Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By A. R. Vander Vegt
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

A journey of faith, family, friends


December 27, 2018

A. R. Vander Vegt

Jack with his wish granters, Travis and Lacy, at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth.

"Sometimes beautiful things can rise from the destruction," Jason and Mel said.

Their 11-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer - something that destroys everything in its path, they said. Even if you survive its icy grip, you and those around you will never be the same.

But beauty can rise from destruction, like blossoms in the spring emerging from the frozen ground and flora growing once again after a fire.

Jason recounted that day they were given Jack's diagnosis. Jack had received brain surgery at the end of October 2017, an emergency operation after a brain bleed was discovered in Moose Lake during a CT scan.

About 10 days later, Jack was sitting in a room with his parents and his younger sister.

"I feel like God gave me a lens to look through to strengthen the journey ahead," Jason said. In that room, they were waiting for the diagnosis. Nothing was confirmed, but everything was suspected.

This is the lens Jason was given: "I thought about how often in sports, a team comes up against a rival that they aren't supposed to be able to defeat." The underdog, in the eleventh hour so to speak, changes how they are playing. "They go from doing what gave them the potential to win to instead playing 'not to lose.'"

With this picture in his heart, Jason and Mel were summoned to a room apart from Jack and his sister. "We knew we were about to receive the pivotal news."

"In moments like those, you have a choice. You can let fear take over, or you can look in the rearview mirror at all you've been rescued from."

The doctor told them what they knew: Jack had cancer. The sports analogy came surging back into Jason's mind. "I sensed at that time that it was a great gift." He shared it with Mel and the doctor.

"Mel and I chose to focus on the things that had brought victory to our life: faith, family and friends. We knew it wasn't time to run towards fear; we knew love would be the only answer going forward."

Jack has two sisters and a brother; Mel and Jason knew it would not be easy to share the news of their brother's diagnosis. "In the end, cancer creates chaos far beyond the body of the actual patient." Jason and Mel also knew Jack's journey would be their own journey - each of their children, too, would be affected and changed by it.

From the beginning, the family's motto has been "Together-Beside-Together," and they've done their best to live that way. They keep in mind theirs is not "the only tough journey in town," while also remembering their six-member family is made up of individuals who need love, who need attention and who really need each other. "We fail like every other family, but we know that those failures and difficulties are chances for us to show up for each other."

After his first emergency operation, Jack had a second surgery to remove a nodule they had found initially, as well as clean an area around the cancerous spot.

Jack healed from the surgery, and the rigorous regimen that is cancer treatment struck up.

Jason and Mel said he went through eight rounds of chemotherapy that occurred three weeks apart. Between chemo treatments five and six, 31 rounds of proton radiation therapy took place Monday through Friday for just over six weeks at Mayo Clinic. The next two rounds of chemotherapy happened at Children's Hospital.

There are currently no signs of cancer in Jack, though rehabilitation continues. No treatment comes without some form of cost.

"Proton radiation therapy is an amazing process, but like chemo, the impact isn't all beneficial," Jason said.

That's been one of the "most difficult realities post-treatment," Mel and Jason said. "You want to remain thankful, because you know so many parents who are walking your same road would gladly trade prognosis with you, but you want the impact to end, but you want to be thankful."

Because of the proton radiation therapy, a portion of Jack's hair on his head will most likely never grow back. It's only hair, they say, but it does make a difference as Jack goes out and about. Scarring is visible on his head, and people stare. Not out of fear or disgust, but because people notice differences.

"Most days he handles it and shrugs it off, but one day while walking in the mall Jack said, 'I wish they wouldn't stare.'" Hats have been added to Jack's wardrobe, but at school in Moose Lake, his parents said, he doesn't wear hats or bandanas.

"At school, he knows people know what he's been through, and I think for Jack that feels a lot like grace."

That grace fills up the second component of the family's victories they look back to: friends.

"Our family has been surrounded by love through this entire journey, and in that, have been rescued from so many additional impacts. Team Jack bracelets were sold, meals were brought over, people helped us out financially, and so many acts of encouragement were done. There wasn't a need we faced that went unmet, and that is pretty amazing when you think about it. So many people carried Jack and our family to the finish line."

One act of encouragement has come from Make-A-Wish Foundation as two people, Lacy and Travis, have come alongside Jack and his family during their journey.

The two wish granters signed on as volunteers because of own personal experiences with the foundation and a desire to pay it forward. On March 14, 2018, they met with Jack and worked on gathering information about Jack - "his like, dreams, wishes," Lacy wrote in an email.

Mel said she thought Jack would go for a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, being a huge fan of the series. Instead of a trip to Florida, though, Lacy and Travis discovered Jack really wanted to go scuba diving. Scuba diving requires a certain age and certifications, so his wish was amended to snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii.

After Jack's wish was submitted to the foundation, the waiting commenced. Travis and Lacy stayed in touch with Jack by sending him monthly gifts "just to remind him we hadn't forgotten about him," Lacy said. By the end of July, Lacy and Travis found out Jack's wish had been granted! The family would be going to Hawaii.

The good news wasn't shared with Jack right away, though. These things take careful planning, a special touch, a surprise.

"The Make-A-Wish team came up with the coolest way to inform Jack that his wish had been granted, one that Jack (or us) will never forget," Jason said.

It was decided to do a surprise reveal party at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. The family would go up to Duluth with a few of Jack's friends in tow. Jack would be under the impression it was another gift from Lacy and Travis as he awaited word on the status of his wish. Two divers would be in a tank, seemingly as part of an aquarium show, but they would interact with Jack and then share the big news with a sign saying, "Jack - your wish has been granted!"

The whole plan went off without a hitch at the beginning of October. After the big reveal, Jack and his friends and family had pizza at the aquarium.

Jack was caught off-guard by the reveal. Jason related that Jack later said, "I can't believe I didn't realize something was up!"

"As the scuba divers opened the sign and shared the news," Jason and Mel wrote in a later email, "strangers and friends surrounded our family and shared their support for this crazy journey." Even in the reveal, the family experienced what had been there the whole time for them: community.

Someday, Jack hopes to become an oceanographer. He and one of his sisters share a love for animals and nature with their mom. "We are so excited to witness the joy that all the kids will experience when they don those masks and snorkels and get a taste of what it would be like to swim in an aquarium," Jason said.

From airfare to hotel stays and everything in between, Lacy said, the trip is possible because of donations received. "You really get to see the good in people when we reach out for donations," Lacy said. On Jack's wish alone, Doc's in Sturgeon Lake and Lee's Pizza in Duluth have donated meals, Sweet Dreams Bakery in Moose Lake donated dessert, as well as the aquarium having donated the admission and divers' time for the reveal party. "These amazing wishes are able to be fulfilled because of awesome companies and people."

A. R. Vander Vegt

Jack smiles and claps in excitement at the big reveal from the scuba divers.

Jack was the first wish child for Travis and Lacy. "It's probably one of the most amazing and rewarding things I've done in my life. There are so many critically ill children on the waiting list to have their wish granted. When we show up, we get those smiles light up their face. It's just an amazing thing to see and be a part of."

Jason added, "This is Jack's wish, but it is also a chance for our whole family to share in the opportunity to play, to laugh, and to breathe. None of us can be healthy on our own, and that is clear. Love is everywhere when you look for it, and if you don't see it ... you must be it."

Faith, family, friends and even strangers - they have all been a part of Jack's journey and will continue to be.

"We all want to be rescuers and save the day, but sometimes in life, you need the rescuing. We have been rescued," Jason said. "We will never be able to put into words the rescue that our faith, family, friends and strangers have been. We'll just make sure we're on the next team in need."


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