“Ben was gentle, he smiled often,
there was softness in his eyes:
a sweet boy.
And all the while, Ben looked at me
as if I was the one who was special.
As a writer, sometimes by some miracle
you touch someone. But with Ben it was different.
He was the one
who left a lasting mark.”
I recently enjoyed two days visiting Blue Creek Elementary. It was my first time back in schools as a guest author since the pandemic. It was a great pleasure and, always, a privilege. I loved seeing the children and the teachers, hanging out with Abby the librarian, signing books, all of it.
As it happens, I visited Blue Creek 13 years previously, back in 2009.
(Who says I never get invited back to the same place twice?!)
On that day, 13 years ago, I met a boy who I will never forget.
This is that story . . .
His name was Ben and he was waiting for me when I arrived at Blue Creek Elementary. Ben was holding my book, Six Innings, in his hands.
“Could you . . . ?” a teacher asked.
Yes, yes, of course.
So we ducked into the empty library, where Ben and I could have a few moments together. I was told that Ben had osteosarcoma, the same illness contracted by a character, Sam Reiser, in my book.
We talked quietly. I told Ben about my oldest boy, Nicholas, a sixteen-year-old who had gone through five years of chemotherapy. “He’s doing great now,” I said. “Healthy, strong.” Both boys shared the same oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Pearce. I explained that Dr. Pearce helped me with Six Innings, and showed him where I thanked her in the acknowledgments. We agreed that she was very kind.
Ben was gentle, he smiled often, there was softness in his eyes: a sweet boy. And all the while, Ben looked at me as if I was the one who was special. As a writer, sometimes by some miracle you touch someone. But with Ben it was different. He was the one who left a lasting mark — on me and so many others.
I learned last week that Ben passed away, October 12th, 2009. He was nine years old.
I did not attend Ben’s wake. I was told by one of his teachers that among the objects displayed was a signed copy of my book. The story meant something to Ben. He may have related to Sam’s experience. “It’s been so hard,” Sam confided in the book’s last pages. But Ben probably most enjoyed the baseball, the humor, the fun of boys at play.
Ben was probably similar to my Nick. At least that’s what I saw, as I blinked back tears, when I looked into Ben’s eyes. Back when we first gathered to explain to Nick, at age nine, that he had relapsed with leukemia — that the cancer was back — Nick sat and listened quietly. Dr. Pearce laid out the protocol, the path Nick’s life would take over the next two years. This will happen, then this will happen, and then this will happen. Like a story unfolding, though no one could say with certainty how it would end. Dr. Pearce asked if Nick had any questions. Nick did. “Can I go to my friend’s house now?” he asked. That seemed to me, then and now, the perfect reaction.
I saw Ben only twice that day, once alone in a library, once as part of a larger group. But I’m looking at him now.
I’ll always remember the few minutes I spent with Ben Stowell.
Ben’s family has established The Ben Fund to assist other families dealing with childhood cancers, c/o HSBC, Latham Branch, 494 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, NY 12110. Ben leaves behind a twin brother, James, and his parents, Stacey and Tim. My heart goes out to them.
POSTSCRIPT, April, 2022: Ben’s father, Tim, contacted me recently. Time has passed and he’s now in a relationship with a woman who’s child, Charlotte, attends Blue Creek. Charlotte, a 2nd grader, said hello and told me about her connection to Ben. She never had the chance to meet him, but Charlotte knows James, though, Ben’s twin. He’s now in college and thriving. I’m not crying, you’re crying.