For Children Lost Too Soon to Childhood Cancer
Sammy's Memorial Garden
Friendship Table in memory of Kaelan
Published in ChicagoNow, February 27, 2014
I don’t know my fellow ChicagoNow blogger, Mary Tyler Mom, but I do know that childhood cancer takes the lives of too many beautiful children like her beloved Donna Day. Reading the 31 installments of Donna’s Cancer Story left me with an ache I can’t describe.
Donna’s mom wrote, “It's hard to grasp and capture the suspended nature of those weeks Donna was in school. I felt like such a Mom.” Those words took me back to 2003, when I was director of Cherry Preschool, and I had to help our preschool community mourn the deaths of two of our own children, Sammy and Kaelan, to cancer. So I join the Donna Day Tributes to tell you that, sadly, kids get cancer too.
Nothing in my 17 years as a preschool director up to that year prepared me for how to write obituaries for little boys. There was no seminar on how to help teachers and parents talk to their preschoolers about a child’s death. Even though 11 years have passed, nothing erases the images burned in my mind of Sammy’s small casket being lowered into the grave and Kaelan’s tiny glasses being carried by a child down the church aisle during his mass.
It truly takes a village to handle such an unimaginable loss. Throughout the 2002-03 school year, our parents and teachers came together to support Sammy’s and Kaelan’s families. Everybody knew these remarkable boys. They had younger siblings attending Cherry Preschool. They had been at the school prior to that year and were now in the pre-kindergarten classes. The entire community was touched by this unthinkable tragedy.
Even though neither boy made it to kindergarten, they came to preschool as often as possible that last year. What an awesome responsibility we all felt to make their final year of schooling the best it could be. Their classmates understood they were sometimes tired and sometimes too sick to come to school. When they did come, I know they felt the love of their peers.
Sammy died on June 7, 2003, following a three-year battle with neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer. He had been a very special member of our preschool community for two years, beloved by teachers and classmates. He and his family taught us so much about how to carry on with bravery, heart, and even humor in the face of great adversity. Sammy had a passion for learning and wisdom far beyond his five years. He was a very bright child with a wide range of interests and knowledge. He knew more about Egypt, nature, gardening, and planets than any adult at the school. When he couldn’t play or come to school, books were his world. His teachers called him “the little professor” and learned many scientific facts from him. We were not surprised Sammy finished the school year with his classmates and died the week after. That was so like him to not want his friends to deal with the pain of losing him just as they were also saying goodbye to preschool.
To honor Sammy’s memory, his parents established a fund to create a beautiful garden and mosaic. Sammy’s Garden still graces the front entrance to the school. We dedicated the 2003-04 curriculum to a school-wide focus sharing Sammy’s love of nature, gardening, and science.
Four months later, Kaelan, died on October 13, 2003. Although he was diagnosed with leukemia during his first year of preschool, Kaelan fought his disease bravely for all four years he attended Cherry Preschool. He loved school and often insisted on attending, even when he was too tired to stay awake or play on the playground. He loved making hearts out of construction paper for his teachers and friends (so they’d remember him). While Kaelan’s life was brief, it was filled with laughter, sharing, singing, playing and loving. He frequently came to the aid of his friends who were sad or needing comfort and thought of himself as “just a regular kid.” Kaelan was an incredibly friendly child with a generous spirit and inclusive, accepting attitude. He always took the time to stop in the office to share a funny story about his little brothers or to tell us a joke. Kaelan embodied the spirit of giving, and even during the most difficult moments of his medical struggles, he made sure others around him were happy.
To honor Kaelan’s memory, parents and teachers transformed our meeting room into Kaelan's Community Room. The centerpiece of this transformation was the Friendship Table, which included art from each classroom, sayings that represented Kaelan’s spirit, and a smattering of the construction paper hearts he gave to so many of us. In addition to Kaelan’s photo, the walls hold many photos of Cherry children being friends, donated by a parent who was a professional photographer. Like Sammy’s Garden, this room is an integral part of the preschool 11 years later.
I am eternally grateful to Hospice of the North Shore (now Care Dimensions) for helping the preschool staff through this tough time. They taught us to be honest with the children, to use the correct words, and to only give more detailed information if the children asked. They helped us prepare a packet with information about how to deal with death for young children. They conducted workshops for staff and parents and provided emotional support for our grieving village. Like Donna's parents, we used the book Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way to Explain Life and Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert R. Ingpen with our children and families. Over the years that followed, it was often lent to families struggling with deaths of loved ones.
Sammy and Kaelan left me with the enduring message of grace and strength in the face of adversity. Like Donna Day, they were kids who deserved better. Our preschool community learned to live the words Donna’s mom wrote,
“If you see a bald child, smile. Look their parent in the eye. Let them know you understand. Be aware that you are looking at greatness. Know that kid is amazing and brave and so very, heartbreakingly vulnerable. Just like Donna.”
Donna's parents honor her memory through a charity that they established called Donna’s Good Things. The charity works to provide joyful opportunities for children facing adversity and also creates an online supportive community for afflicted families.