Comedian Derrick Tennant was standing in an airport in Atlanta, Ga., doing a magic show for a group of children with life-threatening illnesses, when he first saw Dahlia. The 4-year-old walked up next to him, amidst an airport redesigned to look like the North Pole. She sat down and never left his side — while other kids came and went, stopped to see a trick and moved on to get a Christmas cookie or sit on Santa’s lap, Dahlia stayed, staring at Tennant.
“She had such a joy about her,” Tennant, 44, recalls to The Mighty. “She instantly stole my heart.”
Tennant walked over to Dahlia’s father, Jeff Minton. “I want to be in your little girl’s life,” he said, “in any way I can.”
Minton told the comic he was more than welcome to come to Dahlia’s birthday party and perform. “How much will you charge me?” he asked.
“One of Dahlia’s smiles,” Tennant replied. It was his turn to stay by Dahlia’s side.
Dahlia, who Tennant calls “little d,” has an incurable cancer that has just returned for a third time. Since December, Tennant’s become a large component to helping her family find money to cover medical expenses. He’s organized fundraising events and an online campaign, “Smile With Dahlia.” To get her story out and raise cancer awareness, he found student Steve McCord to direct a short video (below) called, “Dahlia’s Story.”
“I’ve worked with kids with cancer before,” Tennant tells The Mighty. “I can’t explain to you exactly what’s drawn me to Dahlia. If you saw her smile, you’d understand.”
Tennant knows what it means to face a challenge — he’s made a name for himself from his own disability. When he was 14 years old, an injury left him in a coma. Doctors performed an emergency brain surgery, and when he woke up, he couldn’t walk, talk or eat. Today, after years of rehab, he’s gained back most of his facilities but has limited use of his left side. So, he started “Left Arm Comedy.”
“I look at the right side of things,” he says now.
For him, Dahlia has reinforced the notion of finding positivity in difficult things, of looking at the world in a new way. Tennant refers to a picture of the two of them while describing this — one where Dahlia has her eyes shut and is hugging him.
“My mom pointed this out to me, but if you look at how our heads touch, the scar from her surgery lines up with the scar from mine,” Tennant tells The Mighty. “It forms a heart.”
“[Dahlia] doesn’t realize it, but she knows how to love like an adult,” Tennant tells The Mighty. “These kids, the ones who go through tragedy, they have a maturity to them. You’re inclined to be sad about the lost innocence, but they develop a sense of love that’s just so sincere.”
As Dahlia continues to fight cancer, Tennant continues to support her. If she only lives a short life, he intends to make sure she’s smiling through it. He doesn’t view this as charity. He views it as repaying the favor.
“She brings so much joy to everyone around her,” Tennant says. “This is the least I could do.”
You can follow Dahlia’s journey on Facebook. If you’d like to make a donation to her medical expenses, head here.
The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: What do you wish you had found on Google when you were first diagnosed? Find out how to email us a story submission here.