Hannah Pieper locks herself in the McDonald’s bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror and adjusting the purple wig on her head until it looks just right.
The familiar golden arches had caught her eye as she was speeding along the highway, reminding her that she needed to pull off and make a quick pit stop.
The celebration of life would be starting soon and she wanted to put the finishing touches on her costume.
This was in no way going to be a traditional day. The person whom they were grieving hadn’t gotten married, become a mom and grown old and gray. She hadn’t even gone to prom.
And it wasn’t going to be a wear-all-black, sit-in-the-pew-quietly kind of funeral either.
Rowan Price was diagnosed with AML-M7, an aggressive form of Leukemia, on October 5, 2018 and passed away on September 15, 2019.
But her four years of life were cause for celebration and that is what this day would be about.
Pieper makes her way out of the ladies’ room, getting eyebrow raises as she passes the people eating their Big Macs. “She’s not from around here,” the small-towners must have thought when they saw her outfit.
She is no longer Hannah Pieper, the UNC-Chapel Hill student studying exercise and sports science and studio art. Today, she is Mal — one of the main characters in the famous Disney movie, Descendants.
Bedside visits. Book readings. Large event appearances. These college students (disguised as princesses and superheroes) do it all.
Pieper is a member of A Moment of Magic at UNC, a nonprofit organization that serves medically vulnerable children at no cost and helps bring their imaginations to life.
Rowan Price had been one of those children. And now it was time to show up for her family.
Pieper completes the last leg of the three-hour road trip and makes her way into Haley Toyota Field — a ballpark in Salem, Virginia. It is filled with people paying their respects.
Cotton candy, Barbie dolls and bubble machines. Face painting, pumpkin carving and a coloring station. There is no shortage of things to do.
Women walk around on stilts and a miniature train full of kids makes its way along the baseball dugout. The sound of children’s laughter and Hillsong UNITED worship songs fill the air.
It is not just Pieper who has traveled across state lines for the celebration of life. Other members of A Moment of Magic are there as well.
One of them makes her way up to Rowan’s mom, Mandy, and presents her with a gift from the club. It is a photo album filled with snapshots of Rowan and the many characters who visited her.
Mandy Price hugs her tightly for a couple of minutes and tears up. “It was really hard for her not to cry back,” Pieper said.
That’s the thing. Princesses aren’t supposed to cry — at least, not these princesses. There are too many kids around, peering up at the characters with awe and wondering what is going on.
They have to hold it together. The magic cannot be ruined.
When darkness starts to blot out the sun, people make their way onto the baseball field.
Fireworks canvas the sky and everyone remembers the little girl who came on March 16, 2015 and left on September 15, 2019.
The rare form of Leukemia that had attacked Rowan had required the Price family to relocate to North Carolina for treatment earlier that year.
In between being examined by adults in white coats and being prodded by needles, the members of A Moment of Magic wanted Rowan to be a little girl.
And to live in a world where bad things don’t happen and kids don’t get sick and magic is real.
It’s hard to explain to a professor why you had to skip class, dress up like a princess and drive to another town for a few hours.
But when the phone rings and it is a parent on the line needing a last-minute visit, they are willing to drop everything.
“Our motto is ‘never say no,’” Mackenzie Koontz, a member of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter, said. “I think it is incredible that these girls always step up.”
Elise Hayes remembers visiting Rowan a few months before she passed away. She was not “Elise” to little Rowan. She was “Elsa,” the Snow Queen from Frozen.
“When we came to visit her at home, we had to be super careful about being clean,” Hayes said. “We bought Frozen Elsa socks. We had to wear socks, not our shoes, into her house because she was super immuno-compromised.”
Hayes worried about getting too close to Rowan and exposing her to germs. “We did hug, but we had to be careful,” she said.
It is a good thing that Hayes had studied up on her character and that the scenes of the Frozen movie were cemented into her head. Rowan was sure to have her sing and put on a private performance in the living room.
“I knew that Rowan and her sister Emory liked Pocahontas, so we made these rain sticks with paper towel rolls,” Hayes said, smiling as she recalled another occasion that she visited the family.
Rowan’s hospital room was a mess, with the Pinterest-inspired craft spread out all over the bed. She was delighted that Elsa had taken the time out of her busy schedule to visit her.
“They see the magic in you,” Hayes said.
Right when it seems like everything is falling apart and the clock is ticking, these men and women make time stop.
They cannot make the sickness go away with the snap of their fingers. They cannot promise that everything is going to be OK. They cannot add a day to a child’s life.
But for a few hours, it is magic. Not medication and hospitals, but princesses and hide-and-seek.
Thank you to Mandy and Scott Price for allowing me the opportunity to share this story about your beautiful daughter, Rowan. You can join the Facebook — Rowan Strong! #rowfightwin — by clicking here.
Members of A Moment of Magic are passionate about serving medically vulnerable children. Because of this, they find themselves at a wide range of events — from bedside visits to book readings to sing-a-longs. To learn more about A Moment of Magic and if your college campus has a chapter, click here.