Life Lessons from a Four-Year-Old Kid

by Lt. Mike Koprowski, USAF

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Brendon, who battled childhood cancer, is an inspiration for Lt. Mike Koprowski.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote in these pages about my battle with testicular cancer. After waging the greatest battle of my life, I felt lost in a vacuum. Questions raced through my mind: Where do I go from here? What does all this mean? Who am I supposed to be now? In a sense, my article was an open invitation to all cancer warriors to be my companion in the journey – to be my “comrades in arms” as I found my way through a remarkably changed life.

Shortly after my survivor story was published, a 29-year-old mother named Alison sent me an e-mail. She explained: Her four-year-old son, Brendon, was battling an extremely rare and aggressive brain tumor. He endured nearly every type of possible treatment, from surgery to radiation to chemotherapy. Over the next few weeks, through phone calls and e-mail conversations, Alison and I shared stories of the common fears, doubts, and uncertainties that inevitably arise with a cancer diagnosis. Each conversation would end with Alison’s emphatic request: “Mike, you must meet Brendon! He’s an angel.”

I decided to visit Brendon, and it remains one of the best choices of my life. Because they lived only two hours away, I was able to visit every few months. Over time, I developed a vibrant friendship with this incredibly resilient and eternally optimistic duo. They shared a remarkable bond that nothing – not even cancer – could splinter. I came to admire their toughness, hopefulness, and everlasting love of life. In a matter of days, they became my heroes. Never would I have thought that my “comrade in arms” would come in the form of a four-year-old kid.

Admittedly, when I first met him, I saw a tragic cancer story. Yet as I began to look past his scars, I saw an astonishingly special kid.

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Lt. Mike Koprowski

As scholar Joseph Campbell once said, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” In that sense, Brendon taught me how to be alive. Admittedly, when I first met him, I saw a tragic cancer story. I couldn’t help but look at the scars on his head, the burnt skin, and the frail body. The enormity of pain that this little boy experienced is something that no person should ever have to endure.

But as I began to look past his scars, I saw an astonishingly special kid, matured exponentially beyond his years, who truly understood how to live in this mystifying world. I remember watching Brendon playing with his dog, Cooper, in the backyard. As his little, bald head glistened in the sun, only a few days removed from a long hospital stay, Brendon ran passionately through the grass, singing and shouting, in the futile attempt to catch the much quicker Cooper. Every few steps, he’d dive for Cooper, fall into the grass, dust himself off, and continue the pursuit. Alison and I sat in lawn chairs, witnessing this rousing display of heart, spirit, and dedication. Even as the sun went down that evening, Brendon’s smile lit up the night. His eyes screamed out to me: “Hey Mike, watch me! This is how you’re supposed to live.” It’s funny how a four-year-old can teach you those life lessons.

Only by grasping all that this world has to offer – all the pain and beauty – can we truly know what it means to be alive. The movement of the world continues with each day, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to cherish those ideal life moments when everything is as it ought to be – your first kiss on a warm summer evening, late nights with your best friend, and laughs over a home-cooked meal with your family. On a purely physical level, those moments will be as fleeting as any other experience in life. Yet on a deeper level, those moments will be forever enshrined in the hallowed vault of memories. Brendon will always strike a chord deep in my soul – his lessons will abide evermore.

John Mellencamp poignantly sings, “Life is short, even in its longest days.” His lyrics serve as a reminder that nobody is promised tomorrow – cancer or no cancer. How do we deal with this overwhelming reality? How do we make it through the day? Well, the short answer is, we deal with it like Brendon. We run passionately. We laugh with wild abandon. We dust ourselves off when life knocks us down. We smile through the pain. We keep the flame burning in our hearts. We live for today.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lt. Mike Koprowski serves as a Military Intelligence Officer at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base NC. Click here for more of Mike’s story.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.