RALEIGH — Anthony Bryant stood back in the crowd, a big man in a pastel-lit crush of young families and the odd juggling gymnast. Bryant looked through all this, past the shimmering leotards and the acrobats who sometimes soared on cables into the open air of the PNC Arena above.
He watched as a gang of clowns wheeled his son, Anthony Bryant Jr., through the carnival on the arena floor, a prelude to the circus proper. Like the clowns, Anthony Jr. wore rouge and painted eyebrows, pinstripes and a bow-tie. Sometimes the 14-year-old and his painted posse stopped to pose for pictures, Anthony Jr. always in his wheelchair at the center of the frame.
For his father, these surreal minutes – like the last couple years, really – floated in the vulnerable space between something terrible and something beautiful.
Anthony Jr. has lost his right leg from the knee down to osteosarcoma, a form of cancer, and the future is unclear. This was his second visit to the circus, and from afar he looked serenely happy.
“I’m happy for him. I’m happy to see him happy,” said Bryant, a heavy-equipment operator, pausing a second. “It’s been a long fight. A long, hard fight.”
The Bryants drove 45 minutes from Wilson to meet the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. Felicia Bryant, Anthony Bryant, Anthony Jr. and his younger sister came with a few helpers. Their support network invited a reporter and photographer, to tell a story about Anthony Jr.
Anthony Jr.’s story
From the beginning, Anthony Jr. knew what he wanted.
“When we do the interview, don’t talk about any of the medical stuff. I don’t want to talk about any of the medical stuff,” he said, waiting in the VIP lobby to meet his clown escorts. “I want to talk about the fun stuff.”
The garishly dressed boss clown, Taylor the Tailor, arrived a few minutes later, then whisked Anthony Jr. and company into the arena’s concrete underbelly.
“Today,” he said, “we’ll make you look kind of like me.”
Taylor the Tailor applied the layers expertly, brushing and smearing make-up as the adults watched from a safe distance and a girlish clown sprang about.
Anthony Jr. smiled for the flashing cameras, but he didn’t betray much emotion at first.
When the sequined, sparkling clothes came out, though, his amusement was unmistakable.
“It’s like there’s nothing wrong with him. That’s what keeps us going through, to me,” his father said.
Taylor the Tailor told Anthony Jr. that the show has 18 tigers. Anthony Jr. nervously asked if he would have to meet them.
A few months ago, Anthony Jr. decided that he didn’t want to continue with a series of surgeries that had attempted to excise the illness from him. Each time they’ve tried, the cancer has returned. Radiation therapy, which they haven’t yet tried, is something of a last unexplored hope.
‘It’s all we can do’
In the meantime, the Bryants want to live. The couple of 20 years say they want to make memories of game nights and basketball games and the circus. Their friends, including people like Felicia Bryant’s boss, Donna Dawson, are pitching in, looking for ways to make each day more unique.
“It’s all we can do,” Anthony Bryant said. “ ... I’m helpless.”
Make-up and wardrobe finished, the group set off through the arena’s service hallways, Anthony Jr. and his sister Tanisha leading the way. More performers passed as they approached the arena floor, and the kids collected signatures as they met the rest of the 13 entertainers in the clown brigade.
“I like your costume,” said the outfit’s most senior clown, kneeling next to Anthony Jr.
“I like yours too,” Anthony Jr. replied.
The last stiff formality disappeared as the group reached the soon-to-be circus floor. The Bryants stepped back, watching from a distance as the clowns carted their son through the mob of people who had arrived for a pre-show party.
“You could do that,” Anthony Bryant told his wife as a neon gymnast twirled through the crowd. At this they cracked up.
“To me, it feels normal,” Felicia Bryant said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
With the pre-show winding down, the crowd on the floor filed up to the stadium seats. The Bryants stayed on the floor as crew members secured the last of the cables and wires.
“I’m kinda nervous, but not really nervous,” Anthony Jr. said as he prepared for his big appearance. “I like to sing – I like to be on stage.”
He’s also president of his middle school. “It’s been wonderful, wonderful,” he said.
Then a glittering hostess wheeled him to center stage, and the clowns gathered around. She handed him the microphone and asked him “what’s up?”
“Not much,” he said. “I’m glad to be here.”
Then he welcomed the crowd to the greatest show on earth, and the horses and elephants paraded out.
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC