A first dance and a last wish: ‘there’s no such thing as giving up’

Nayla Rivera burst from a bedroom, her vibrant red homecoming dress flowing behind and around her. A rhinestone headband gleamed in light from the front window as she walked past the green-topped oxygen tank sent home with her from a hospice.

Her first big dance was just hours away, and nothing — certainly not the cystic fibrosis she was born with 16 years ago — was going to keep a smile from regularly appearing on her face.

Minutes later, her mother Milagros Marrero-Garces kneeled near her teenage daughter, trying to put on gleaming silver heels. Nayla finished with that shoe, then scrutinized her left heel before securing it in place as a baby watched the proceedings beside her on the brown sofa.

In Nayla’s West Palm Beach home, where generations grew up, everyone pitched in. Nayla said she’d never experienced anything like the homecoming preparations before.

“Everybody’s coming together to help me have a nice time,” she said.

Besides all the family members, there are the others: a professional photographer and a professional esthetician; days of support, from hospice and hospital workers with St. Mary’s Medical Center, where she’d just spent nine days; Little Smiles, which helps fulfill children’s wishes; and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which is trying to combat the hereditary disease that results in shortened lifespans. All that work wasn’t just to get Nayla ready for the homecoming dance at Forest Hill High School, where Nayla is a junior. Before Saturday night’s dance, Nayla got to attend a baby shower for a cousin. Next up, the group is arranging for a trip to Walt Disney World.

“I get goosebumps because it’s so exciting,” Marrero-Garces said.

Nayla has been to Disney World before, but was so young she doesn’t remember it. She’d also not been to a dance in years. As the final touches were being put on by makeup artist Christie Lopez, Nayla was marveling at how unusual everything had become.

“To experience all this,” she said. “I’ve never been to a dance.” She paused. “The only dance I’ve been to was fifth grade.”

Fifth grade was well before her lungs mostly quit working, and before Wellington photographer Lois Spatz and a Palm Beach Post photographer were making her preparations for what has been called her “last wish.” The professionals kept taking her picture even as she took selfies with some of her cousins out on the sidewalk in front of her home.

“What about your earrings and your necklace?” one cousin had asked. Nayla smiled again. “I forgot.”

Giselle, 17, and Emily Miranda, 16, crowded together with Nayla to look at the selfies on the cell phone, their braces glittering in the sun as they grinned.

Nayla, who is down to 17 percent of her lung function, kept smiling. She smiled as some of her chihuahas walked in front of her as the photographers took pictures. She smiled as she talked to her mother in the doorway of their home, where younger cousins were sprawled on the front porch. She smiled as she held her baby sister, 6-month-old Yaneliese. She smiled as her grandfather embraced her.

“Don’t give up,” Marrero-Garces told a reporter. “There’s no such thing as giving up in our family.”

Nearby, Giselle was painting Nayla’s toenails a glistening red, that coordinated with her red lipstick and the dress she’d be wearing to the homecoming dance. The nail polish, Lopez said, was one made by a company called Essie.

It’s called “First Dance.”

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