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'If it's the last one she gets to see, I want it to be the best one she's ever seen.'

BEECH GROVE — Among the pregame rituals Holly Garrett shares with her older sister Jennifer Brunner is one borrowed from an old Coca-Cola commercial. Before parting ways during warm-ups, the two lock their pinkies together through the fencing and make a promise, then kiss their thumbs to lock it in.

The conversation that precedes their gesture rarely involves softball — they try to keep Holly’s mind off the upcoming game — but that wasn’t the case ahead of Beech Grove's mid-April game vs. Triton Central. Holly, the Hornets third baseman, was already on edge with it being a conference game and having an IndyStar photographer in attendance only furthered her nerves.

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You’re always being dramatic, so just pretend it’s a reality TV show, Jennifer told her.

So with that, the sisters made two promises. The first was for Holly to play for their late grandmother, who died of dementia a couple years ago (their grandfather was in attendance). The second was to dedicate the game to Jennifer, who has been battling various forms of cancer over the past four years.

She learned the disease spread to her stomach a couple of weeks earlier.

Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) and Jennifer Brunner pinky promise and kiss their thumbs Wednesday, April 17, 2024, ahead of the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.
Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) and Jennifer Brunner pinky promise and kiss their thumbs Wednesday, April 17, 2024, ahead of the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.

It had been a couple rough weeks, the siblings agreed, but if Jennifer could go through chemotherapy and still show up for Holly's game, then surely Holly could survive a couple hours in front of the camera.

With that, the two locked pinkies through the netting behind home plate and kissed their thumbs to lock in the promises.

"(Jennifer) is my rock. She's my sister. She's like my second mom," Holly said. "She'd do anything for me and I'd do anything for her."

Committed to Iowa Lakes Community College for softball and wrestling, Holly shined her senior year, tallying two assists from the back line in soccer, qualifying for semistate in wrestling and helping softball repeat as sectional champion, setting career-highs in average (.359), runs (30) and RBIs (17) — and scoring the winning run in the sectional final.

Sports have provided some refuge, distracting Holly from her sister's cancer battle and the additional responsibilities she and their mother have taken on to help Jennifer, her husband and their two children.

But there are days when she's at softball and it's all she can think about.

"I don't think I've ever told my sister this, but I play every game for her. Everything I do is for her," Holly said. "If it's the last one she gets to see, I want it to be the best one she's ever seen. If I'm not doing very well. I feel like I'm letting her down."

Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) yells in excitement after scoring Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.
Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) yells in excitement after scoring Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.

Holly has always been a fighter, Jennifer said of her adopted sister, who was 3 pounds at birth with a head "smaller than a softball." And while Holly has drawn strength from how Jennifer has continued fighting even as the cancer spreads, ask Jennifer, their mom Joan or anyone else, and they'll tell you how Holly's perseverance inspires them daily and what a blessing she's been in their lives.

"It's made her stronger," Beech Grove softball coach Kacy Ferrell said. "Holly knows what her sister's fighting and it's made her face some things head-on, but she's coming out on top. I don't know many teenagers who could respond like she has. … She's a strong kid."

'Their connection was just automatic'

Among Joan's collection of photos is one of Holly before a state tournament event wearing a yellow Howe High School shirt with "Hornets" across the chest. The youngster didn't know what she was cheering for, Joan recalled, "but she knew Jen was cheering, so that's what she was going to do, too."

Adopted by her great aunt Joan as an infant, Holly was the sister Jennifer always wanted, someone to look after and help guide through life. In describing the girls' relationship, Joan recalled another photo, one of Jennifer looking caringly at Holly. "Their connection was just automatic," she said. They're each other's best friend and their continued bond speaks to who Holly is as a person: "A good friend who knows to be there."

Stories of Jennifer and Holly growing up often involved hijinx and for Joan, a couple panicked calls from Jennifer as she rushed a bruised and bloodied Holly to the hospital.

"She's probably going to get mad at me about this, but Jennifer was the worst babysitter ever," Holly said with a cheeky grin.

