At age 11 and fighting cancer, Wayne taught me how to live

Wayne at Watkins Glen International Speedway, which provided his family with free admission. Wayne was a huge NASCAR fan.

Wayne at Watkins Glen International Speedway. He was a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Original version published in July 2013. Wayne died Dec, 2, 2010.

Watching a child die should slap us in the face, provide some perspective as to what’s really important and how we should live our lives.

That’s what my little buddy Wayne did for me. He would have turned 14 this month.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since the cancer took him, but I still think of him a lot. It’s hard not to, when my work takes me to the children’s hospital where Wayne was a patient. Two memories stand out.

April 2010: Wayne had been admitted to the hospital (again) and couldn’t go home for Easter, so Easter came to him. His room looked like Christmas.

Wayne’s mom, grandmother, aunt and cousin were there, but there was barely enough room for them. Wayne had a mini race track set up on the floor, and there were cars and remote controls, toys, Legos, Bionicles and who knows what else all over the place.

But Wayne was sitting on the bed, holding one of his stuffed animals.

Of course I had to pick on him a little bit. That’s how we got along. I asked him why the heck he was playing with a stuffed animal instead of all the “guy stuff.”

Without missing a beat, 11-year-old Wayne gave me a look and said, “Hey, come on, you know every man has his soft side!”

Perfect comeback, perfect timing and delivery . . . just perfect.

Halloween 2010: Every year the children’s hospital holds a Halloween parade for the kids who are inpatients. Doctors, nurses and staff give out goodies to the kids, who dress in costumes and walk or are wheeled to treat stations set up in the halls.

Wayne had a procedure scheduled the morning of the parade, and was nowhere in sight as the fun began. I told his Child Life Specialist that he was downstairs for some tests, but his mom was going to rush him right up afterward.

I recall the Child Life Specialist saying something like, “I hope so. This could be his last Halloween.”

Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital

Wayne during the Halloween parade.

Wayne made it to the parade in plenty of time, dressed like one of his favorite characters, Ghost Rider.

After the parade, I shot some video of him in his room as he went through his bag of goodies and picked out his favorites. After about 90 seconds, Wayne got bored — tired, more likely — and looked directly into the camera. “That’s enough,” he said, without a trace of meanness.

Six weeks later, at 2 a.m., he died at home in his mother’s arms. (He was able to be home for Thanksgiving to enjoy his favorites, stuffing and apple pie.)

When the Child Life Specialist told me the Halloween might be his last, I didn’t want to believe it. I knew Wayne’s leukemia had returned, but he looked strong and was well enough to walk in the parade and get excited about his loot.

But cancer can be ruthless, and it didn’t give in this time.

I thought of Wayne when I read Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” She writes of visiting a friend who is dying of cancer. At the hospital, a nurse tells Anne to pay particular attention to her friend now because “she’s teaching you how to live.”

Wayne was a good teacher. I wish I could have told him I was paying attention.

Wayne, on the first day I met him in early 2010 at Upstate Golisano Children's Hospital in Syracuse, NY.

Wayne, on the first day I met him in early 2010 at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, NY.


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in cancer, children's hospital and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to At age 11 and fighting cancer, Wayne taught me how to live

  1. You have honored his memory well Jim.


  2. markbialczak says:

    Your anecdotes about time shared with wonderful Wayne reveal that he knew, Jim. Oh, how he knew. I will think of your friend as I watch the NASCAR guys on TV from Watkins Glen in a couple weeks.


  3. Mike Dodge says:

    Wayne was my nephew. Born when I was just 9 years old. And then when I was 15 my parents, sister and I moved from new york to florida. Mostly seeing him only on holidays and birthdays and special occasions, Thus not giving me nearly as much time with him as I could hope for. But I do have many fond memories. Mostly I remember his glowing and loving spirit. He had more integrety and heart than anyone I’ve ever met. He was genuinely special. Thank you for sharing this it was truely amazing to read. Seeing him through these great memories you’ve shared is the best way to remember/honor him now. Again and sincerely thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thank you for sharing that. You are absolutely correct about Wayne. I was privileged to know him for only about 10 months, but he taught an old man a great deal in that period of time. I do think about him quite often (and with a smile), and I stay in touch with Angie. I know from what I saw at his service and other events that he had a ton of friends. I like to think that those young people will remember Wayne forever and grow up to be kind and thoughtful people, just like he was. Wayne set the bar pretty high, and that’s a good thing. Take care, Jim

      Liked by 2 people

  4. ksbeth says:

    what a beautiful story about this brave and beautiful boy. thanks for sharing wayne’s story, we learn so much from these incredible children.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A beautiful tribute Jim. Cancer sucks and losing someone so young to it is horrible. What a brave young man. I’m sure he knew you were paying attention Jim. ❤
    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for introducing us to Wayne. Quite a powerful telling Jim. Such a brave young person, too soon passed.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Cancer is cruel. Your tribute to Wayne is a precious reminder of how much we should appreciate life and those around us. He sounds like a very special little guy.

    I also love Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” – many good lessons in that book. 😉


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