My latest syndicated column. Enjoy!
Wright Words: The Cameron Birch Christmas Jar Story
I am often asked, “who received the very first Christmas Jar?” While that’s impossible to know with complete certainty, I have always believed the first jar was received by perhaps the most worthy recipient ever. His name is Cameron Birch, and to commemorate this month’s release of Christmas Jars Reunion, the sequel to Christmas Jars, I thought a gentle reminder of where it began and why it matters four years later would be the perfect way to celebrate the arrival of colored leaves, crisp nights, and mysterious jars of change.
Cameron is a unique young man with a mission as inspiring as any you will ever hear. This is his story.
(As told by his father, Matt Birch, in December of 2005.)
A little more than two years ago I was just a husband and father, enjoying my three amazing sons and beautiful wife. Cameron was four and like his older brothers, Braden and Tyson, had endless energy and personality and couldn't wait for the next big adventure. No one could have predicted the next adventure life had planned for him.
We embarked on that adventure January 9th, 2005 when we took Cameron to the emergency room after an unusually long bout with what we thought was a virus, or another average childhood ailment. Over the course of a month, spanning the Christmas holidays, his appetite left him and he began to lose weight. Every morning brought a severe headache and vomiting. He was actually excited to go to the hospital so the doctors could give him "good medicine to make my headaches go away," he said.
We all felt that way until a serious-looking doctor told us they found the reason Cameron was having headaches. "It's bad, very bad," he quietly whispered to us.
Six hours later we stood watching helplessly as Cameron was wheeled into surgery to have a malignant tumor the size of a golf ball removed from his brain. What was supposed to be nothing more than a quick trip to the hospital turned into a two week stay. It was the first of many more to come.
My wife and I struggled to understand what was happening. It seemed surreal, as if life were simultaneously going in slow motion and at the speed of light. We worried about how to make a four-year-old understand something we hadn't yet grasped. We didn't have to. He never asked any questions like, "Why me?" He never complained. The closest he ever came to complaining was during a particularly difficult day when he said, "Dad, this cancer stuff stinks."
He suffered through six weeks of radiation and months and months of chemotherapy. The radiation was the hardest part for him. He was fed through a tube and continued to throw up 20 to 30 times a day. He couldn't eat, play with his friends, or do many of the things most of us take for granted. What he did do was smile, laugh, and inspire everyone who met him.
One day, during a discussion with his aunt, he declared, "My mission in life is to beat cancer." He fulfilled that mission with everything he had. His little body may have suffered in the battle, but cancer never stood a chance against his faith, smile, laugh, attitude, and spirit. He totally and completely forgot about himself and worried about other cancer patients.
He would say, "It hurts my heart" to see other cancer patients because he knew they didn't feel well. When he was first diagnosed, he began praying for the other children with cancer. In every prayer, without fail, he would ask, "Please help all the other kids kill their cancer." He rarely prayed for himself. He was more concerned for the other kids.
His efforts went beyond prayer, too. He acted on his mission to beat cancer. In July of 2005 he asked for help setting up a fundraiser for the "other kids." He set up "Cam's Stand For Kids With Cancer," a stand along the parade route of the largest parade in Utah. He sold drinks, ice cream, and candy, raising hundreds of dollars. He took every penny of it and with his brothers personally made "Build-a-Bears" for each of the brain tumor patients at Primary Children's Hospital. Here was a four-year-old boy with hundreds of dollars and not once did he ask if he could have some of it for himself. The only question he asked was, "When can we go give the kids their bears"?
For 11 months everything was going perfectly with his treatments. There was no sign of cancer anywhere. His health was good and he was even able to get out and enjoy his friends. We were starting to plan a neighborhood party to celebrate the end of his treatments, and were looking forward to our family's trip to Disney World through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. We believed he was one of the lucky few.
We never made it to Disney World. November of 2005 brought another discovery that turned our world upside down, again. During a routine MRI, they discovered the cancer had returned. It had come back with a vengeance and now coated his spine with a layer of cancerous cells and spread up into his brain. In a cruel irony, the original tumor location was still completely cancer free. Options for his treatments were very limited at this point. The doctors thought he would make it until Christmas, but they couldn't guarantee anything.
