Marlee Betzing stretched out her arm and pointed to the long dirt road leading up to her driveway in eastern Paso Robles on Friday morning.
“Bikes, daddy!” she said. “Bikes! Bikes!”
The 5-year-old girl — always smiling and never shy — had a wide-eyed gaze on the brigade of black motorcycles rumbling toward her yellow house.
About a year after her cancer diagnosis, Marlee danced in her sparkly blue scarf and flowery dress and clapped her hands.
It was just the beginning of her Make-A-Wish Foundation gift that would lead her on a caravan with 25 leather-clad American Legion riders — and Marlee in a car with her mother — to the Estrella Warbird Museum for lunch amid its many airplanes.
The Tri-Counties chapter of the foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions, will also send her to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida with her parents, Geoff Betzing and Adrian Buck.
The love of motorcycles likely came from her father, who often rides them. Marlee frequently looked to him Friday for a quick hug and kiss on the cheek.
Glimmer of hope
The first signs of Marlee’s neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer, showed up in stomach aches in summer 2008.
“It was right when the neighbor’s apricot trees were full, and she was eating a lot of them,” Geoff Betzing said, so they brushed it off. But the aches came back 10 days later with fatigue, which quickly prompted her parents to check out why their normally bubbly little girl became sluggish.
Tests showed a mass against her pancreas.
“We saw the scan,” Geoff Betzing said, his words trailing off, “And this thing was the size of a softball. You see that. And it’s like, dread.”
But the doctors at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital said it hadn’t spread to her blood or bones, which was good.
“The fact that there was a glimmer of hope is what got us through it,” he said.
The months after that flew by in a whirlwind of doctors’ visits, he added, which included six rounds of a five-day course of chemotherapy.
“The same things that used to frustrate us about her — like her stubbornness and single-mindedness — are the same things that got her through it,” he said.
Marlee’s chemotherapy ended in April. Check-up scans every 90 days followed, and have been clean so far. After Thanksgiving, those scans will move to every six months. If she stays cancer-free through age 8, doctors say she could remain that way.
At the museum, Marlee — still smiling — grabbed her mother’s hand when she heard a plane engine roar to life. They quickly rushed off to check it out.