An entire town celebrated Christmas two months early to honor a terminally-ill 12-year-old who may not live to see the big day.
Keith Burkett has a rare form of childhood cancer in his skull, shoulder, spine and liver which doctors fear will claim his life before the end of the year.
So the people of Stow, Ohio, pulled together to give him a Christmas he will never forget by decorating their homes, singing carols and dressing up as Santa.
The special day included a ride in a fire truck, a procession of more than 100 cars decorated for Christmas and even a medal for bravery from the town’s mayor.
“It was awesome. The fire truck was my favorite part because I’ve never been in one before. I got to beep the horn,” Burkett said.
“Doctors had told me that they didn’t know if Keith would make it to Christmas,” the boy’s mother, Taylore Woodard, said. “He loves Christmas. His life has been taken up with cancer and medicines and I wanted my son to enjoy one last Christmas. So at the end of September, we made our house into a winter wonderland.”
“We put lights up, candy canes, polar bears and santas. We had a North Pole sign and put up a banner that said, ‘Merry Christmas Kourageous Keith,'” the 32-year-old hair stylist said.
Neighbors soon caught the Christmas spirit and began hanging their own decorations.
“We noticed our next door neighbors put up some icicle lights and garlands and soon everyone was doing it,” she said.
Brandy Spreizer, who runs a local lemonade stand, arranged for more than 50 drivers to decorate their cars in honor of Burkett on Sunday.
Hundreds of people then gathered at Stow-Munroe Falls High School as Christmas music played and the crowds waited for Burkett to arrive.
He was greeted at his home by friends dressed as Santa and elves from the North Pole.
He rode in a fire truck to the high school where he saw all the vehicles decorated in his honor.
Stow Councilman John Pribonic read a proclamation in the boy’s honor and declared that October 21 was “Keith Burkett Day.” He was also given a medal from the mayor.
As Burkett rode home, the high school choir sang Christmas carols including Silent Night, Jingle Bells and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.
“Everyone was dressed up and embraced the Christmas theme. Both Santa Claus and the Grinch were there,” Woodard said. “Keith was smiling ear to ear. I haven’t seen him smile like that in such a long time.”
Woodard, who married to Adam, 34,painter-decorator, first knew her son was seriously ill when she took him to the hospital on Christmas Eve in 2010.
He was 5 years old.
“He was pale and he didn’t want to eat or open presents,” she said. “Doctors took X-rays and found that there was fluid pushing on his heart and his heart rate was down. On Christmas Day, he had surgery to get the fluid out and they also removed the left lower lobe of his lung because it looked like hamburger meat.”
Despite continual visits to the hospital, it wasn’t until March 2012 that Keith was diagnosed with undifferentiated soft tissue sarcoma and doctors removed cancer-ridden parts of his body in grueling surgery.
He also went through four courses of radiation and chemo but the cancer returned each time.
In May this year, doctors found it had spread to the skull, left shoulder, the lower part of his spine, his pelvis and his liver.
“Doctors told me that he wouldn’t make it past Christmas,” Woodard, who is also mom to Adriana, 7, and Jax, 6, said.
Two months ago, he was transferred to a hospice and Woodard gave up her job to spend as much time as she could with her dying son.
She took him to Disney World, Florida, twice and often spends her days playing video games or going for walks with her eldest child.
“He was my first born. It’s hard to watch your son die and know that you’re not going to have another Christmas with him,” she said. “No mother should outlive her child. He’s scared of dying. He doesn’t know what is going to happen when he dies. He said to me: ‘Mom, what if I don’t know how to go to the light?’”
“It’s one of the hardest things anyone can watch,” she said. “He’s such a kind boy. It doesn’t seem fair. I’m so glad that we were able to give him a proper Christmas.”