d left off, chatting on the phone. He was teaching biology at Northwest-Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Sherri was a global marketing attorney at Coke. She told him about the Vienna assignment she was hoping for and asked him to be in prayer with her.
In preparation for the move, Sherri went to see her doctor and, well, things went downhill from there.
She called Chuck.
Did you decide to take the assignment? he asked.
The news, Chuck said, took his breath away.
A couple of weeks later, he drove to Atlanta to show his support. Over dinner that night, he asked her if she wanted to live.
Yes, she told him.
We’ll stand in faith together, he said.
Chuck hadn’t been looking for a relationship so soon after his divorce, but there was no denying he still loved Sherri. On Dec. 20, they went on their first official date. In May, he asked for her hand in marriage, and on Nov. 15, 2008, they were married in a double ring ceremony before more than 500 friends and family members.
Sherri was on her way to accomplishing the “full life” she’d envisioned for herself. Career. Children. Grandchildren.
The couple settled in Marietta for some of the best years and the longest fight of their lives. The cancer inside Sherri was relentless. She fought back with her faith, enduring countless surgeries and rounds of radiation and chemotherapy while still trying to be a good wife, cooking when she felt like it, hanging out and traveling with Chuck, even volunteering as often as she could muster the strength.
Death loomed as her immune system crashed and the cancer spread to her lungs, brain and spine.
It nearly killed her when she realized she couldn’t continue her work with Coca-Cola, that children wouldn’t be in her future. The treatments were just too taxing.
At least she could still write, a talent she discovered while reading to schoolchildren, the one thing other than Chuck that gave her comfort and made her smile.
Her debut novel — “Big Al’s Game Day Rules,” about being a good sport — was published in November 2012, five years after her cancer diagnosis. Today, there are more than 50 titles in the “Game Day Rules” series.
A second series, “Lil’ Sherri,” continues the positive life lessons she espoused for children and is a reminder of what a lovely place the world is and how a good deed can turn someone else’s day around.
The first title, “Is My Cup Empty?,” raked in the honors: Phillis Wheatley Book Awards nominee and a New York Book Festival Awards runner-up. “Open Your Heart to Happiness” will be released in early 2017. All of Smith’s books, published by Mascot Books, feature both multicultural characters and the values that she lived by: hope, optimism and perseverance.
To be sure, Sherri Smith didn’t just talk the talk. She walked the walk. When she discerned the difficult choices fellow cancer patients faced because of financial concerns, she began a fundraising effort that raised more than $400,000 to help defray expenses. In 2013, the American Society for Radiation Oncology presented her with its Survivor Circle Award.
If only she had survived colon cancer, the second leading cancer killer in the U.S. One in seven colorectal patients is younger than 50.
Sherri was just 45 when she passed early last month surrounded by family.
Chuck held her hand, kissed her face and whispered, “I love you.”
“Up until that moment, I still had faith that God could heal her and we could walk out of the hospital together,” he said. “It wasn’t to be.”
That isn’t to say Sherri hadn’t lived a full life. She had. It just wasn’t the one she’d imagined.
Months before her death, she told a rapt audience gathered at the Shoals Woman of the Year awards ceremony that, for her, living a full life no longer meant having a career, children and other trappings. God had shown her that living a full life meant learning to live one day at a time, being grateful for the small things and opening ourselves up to his grace.
When you do that, she told them, “He will fill your life in ways unimaginable.”
How did she know? Because even in her dying, she experienced it.
A memorial service for Sherri Graves Smith will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 18 at Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave N.E., Atlanta.