INDIANAPOLIS — It's an unforgettable memory for 26-year-old A'Niyah Birdsong — when she was crowned Miss Indiana USA at the Anderson Paramount Theater.
Now, in just 10 days, Birdsong will be standing on the precipice of another life-changing moment: waiting to learn on live television whether she’ll get to wear another crown, this time as Miss USA.
"I would love to win Miss USA," Birdsong said, sitting in the lobby of her apartment building in Indianapolis.
The opportunity is really a dream come true for the IU graduate and native of Anderson, Indiana. That dream, though, now looks different than how she ever imagined. That's because the one person who would usually be in the audience cheering her on — her mom, DeVeta — won't be there.
"It's still mind-boggling to even think about it, but it happened on Halloween, and I stand...and I sit here just wondering why," she said.
Birdsong learned just a few weeks ago that her mom had been killed in a crash on Interstate 465.
"When I heard about the accident, my whole world stopped," she remembered.
Birdsong said she had talked to her mom just a few days before the accident, discussing their excitement about heading to Tulsa for the Miss USA Pageant.
"She told me, she said, 'Hey, Toots, listen, you exceeded every expectation I ever had for you, and I don't want you to put that much pressure on yourself, but just live in the moment and do the best you can,'" Birdsong recalled.
Birdsong said she still plans to follow that advice from her biggest cheerleader, even though she won't get to see the one person who was always in the audience, clapping the loudest for her little girl.
"She was always in that audience cheering me on, and so it's going to be obviously a little bit different this year, but she's there in spirit," Birdsong said.
Birdsong majored in biology at IU and is now a marketer for Eli Lilly. She knows taking the crown without her mom to cheer her on won't be easy, but she's determined to push forward to and prove her message:
"To showcase to others that through perseverance and hard work, you're able to obtain your goals despite the obstacles and challenges that get in your way," she said.
So, despite the challenge of sometimes overwhelming grief, Birdsong will be on that stage, representing Indiana and honoring the woman who's a big reason why she’ll be standing there, proudly.
"I wouldn't have thought this would ever be the outcome, but I just have to remember all the great lessons she always instilled in me and told me, but also live out her legacy on that stage and also make sure I'm representing her in the best way I can," Birdsong said.