Azayliah Perez started her first year of public school as a timid girl in her own cocoon. She ends it a social butterfly.
She started third grade with the adult-sized worries of a cancer patient and ends it with the typical worries of childhood — what to wear, who to play with and how to fix her nearly shoulder-length hair.
Along the way, she boosted her writing and math skills, made lots of friends, and reached a key milestone of one year with her leukemia in remission.
During her time in the hospital, when her heart broken for the loss of her dear friend and fellow patient Delia Gonzalez, Zay longed for the normal life she has now. But as summer break looms, she’s learning that even normal kids face loss.
Tavia Cailing, her first best friend outside of the hospital, is moving to Japan. That’s where her dad, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, is being stationed.
“I already have to carry Delia in my heart,” says Zay, 10. “And now I’ll have to carry Tavia in my heart. Now I know what they mean by ‘love hurts.’”
It’s the last day of school in Elizabeth Egan’s third-grade class at Kellond Elementary School on Tucson’s east side. The students have broken into groups to spend one last day together.
Zay, Tavia and Sydney Hagerman head to a quiet corner to play with the Monster High dolls they brought to school this day.
Moments later, Tavia quietly scoots behind a number chart in the corner. She needs some time to herself.
“She’s moving to Japan,” Sydney says. “And she doesn’t want to. She wants to play with us, but she says she can’t right now.”
“She’s having a hard time,” Zay says in her quiet voice. “I made her something ... a butterfly.”
As the clock ticks closer to 3:25 p.m., Mrs. Egan instructs the kids to stack their chairs and take their places on the rug for a final “circle time.”
“Before you go home, what are your plans for the summer?”
A few students share their plans: go to San Diego, read, swim.
Next, Mrs. Egan hands out envelopes with report cards, instructing the students not to open them until they get home.
“Congratulations! You’re all going to fourth grade! Woo!”
The students, hyped up on last-day-of-school adrenaline and treats, scream with joy.
It’s time to leave. The kids take turns saying goodbye to their teacher and each other.
Zay and Tavia hug, a quiet moment passing between them in the midst of classroom chaos.
Zay walks into the living room of her family’s house, her deep brown eyes sparkling with excitement.
“Everybody in my class passed,” she proudly announces to her mother and her grandmother, Angie Mendoza. “Even me.”
Zay exceeded her goal of making one friend this year. “I’m happy I got to meet friends. The whole class is my friend.”
Unsure of what the school year would bring, Zay had worried about being bullied and not having friends. “I was worried about being hit in the port. But that school is amazing. I love that school. Everybody just came up to me and talked to me.”
Worrying about the kids is part of parenting. Even more so when an illness is involved. For Desiree Mendoza, her daughter’s current “normal kid” worries are a welcome relief.
“It’s awesome,” Desiree says. “The difference is not worrying about how the medicines are gonna make her feel. Now, it’s like, what lunch will she have? Will she like it? The kids bumping heads with other students. It’s no longer medicines. It’s just different.”
“She used to be so quiet,” Angie says. “I worried about how kids would react to her. The first week of school was amazing because they pulled Zay out of her shell. They put themselves there for Zay.”
Zay’s excited to have a break from school. She wants to swim and ride her horse in Willcox this summer. But she’s already making goals for fourth grade. “I can’t read really good,” she says. “I’m trying my best to read.”
Her dad, Jimmy Perez, says that since Zay struggled academically in third grade, fourth grade will be a new beginning. “We’re looking at it like, ‘We gotta do our part,’” he says. “Let’s make fourth grade all right. You’re not an outsider. It’s your time to shine and take ownership.”
Desiree and Jimmy greet Zay and her little sister, Khaylina, in the school’s hallway with celebratory heliumballoons for each girl.
They all return to Mrs. Egan’s classroom for hugs and one last goodbye.
“What a year of growth it has been,” Mrs. Egan says. “It’s amazing. She’s so confident. She’s gonna be just fine.”
“I know,” Desiree agrees.
“I am so proud of you,” Mrs. Egan tells Zay. “And I’m so happy you’re healthy. How do you feel?”
“I feel good,” Zay says, beaming.
“You are just such a light, and next year is going to be great.”
It’s a hot summer day when Tavia and Zay meet for a play date at Get Air Tucson, a trampoline park downtown.
“Zay!” Tavia shouts as she runs to give her friend a hug.
“Whoa, this place is big,” Zay says, returning the hug.
Tavia grabs Zay’s hand and the girls run off, jumping on trampolines and posing for pictures for their moms.
When the hour is up, the girls put their shoes back on, hug and make plans to hang out again, trying to squeeze in as much time together as possible before Tavia’s family moves across the ocean.
Later, Zay shows her mom a painting she created for Tavia: It’s the two of them hanging out, writing in their diaries, and listening to music in Japan.
“I just want her to remember me.”
“I cherish you and you brighten my life and world,” a card from Tavia reads. “I love you as a best friend forever.”
Zay lost her last best friend, Delia, to aplastic anemia Jan. 9. Now she feels like she’s losing Tavia.
“I’m pretty sad because she’s gonna be away,” Zay says. “But the good news is, we’re gonna be pen pals. She says she’s gonna write every day.”
When they’re older, the girls have decided, Tavia will move back.
“We’re gonna work together at a ranch and have lots of animals and train people to ride horses,” Zay says. “Then we’re gonna be veterinarians.”
Until then, they’ll be there for each other. Just like typical kids.
“She’s my best, best friend,” Zay says, “and she always will be.”