Jennifer once placed a package on the counter and while her back was turned, a 3-year-old Holly managed to climb up, grab the box and stick a metal binding into an electrical outlet — all in a matter of seconds.

At age 4, Holly jumped out of her playpen while they were watching a movie and busted her head open. "It was the funniest thing because (Jennifer) freaked out," she laughed.

"I also remember whenever my mom was working late, Jen would get me off the bus, take me to the pool and spend time with me," Holly continued. "Then at night, we would lay on the red couch and watch movies, and she'd rub my arm to calm me down and help me fall asleep."

Holly's love for softball was also inspired by Jennifer. She was a staple at her older sister's games, with her sunglasses earning her the nickname "Hollywood" from the Howe players.

Joan couldn't afford softball lessons for Holly, so Jennifer — a standout player herself — worked with her instead, playing catch and working through various drills to help hone her skills.

Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2), (from left), talks to her sister Jennifer Brunner and her mother Joan Garrett through the net Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.
Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2), (from left), talks to her sister Jennifer Brunner and her mother Joan Garrett through the net Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.

Jennifer had an opportunity to play college softball in Illinois. But after spending the summer between her junior and senior year looking after Holly and two of their cousins while her mom worked two jobs and their aunt battled cancer for a second time, the senior-to-be re-examined her priorities.

"Softball was a huge part of me, a life-long passion," Jennifer said. "But when Holly came into my life, she became my top concern. I wanted her to have a better life." They needed each other, Jennifer continued. So she opted to stay home and go to college in Indianapolis so she could help raise Holly.

"I don't regret my decision," Jennifer said. "I love being a mom, I love being a sister and I love going to Holly's games. That's who I am. I love being there. … And getting to see Holly set a goal, then work hard to get there — to me that's one of the best feelings."

"Jennifer has always told me since I was little, don't let anyone get in your way of leaving and pursuing your dreams. 'Go do what you want to do,'" Holly added. "She's inspired me to be the best I can."

'Just focus on getting better'

The warning signs appeared late in Holly's freshman year.

Jennifer was diagnosed with ovarian cancer shortly after the birth of her second child and underwent a hysterectomy in March 2021. She and Joan tried to protect Holly by limiting what information they shared, but rather than easing the burden, it made things worse, leaving her feeling isolated as her mind went to the worst-case scenario.

Holly's grades were falling and she wasn't eating, Jennifer said. She was disinterested in sports and most everything else, opting instead to stay in her room for hours on end.

She was quiet and not at all the person they knew.

"My sister doesn't want me to worry; doesn't want (bad news) to affect my school or performance in a game," Holly said. "It's a good feeling to know she cares about me, but at the same time, I just want to be there for her and support her through it."

Jennifer Brunner takes photos during the game while sitting next to her mother Joan Garrett on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.
Jennifer Brunner takes photos during the game while sitting next to her mother Joan Garrett on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, during the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.

Jennifer remembers her sister "pepping up" after the two sat down to discuss survival rates following Jennifer's initial kidney cancer diagnosis. Then last year, two days before Jennifer's 30th birthday, doctors informed her there was minimal spread and she was in remission.

"That's when I saw Holly come back to life," Jennifer said.

Unfortunately, doctors discovered last September the kidney cancer had aggressively returned and Jennifer had multiple tumors: Three on her spine, one on her stomach and another at the base of her skull.

They successfully shrank the tumor at the base of Jennifer's skull, but another has developed on her lung and is currently inoperable. The tumors on her spine cannot be removed because it would likely lead to complete paralysis from the neck down and could leave her susceptible to further spread, so she underwent focused radiation and chemotherapy for 8-10 hours per day on an almost daily basis.

Doctors recently discovered further spread, forcing Jennifer to be hospitalized earlier this week. "It's a survival game," she said.

For four years, Jennifer Brunner has been battling cancer. Between treatments, she still goes to every softball game to support her sister Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) and takes pictures for the Hornets. Brunner takes pictures Wednesday, April 17, 2024, ahead of the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.
For four years, Jennifer Brunner has been battling cancer. Between treatments, she still goes to every softball game to support her sister Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) and takes pictures for the Hornets. Brunner takes pictures Wednesday, April 17, 2024, ahead of the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.

