Imagine for a minute that your worst nightmare is coming true. Your four-year-old daughter has just passed away after a long battle with brain cancer, and you struggle with how to take your next breath, take your next step, live your next day. You grieve, but only in small doses because your daughter left behind two older brothers and one younger one, all of whom need your love to fill the hole the tragedy has left in their hearts.
Years pass, and even though you lovingly keep your daughter's memory alive, you and your family slowly begin to recover and build a life that looks like normal from the outside. You do the things that all parents do, waking the boys early for school, shuttling them from one practice to another, sitting patiently beside them at the homework table, and whispering silent prayers as you tuck them in at night. Sadly, most of us know a family who has suffered through a story like that, but this is about a family that is living through the nightmare for a second time.
Jalen was nine years old when his younger sister passed away, and in the four years since then he has grown to become an amazing young man. I have taught middle school English for eighteen years, getting to know roughly two thousand students in that time, but I have never met a boy like Jalen.
We first got to know Jalen a year and a half ago when Alison joined the track team that his father coached. Jalen immediately took Alison under his wing, teaching her how to stretch and explaining various drills. Within a few weeks it was clear that Alison was suffering from her first crush, but I couldn't disapprove -- I had a bit of a crush on Jalen, too.
Never had I met a boy who was so incredibly mature and polite. He was only twelve at the time, but he was perfectly comfortable holding a conversation with an adult, and he was considerate beyond belief. He played football and lacrosse, but his strongest sport was probably track and field, where he qualified for the U.S. Nationals. And to top it all off, he earned straight A's on every report card.
A few months ago we got the news that Jalen, like his sister before him, had been diagnosed with an incredibly aggressive form of brain cancer. The nightmare was beginning again. All of us were devastated, and when I spoke with Jalen's mother, she said what any of us would have said: "I don't know how this can be happening again -- first my only daughter, and then my first-born child."
For his part, Jalen took the news well. When I sat with him soon after his diagnosis, he didn't seem sad or depressed, but instead spoke calmly of a desire to start a foundation in his sister's memory. He told me that maybe he had been given cancer so that doctors would be able to push closer to a cure for the disease -- not for him, but for others who would come after him. He worried about his parents, his brothers, and his friends, but he never once thought about himself. As we spoke, I kept thinking one thing: this thirteen-year-old boy is handling this better than I would, and I'm three times his age.
Jalen and his mother are currently at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, but we're looking forward to his return home later this month. It's not clear what the future holds for Jalen, but as he told me, he still has work to do here.
Even before his illness, Jalen had made a profound impact on my life, but he has impressed me even more in the last few months. If you'd like to read more about Jalen, including some of his own reflections on his condition, please visit the website that my wife Leslie created, JalensJourney.org. You can make a donation to the family, but even a simple note of support could make a huge difference. Please let Jalen know that he's not alone.