When the family celebrated the twins’ birthday in June of 2010, it was “pretty low key,” said their mom, Missy. After all, Ethan, one of the twins, had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in January and was being treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
It wasn’t a time for commemorating milestones so much as it was coping with the day-to-day of childhood cancer.
But a day or two later, Ethan gathered up his birthday money and approached his parents. Newly 8 years old and bald from the effects of treatment, he said a remarkable thing for his age and circumstances:
“When we’re at the hospital again, can you please give it to the man in charge so he can help someone else?”
A few weeks later, when Ethan was participating in a photo shoot at the hospital, he saw him, the man in charge — Richard C. Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude.
As his parents stood out of the way to let Ethan have his moment, the boy approached Shadyac, handed him a by-now-tattered envelope containing $10 or $15, and said: “I want to give this to you to help sick kids.”
St. Jude treasures all its donors. But for an 8-year-old boy with cancer to give his own money to help others? Shadyac told Ethan’s parents he was overwhelmed, Missy said.
A few months later, it would be the other twin’s turn. This was Cooper. He was the fortunate twin, the one who didn’t get cancer. But in a way, Missy said at the time, it was more difficult for Cooper, trying to process it all, trying to figure out how to feel. He was scared for Ethan, but also scared for himself — what if he got sick, too? And Ethan was suddenly getting all the attention. Something had come between the twins, something big — cancer.
“He didn’t know whether to be sad, scared, angry, jealous, all of that,” Missy said in a 2010 interview. “In a lot of ways, it was more difficult to deal with Cooper, because there wasn’t anything tangible to hold onto. With Ethan, we knew what we were dealing with and how the doctors were going to deal with it.”
So imagine, with all that weight upon him, 8-year-old Cooper approaching Shadyac late that same year with his own gift for the kids of St. Jude. It was $50 he’d earned from doing chores for his grandparents.
This is a story well worth telling now, 10 years later, because Ethan and Cooper are graduates of the high school class of 2020. Because what wish do we always have for our graduates? Not just to do well in life, but to do good.
Ethan and Cooper had that figured out years ago.