A self-proclaimed daddy’s girl, Shayna Penn was devastated to learn that her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The day after 64-year-old John Penn received his prognosis of six weeks to six months to live, he left his home in Birmingham, Alabama to visit his 28-year-old daughter in Lithia Springs. When Shayna’s parents arrived on Feb. 28, they sat down and talked with her for a bit. At one point, John Penn asked his wife, Carol, and Shayna’s boyfriend to go pickup some dinner.
This left him and Shayna alone to talk.
“My dad was never one to reveal inner emotions or leave himself very vulnerable, like most men,” Shayna said. “He had always told me he loved me on a constant basis, but never really got upset or overly emotional about anything. But, he used this opportunity to open up to me like he never had before.”
John Penn told his daughter that he was going to use the first few days at home to get his will and last living arrangements in order, then he was going to enjoy life as much as possible.
“Then he told me he regretted not being able to keep his promise to me to be there for my wedding,” Shayna said.
Diagnosed with leukemia
When John Penn was first diagnosed with leukemia, he promised that he would fight to be there to watch her get married.
“Of course, he did this in the most humorous way possible for him,” Shayna said. "There was an added in, ‘If you can ever find you someone that will marry your butt! I don’t know if I can make it another 15 years! Ha ha.’”
They had this discussion before when he was ran over by a drunk driver as he walked across a pedestrian crosswalk in Panama City, Florida and suffered 23 broken bones. The wreck occurred in May 2012 and he was diagnosed with Acute Myaloid Leukemia (ALM) around Christmas of 2013. He was in remission until close to Christmas of 2014, when the leukemia returned but didn’t respond to chemotherapy.
“After nearly every close call moment we had, I told him he better make it to watch me get married and meet my children,” Shayna said.
Several times over the last 10 years, they have talked about that. It was always in a joking manner, until this moment.
“He was emotional when we talked about the likelihood of him missing my wedding, and I could tell it was hard for him,” Shayna said.
She then came up with an idea.
“I needed to be able to share those moments with my father,” Shayna said. “The moments that both of us wanted to have together, that every daughter plans to have with her father, should not be an impossibility just because of fate dealing us a bad hand. I knew that even if it was only a simple walk down an aisle, giveaway and father-daughter dance that lasted perhaps five minutes, that we needed to have that experience.”
With the help of family, friends and the Dream Foundation, the idea became a reality. The foundation gave a charitable donation that helped cover the cost of the wedding dress.
A father's love
Shayna describes her father as loving and supportive.
“I had a horse obsession my entire life, and when I was in fifth grade, we moved to Wicksburg (Alabama) so we could have the land so I could get my first horse,” she said. “I began training and competing almost immediately, and dad was at every horse show and competition. He essentially despised horses, but he loved me enough to go and support me everywhere I went. He had supported my brothers in the same way as they grew up, with sports and school activities, always being there for them.”
A conservation officer/game warden in Houston County, Alabama for 30 years, John Penn made sure he spent quality time with his children.
“My memories of him are almost all hunting and fishing together, attending hunter safety courses and wildlife expos with him, making appearances on television shows with him, and helping raise and rehabilitate injured or baby animals,” Shayna said.
Her mother was in the military and had additional civilian jobs so she was away a lot, especially when she had active duty orders.
“When I was not at my grandmothers house, I was with dad,” Shayna said. “I played sports, softball and soccer, and dad was at almost every game. He practiced with me at home continuously. He encouraged me to never give up anything I start.”
She described her father as a “goofball” and “total nut.”
“His sense of humor and magnetic personality draws everyone in,” Penn said. “There are only a rare few people you can meet with in Houston County that do not know his name. His reputation follows him everywhere, as I learned growing up. Traveling to the lake with friends on the weekend, or anywhere around Dothan I constantly ran into people recognizing me as John Penn’s daughter.”
Even after his diagnosis, he holds true to who he is.
“My boyfriend, Scott, and my father both share a similar sense of humor,” Shayna said. “They relish their time together. Scott bought my father a remote-controlled fart machine for Christmas, which was used immediately on his doctor who was the head of oncology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The nurses and staff there have assured us they will never forget him and his constant wisecracks.”
In October, she moved to Georgia for a job and drives back to Alabama nearly every weekend to see her father. She spent much of her time in Wicksburg training horses. She had been a horse trainer for 16 years, a professional rodeo competitor and a part-time model.
The big day
On April 12, the big day arrived. Family and friends gathered at Woodham Farms near Wicksburg for the ceremony, which lasted six minutes. As “Daddy’s Angel” began to play, Shayna started walking down a staircase inside the building to meet her father at the bottom of the stairs.
“I’m giving you away. But I’m not letting go. The memories, they flood my mind of the little girl I know.”
They then walked down the aisle to the minister who asked John Penn, “Who gives this bride away.”
“Her mother and I,” he said.
The minister then announced the father-daughter dance and the music began.
“Tim McGraw’s ‘My Little Girl’ was our song, and even as I planned the ceremony, listening to it made me cry,” Shayna said. “I knew it was going to be extremely emotional.”
“Gotta hold on easy as I let you go. Gonna tell you how much I love you, though you think you already know.”
Looking back on that day, John Penn admitted that he was little concerned when his daughter began walking down the stairs
“With that dress on, I was wondering if she would make it down the steps,” he said. ¨After she didn’t trip and fall, I thought, ‘OK, now we just have to make it over to the aisle without stepping on that dress.”
While the ceremony is over, the dress, headpiece and boots will be the same thing she wears to her real wedding.
“The colors and flowers will be the same,” Shayna said. “The songs we play will be the same.”
Videos from the ceremony will also be played in the background as her brothers walk her down the aisle and stand in during the father-daughter dance.
“I have these to treasure, which is more than anyone could ask for,” Shayna said. “I’m extremely thankful.”
After the ceremony, the reception was replaced with a birthday party for John Penn.
“We basically contacted everyone we could think of to spread the word, so people who knew him, but perhaps had not seen him in years could come and catch up and reminisce,” Shayna said. “It was even better than we could’ve ever expected. Probably 150 people were there, and dad had a blast telling his stories and making everyone laugh all day.”
Out of the whole day, John Penn said he liked the birthday party the best.
“I got to see people I hadn’t seen in 20 to 30 years,” he said. “But with the ceremony, I liked the dance and trying not to step on her dress. We laughed and talked a bit about the important stuff. It went off pretty good without a hitch. ... “The end of the dance, we got choked up a bit but I told her, ‘Nope! Can’t do that.’”
For John Penn, it was good to see all the smiles on everyone’s faces all that day.
“It’s the simple things in life that mean the most,” he said.