The memories of when he and his best friend Carter Kettner were “little” come flooding back to 8-year-old Ben Keaty. Ben remembers how he and Carter, who lived next door, did everything together. They played with their Pokemon stuff. They made up their own knock-knock jokes. They squeezed into the single seat of a little, black, foot-powered car.
“I think our favorite thing to do was to go to bed and pretend there were monsters, and my mom had monster spray,” Ben remembers, acknowledging that, even if they did know better, he and Carter simply enjoyed the fun of acting as if Febreze could repel monsters.
But some childhood monsters can’t be kept at bay.
Running in a 5K race todaywithout his best friend, Ben will raise money for Cancer Kiss My Cooley, the not-for-profit charity parents Joe and Cinnamon Kettner founded in memory of Carter. The charity, named after a phrase Carter used to say after each of his treatments, supports other families dealing with pediatric brain cancer.
Ben remembers when he and Carter could race together.
“We would run to the corner and back,” Ben says, walking out his front door in Huntley to point to the stop sign. “He would always win.”
That’s how life was for the boys up until Feb. 1, 2009. During the next couple of weeks, Carter wasn’t himself. He felt tired and started having problems with his balance. On Feb. 17 that year, he was diagnosed with an inoperable malignant brainstem glioma, the brain cancer that would kill him.
Ben needed to know what was wrong with his lifelong buddy.
“We explained it as a bug in his head,” says Pam Keaty, Ben’s mom. She and her husband, Bob, talked about loved ones and neighbors who had fought cancer. They told how sometimes people beat cancer, and sometimes cancer wins.
“I think the cancer is winning,” a worried Ben told his parents after Carter left kindergarten to get treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and the treatment took its toll on Carter.
“The cancer was kind of not making him grow,” Ben remembers. “I didn’t like the pills he took because they didn’t make him look the same.”
Carter, his face puffy, his body weak, couldn’t run to the corner and back anymore. So the boys changed the way they played.
“I got an iTouch from Santa, so we used to play iTouch,” Ben says. He and Carter could sit together to play electronic games on his iPod Touch or watch videos.
An outpouring of community affection for the young boy led to many memorable events, such as Carter Kettner Day with Huntley police and firefighters, a trip to New York City to see “Mary Poppins,” throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field and visiting with astronauts at NASA’s Space Center in Houston.
Joe and Cinnamon Kettner were so touched by the love and support Carter received, they formed the Cancer Kiss My Cooley charity.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to relive what others did for us,” Joe Kettner says.
Ben remembers when Carter was given a wish.
“He wanted two wishes. His first wish was that everybody who had cancer could get a wish,” Ben remembers. “And his second wish was that it would rain gumballs.”
Ben could see the people standing on the roof of Carter’s house, dumping buckets of gumballs as Carter watched. “I think I let Carter think it was raining gumballs,” Ben says.
For Ben’s 6th birthday party, Carter made the effort in his wheelchair to join the group at the movie theater, where they watched “How to Train Your Dragon.” Shortly before Carter died at age 6, Ben sat with him and read him a book. Childhood buddies have a difficult time coping when one moves away. Ben still struggles with the loss of Carter.
“I try not to remember him because then I get all sad and want to cry,” Ben says softly. “He was my best friend. I liked playing with him until the cancer bug came along, and I started to hate cancer.”
Ben’s practice runs with his dad have made him confident he can run hard and finish the race for Carter. But the third-grader wants to do something more for people with cancer.
“When I grow up, I want to be a scientist and make a cancer blowup pill,” Ben says. “Instead of going down, it floats up to the head or wherever the cancer is and then explodes. And then a few weeks later, you are like, ‘The cancer is all gone.’ But I may have to make a back-to-normal pill, too, so you look the same.”
Some days, Ben plays with Bowen, Carter’s little brother, who is 5 now. The Kettners’ 7½-month-old baby, Joey, looks like Carter, Ben says. Bob and Pam Keaty, Ben and his siblings Alyssa, 6, Matt, 4, Sean, 3, and Danny, 8 months, remain close to the Kettners.
It’s tough for the Kettners to see Carter’s peers at church get their first communion, head off to school or pass other milestones denied their son. But the Kettners say they find comfort in their religious faith and reflect instead on the good times they did get to have with Carter.
“We have found much healing in Cancer Kiss My Cooley,” says Cinnamon Kettner, who helps plan wishes for sick kids, but still gets too emotional to be present when they are granted. “If it comes from the heart, it can’t be wrong. I know we’re doing the right thing. I know Carter would be proud of us.”