Chasing a Wish

Chase_240My son Chase’s tenth birthday wish was to go visit his eleven-year-old cousin, Dylan, at the local children’s hospital. Dylan couldn’t make it to Chase’s birthday party, having started chemo. That Chase was quiet on the ride home was not a surprise. It was a shock to see not just Dylan – swollen and not his usual vibrant self – but all the kids on the cancer ward. Before this day, we didn’t know there was a whole floor dedicated to children with cancer. We thought it was rare. Isn’t that what they say?

When we got home, Chase looked at me and said, “I have cancer too. I look like Dylan. I look like all of them.” He pulled up his shirt to show me his distended stomach. We spiraled from there, trying to calm his fears, assuring him the tests were going to show an aggravated hernia from a slide into second during his All-Star Baseball game the week before. A natural athlete, Chase had been so excited to start the fifth grade. His favorite class was gym, and he was going to be the P.E. aide.

But that dream wasn’t meant to be. Instead, on that first day of school we were back in the hospital, in a room beside Dylan, preparing for our own fight, or as Chase called it: Chasing the Cure. Chase was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare (there was THAT word again) aggressive cancer. Seven months of chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplant, and more chemo that ensued, could not conquer the beast. His spirits never dampened, though his body certainly did. One of his big regrets during it all was his inability to be there to help his gym teacher. He was concerned the basketballs wouldn’t stay aired-up without him.

As his body burned, swelled, and peeled, our whole town banded together asking Chase what he needed, what he wished for. Every time, he would smile and say, “Nothing. Give to someone who needs it more.”

I had all these dreams when I was younger: what I wanted to see, places I wanted to go, the things I wanted to do, what I wanted to become. Until I heard the words, “You’re pregnant.” It was in that moment I knew I had only scratched the surface of my dreams, because of the life that I had inside me. All at once, it was no longer my dreams I dared to dream, but the dreams of my son. I watched him grow and tell me at night all the things he wanted to be, like the ice-cream truck man, the Red Power Ranger, or an astronaut. Only he couldn’t be, because that would mean he would have to be far away from me. Even if it was only for a day, it was too long.

I dreamed these dreams with him and let him choose his path. Never once did I think that path would be sitting around a hospital bed one day, where Chase would ultimately choose his fate as the doctors said “There is nothing more we can do.”

My ten-year-old looked at the doctors and calmly said, “I need to speak to my parents. Can we have a few minutes?” like we would be discussing the weather. I watched the doctors who had worked so diligently for seven months go to the hall and sink to the floor as their bodies were shaking with grief.

We had two choices: undergo radiation for two weeks that may buy us a little more time at home before he passed, without the side effects of chemo. Or restart chemo and have only a 3% chance of it working, getting us maybe a month more than the radiation might.

Chase looked at his dad and asked, “What would you do?” His father said, “I would fight to the very end.” He looked at me and asked “What would you do?” I answered, “As your mother, I say we fight.” He grabbed my hand and said, “But what would YOU do?”. With a shaky voice, I mustered up enough courage to say, “I would look at every side, and if there wasn’t a chance to be better, I wouldn’t want to make myself sicker in what days I had left.”

He nodded his head and said, “That’s what I want. I want to go home and see my puppy.” His dad asked, “Do you know what that means? Do you know what you are saying?”. Chase took both of our hands and said, “It means I’m going to die. And it’s okay. I’m ready.”

That’s not the dreams and wishes that I had for my son. Once again, he showed me a greater plan, by letting go of my dreams for ones that are set in motion. After he made his decision to do the two weeks of radiation and go home, he asked, “NOW can I give my wish to someone else?” Chase decided he wanted new sports equipment for his favorite class at school: gym. He wanted to make sure his gym teacher would be okay without her aide there to help.

We only had seven more days with Chase before he passed away. Radiation didn’t slow the growth of his tumors, and he never made it home. But two days after his passing, over 100 volunteers showed up at his school to make his dream come true. His presence and likeness are painted on the walls, playing different sports, emblazoned with his favorite number: eight. Sports equipment was donated, and a new sound system installed. It all happened on a Saturday, because Chase didn’t want his friends to miss any gym time because of the renovations. It may not have been exactly like his dream of being an aide, but the Chase Donnell Memorial Gym does have a pretty special little angel helping the gym teacher every day.

Chase’s selflessness sparked a fire in the community. Funds were raised, people volunteered, the community became aware that childhood cancer was, in fact, not so rare. With some news outlets picking up the story, with people like you reading this, the world got a chance to see firsthand how one unselfish act could change things.

People often ask us how Chase had such clarity at just 10 years old. We have no answer, other than that was just Chase. He loved all others and all things more than himself. It wasn’t a thought-out process to show love and patience, but a natural gracefulness. He would always put forth his best effort to succeed, yet would stop and help a fellow friend before crossing the finish line if that friend’s need was greater than his own. He was funny and playful. Those big brown eyes were always shining with laughter.

He was golden. A ray of light that shined on anyone that came into his path. A light that has proven to shine on even in death.

By Jennifer Dunn

Stand Up to Cancer Blog
March 21, 2013
Jennifer Dunn is a childhood cancer advocate and community volunteer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee with two of her three children, Noah, 10, and Gracie-Belle, 9. She strives daily to keep her other son’s memory alive by fundraising to Chase The Cure and reaching out to other families whose lives are touched by cancer. You can read about Chase’s battle at http://carepages.com/chaserdonnell