"It's really scary, because you never know when it's going to end," Holly added.

How have you handled it?

"I try to always be in the present," Holly replied. "That's what I tell (Jennifer), just focus on getting better and then we can worry about everything else."

'I want this to be one of our memories'

Holly expects perfection of herself. Anything short of that is frustratingly unacceptable.

So imagine Joan's confusion when her daughter — moments after being pinned within a minute of her first high school wrestling match — ran over smiling from ear-to-ear.

"I didn't think she knew what happened," Joan laughed.

"Oh yeah, I got my butt whooped by this girl who's wrestling in college now," confirmed Holly, who won two of her next three matches that day. "But I did not care. I got off the mat, went to my mom and I was like, that was so fun."

Joan had resisted Holly's pleas to join the boys wrestling team when she was younger over concerns for her daughter's safety. But she was one of the first to sign up when Beech Grove started a girls team last year and upon seeing Holly's reaction following that first match: "That's when I knew this was her sport."

Something about wrestling "brings Holly back to herself," Joan continued. She loves soccer and softball, but she's truly in her element on the mat. Holly is in control there, able to dictate the outcome through her actions and decisions.

"It's just you. You can't lean on anybody else," said Holly, whose fastest pin stands at 24 seconds and whose resume includes a 2023-24 regional runner-up finish. "It makes me feel accomplished."

Holly's senior season helped her find a new perspective. Rather than let Jennifer's cancer battle weigh her down, she used it as motivation. I want her to see me at my best. I want this to be one of our memories.

"We've both embraced it," Jennifer said. "We're spending time together and using the moments we do have to focus on the good instead of being sad, because those aren't the memories we want."

'Holly is my hero'

Holly and her nieces had a ritual for saying goodbye every morning before she left for school. And days when they overslept and missed seeing her off began with heartbreak and cries from Jozie, Jennifer's oldest daughter, that "'Yah Yah' will be gone forever."

As soon as Holly returns home, Jazmine and Jozie drop whatever they're doing and run to her, embracing the recent Beech Grove graduate as if they haven't seen her in years. She's their best friend, Joan said. Their hero, Jennifer added.

Holly masterfully balances her nieces very different interests during playtime, catering to Jozie's love for princesses and Jazmine's affinity for dinosaurs without favoring one over the other. When it's time for bed, the trio have a 10-15-minute routine before settling in for the night (they usually sleep with their aunt).

"It's all come full-circle," Holly smiled, pointing out the 13-year age gap between her and both Jennifer and Jozie. "It's like a breath of fresh air, the youthfulness and the love they have for me."

The past few years have been like a roller coaster for Holly. She's managed to maintain course both athletically and academically — she made it to all her practices and games — but her home life is clouded with uncertainty.

Even the smallest bit of shrinkage is positive news, Holly said. "But when you hear, 'Oh, there's another one,' or when it came back after she was fully in remission and everything was better, it's really scary, because you never know when it's going to end."

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Holly draws strength from how Jennifer has continued fighting for her daughters; Jennifer has established mile markers with Holly's major life events: The first game of her senior year, then senior night and graduation, followed by sectionals and beyond.

Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) and Jennifer Brunner pinky promise and kiss their thumbs Wednesday, April 17, 2024, ahead of the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.
Beech Grove Hornets Holly Garrett (2) and Jennifer Brunner pinky promise and kiss their thumbs Wednesday, April 17, 2024, ahead of the game at Beech Grove High School in Beech Grove.

Jennifer made it to nearly every one of Holly's softball games this year, including senior night and Tuesday's regional final, both of which were preceded by hospital stays.

But the ultimate goal is to see Holly play in college.

"Holly has survived things at 18 that others never would be able to and used it as determination to not waste this chance she's been given," Jennifer said. "I'm so proud of her. … She's my hero."

Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Beech Grove softball's Holly Garrett perseveres through sister's cancer