The day after his re-diagnosis, I was home alone with Cameron. Cameron didn't know his cancer had returned yet. I was curious to know how he would take the news. Throughout the treatments we had always talked to him about how it was possible for the cancer to come back, but never dwelt on that possibility. I asked him, "So buddy what would you do if your cancer came back?" Without hesitation he answered, "That would be OK, we would just start over and do it all again." So we started over.
Shortly before Christmas the new treatments began, and Cameron had another idea that he wouldn't let go of. He wanted to give something else to the kids suffering with cancer. He thought about it and talked about it with us. He wanted very much to buy some toys for the cancer patient's playroom in the hospital. He loved to play with the toys and puzzles when he went in for his treatments. The playroom was one of the only places the children could go to escape the pain and worries associated with the rest of the hospital. He talked to the nurses and social workers to find out which toys were needed the most. He was very excited to go and buy them for the kids.
Unfortunately, the cancer got ahead of Cameron's plans. He often spoke of going to the store to buy the toys but his little body had begun to shut down. He struggled to walk, his appetite was gone, and he was suffering from double vision making it difficult for him to watch his favorite movies or play video games. Cancer was slowly robbing him of all of his favorite things and robbing us of our little boy.
Late one night just before Christmas, a knock at the door changed our family forever. The kids rushed from the family room and threw open the door to find nothing but the cold December night. In place of a visitor, there were two large jars sitting on our porch. Each was labeled in bright letters, "Christmas Jar." Attached to one of them was a copy of the book Christmas Jars and a note. The note explained how the anonymous giver had read this book and how it had changed his life. My oldest two sons each brought a jar inside and excitedly unscrewed the lids. One jar was filled with pennies. The other was filled with other change and some paper money.
I had just read the book and so I retold the story as well as I could. We talked about what it means to give unselfishly to others. We tried to figure out what generous person might have left the jars. Cameron was very excited that someone would do that for him and his family. He understood we got the jars because he had cancer. A light that had been dimmed by illness burned a little brighter in Cameron's eyes that night. This simple act of giving stopped - for just one night - the steady march of a terrible disease.
The next morning, Cameron commenced with the counting. He got down on the floor and counted each penny one by one. When all the money had been carefully counted, the total was more than $300. Then Cameron said something that captured his true spirit, "Why do people want to help me so much?" he asked.
"Well, because people love you and they feel badly that you are sick so they want to help," I replied.
"But dad, I can do this all by myself," he calmly answered.
Cameron decided at that moment to take the money from the Christmas Jars and use it to buy the toys for the hospital's playroom.
Cameron was never well enough to go to the store and buy the toys himself. Three weeks after Christmas he suffered a severe seizure that sent him to the hospital for another stay in the ICU, much of it on life support. After two weeks, we were finally able to take him home where he spent his final ten days on this earth surrounded by family and friends. Even as his body lay in his bed losing its battle to cancer, physically unable to speak, he continued his life's mission of beating cancer.
Everyone who visited Cameron left with a new resolve to live life as the gift that it is. Resolved to never take things for granted. Resolved to face each challenge with a smile. Resolved to always remember, no matter what setbacks come in life to say, "That's OK, we can just start over and do it all again."
A month after his death we were finally able to take the money from the Christmas Jars and buy the toys for the hospital. Right now there are children playing with new toys at the hospital because of the spirit of one little five-year-old boy, and an anonymous giver who understands the true meaning of Christmas and giving.
Recently, I was reminded of this when I spoke with the father of a little girl Cameron befriended while they were undergoing chemotherapy. On a recent trip to the hospital she went to the playroom because she wanted to play with a tool bench Cameron donated.
She was very disappointed when it wasn't there. "Where is the tool bench," she inquired of a nurse. The nurse told her how a little boy who was too sick to leave his room had asked for the tool bench to be brought to his room so he could play with it because it was his favorite toy. I knew that Cameron had a smile on his face as, even in death, he continues to "beat cancer."
This little boy is the reason Cameron did what he did. That is the reason someone gave my family a Christmas Jar. That is the magic of the human spirit and the magic of what one jar can do. My family thinks of Cameron every time we put a coin in this year's Christmas Jar. We can't wait to give it to someone special for Christmas and watch as the miracle spreads even further.
(Cameron passed away six weeks after spreading the spirit of the Christmas Jar by using the funds from his own jar to bless the lives of other children. His family continues to fill and give away jars each year in his honor.)