When Ken and Kim were casting around for baby names, they found an African word meaning "prayed for": Oni.
It was fitting. The couple had prayed diligently for a child to enter their lives. And now, 14 years later, said Ken, “Oni has lived up to that billing, because throughout his life we’ve been praying for something for him.”
In 2015, when Oni was in fourth grade, he began to suffer excruciating headaches: likely migraines, they were told. Kim saw her son’s pain and decided to take him to a neurologist, who saw a brain tumor sitting on Oni’s optic nerve and crowding his pituitary gland. At that, Kim said, “the bottom of my world fell out."
Surgeons were able to remove a third of Oni’s brain tumor. But because it was cancerous — juvenile pylocytic astrocytoma — he also underwent a long year-and-a-half of chemotherapy. With this finally behind them, Oni's family believed they were across the goal line.
“We thought we were done,” said Kim. “We thought he was cured.”
In 2018, the headaches returned.
Some things to know about Oni: His passion is football, and he’s a running back. To be good, running backs have to quickly adapt to the play and be able to take a hit when one comes their way. Oni has the qualities of a good running back.
“He’s been through so much,” said Kim, “and he’s never complained. He’s like, 'OK, whatever I have to do about my brain tumor, I am willing to do.' He is such a remarkable young man.”
In autumn 2019, when it was discovered that Oni’s tumor had tripled in size, it was a massive blow. He had just started his freshman year of high school. With his doctors recommending three to four more years of chemotherapy, it appeared that, in one of the best-case scenarios, he might graduate while still in treatment. When the family sought the opinion of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, they found an alternative: proton therapy.
“That one conversation changed everything,” said Kim. “The doctor we talked to at St. Jude said that since proton therapy is not irradiating the whole brain, but just targeting the tumor, it has fewer side effects than traditional photon radiation. And she said Oni was the ideal candidate. We all left that meeting saying, 'Yes, we are in the right place.' The extraordinary team at St. Jude knew what they were doing, and they were the answer to our prayers.”
A foundation of gratitude
Here’s a riddle for you. Your only child has brain cancer. He could go blind, or die. You must leave your spouse behind and travel 465 miles from home during the COVID-19 pandemic so your son can receive a form of radiation to his brain because chemo didn’t keep the tumor from growing. Is the glass half empty or half full?
If you are Kim or Ken or Oni, it is neither half empty nor half full, it runneth over.
Gratitude is so foundational to this family’s way of life, no hardship in their path has been able to turn them into “why me” people. They are grateful for the type of cancer Oni has and have lifted many prayers of thanksgiving for how fortunate they are, because it could be so much worse.
“To me, the whole purpose of life is to steer you towards God," said Ken. "Our situation could be something that’s going to encourage someone else. So you can’t just say why me? Because why not you? If your purpose is to go through a bunch of trials and tribulations, then so be it. Go through that. But you’re not going through it alone.”
Oni composed these lyrics while at St. Jude: “Got people praying for me every day, man I am glad… I got God and he’ll show me where to go… When I’m stuck here thinking how am I gonna grow… No brakes, just look at our milestones.”
Kim, who was with Oni at St. Jude for the eight weeks he received proton therapy, isn’t claiming they breezed through it. Being without Oni’s dad during this time was tough on both of them. Going into it, she was so emotionally frayed, she developed a mantra to keep from unraveling: Breathe. Pray. Be brave.
“Give thanks” went without saying.
A good story
Recently, Oni returned to St. Jude for his 90-day post-treatment checkup, and to good news. The tumor is shrinking and vision in his right eye, which had been reduced by tumor growth, is now 20/40.
Having been reunited with his friends and his dad and his dogs, Oni is now most looking forward to next season, when he can return to the field with his team. “Oni’s dream is to play professional football,” said Ken.
But a father’s dreams for his son are seldom held to 100 yards. Ken would like to see his son enjoy football, but also earn a degree that can help launch him in a career with longevity where he can not only do well, but do good for others.
Whatever the future holds, Ken is assured of this: “Oni’s story is a good story.” A hopeful story, an encouraging story, a meaningful story and a success story.
Because when gratitude is the game plan, the score changes before your eyes. You realize you’re doing better than you thought. Gratitude is sometimes hard, but always worthwhile, work. Like football, like prayer, it takes practice.