Coping and Overcoming Illness

For the Love of Mom

UPDATED 03/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/27/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

Sometimes it seems to Kelly Jo Dowd that hardly any time has passed since she lulled her tiny daughter to sleep. "I would hold her in my arms and lay her on my chest," says Dowd, 41. "Most babies fall asleep in a crib or a bed, but Dakoda slept on my chest. We were just locked at the heart."

They still are, more than ever, as they go through the toughest time of their lives. Last year doctors diagnosed Kelly Jo with Stage 4 cancer of the bones and liver and gave her six months to a year to live—a prognosis that runs out this May. Now her only child, Dakoda—the top-ranked 12-year-old female golfer in the country—has a chance to make her mother's dream come true before it's too late. Thanks to an exemption from sponsors aware of her mother's illness, Dakoda will tee it up in the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open near Orlando April 27, making her the second youngest player ever in a Ladies Professional Golf Association event, behind Michelle Wie. How well she scores is beside the point: She'll be there so that her mom can watch her play. "We're so close, I tell her stuff I wouldn't even tell my friends," says Dakoda. "She's not going to be able to see me reach my dream until I do this."

A natural athlete who took her first swing at 4½—"she never whiffed a single one," recalls her father, Mike—Dakoda has won more than 185 junior trophies. Playing on a high school squad as a sixth grader, she helped the team win its first state title. Even so, Dakoda isn't ready to turn pro. "She's the best 12-year-old athlete I've ever seen," says her golf coach, Matt Mitchell. "But for now it will still be like a girl playing against adults."

For Dakoda, it's just one more thing she can do to help her mom. A former Hooters waitress and manager, Kelly Jo first felt a lump in her breast in 2001. After a doctor told her it didn't seem worrisome, she skipped the mammogram—a terrible mistake, she now says. "I didn't take an aggressive stance," says Kelly Jo. "I got so involved in real life I blew it off." In 2002 her doctor diagnosed breast cancer, and she had both breasts and 20 lymph nodes removed. When her family came to see her, "Her skin was so tight to her ribs from the surgery," says Mike, a social worker in Palm Harbor, Fla., where the Dowds live in a condo. "And Koda says, 'Mom, you look like ET.'"

For a while chemotherapy seemed to work. But last May a bone scan revealed Stage 4 bone and liver cancer—the most advanced and least treatable type. At first, says Kelly Jo, "I didn't think I wanted to continue living like this. But then I looked in Koda's eyes and saw a daughter who didn't want to lose her mom yet. And so I told her, 'Koda, I will fight for you.'"

And so, this April, Dakoda will play for her mother, using clubs bearing the initials KJ. Awaiting tests that will show if her condition has improved, Kelly Jo tries to stay hopeful while remaining realistic. She knows she may never see Dakoda go on her first date, or her prom, or get married and have kids of her own. But at least she may get to see her play on the LPGA tour. "How unfair is it to give birth to this amazing person and not be able to see all this stuff in her life?" says Kelly Jo, her voice shaking with both anger and sorrow. "But I'm going to be with Dakoda forever, guiding her." They are, after all, locked at the heart.

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