Relay for love
Looking up at a blue sunshine-filled sky, a mother contemplated the white puffy clouds.
“I look for any sign from the boys that they are OK,” said Judy Strauser, who a year ago lost her son after a lengthy battle with brain cancer.
Frequently, she will discover a random rubber band here or there that her son used to flip at will across rooms of their house. She leaves them where they are or flips them somewhere else to find them again later.
“They always make me think of him,” Judy said.
Amy Tester, whose son passed away from leukemia in 2009, once found a note her son had left tucked behind some wallpaper when she was peeling it back to redo a room. In the note, the teenager told his parents he loved them.
“We never did say goodbye,” Amy said. “It was always ‘see you later bubby.’”
The two mothers shed a few tears as they think about their sons — longtime friends who helped each other through cancer diagnosises and who didn’t live to see their high school graduation, which would have been this year — but mostly smiles and laughs. Judy and Amy’s friendship has taken over where their sons’ left off.
A silver bracelet Judy wears around her wrist reminds her of the many things cancer cannot do, including kill friendship or cripple love, shatter hope or shut out memories.
The moms — Judy who lost her youngest, and Amy, who lost her oldest — recalled nights of the boys toilet papering together, something for which they became known.
Judy said her son, Jason Strauser, had a great sense of humor and smile, and gorgeous brown eyes she searches for in strangers. Jesse Doseck was full of spunk and cared about everybody, said his mom. Heard frequently slipping from his lips was, “Dude, I’m alright.”
“Kids like this are like that,” Judy said. “They worry about everybody else, especially their families.”
“Jason never once told me he was afraid or anything,” she said.
But as tender as they treated those around them, with each other, Jesse and Jason could always be open and themselves, often getting out aggressions by wrestling, no matter what medical apparatus they may have been connected to at the time.
Receiving treatment at Columbus Children’s Hospital, now Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the boys were in the same unit, with the same physicians and nurses and could easily swap secrets.
Jesse and Jason could “talk cancer” together and they sent each other encouraging messages when they knew the other was going in for a treatment, said their moms, who both had pacts that they would never cry in front of their children.
Jason, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, fought the disease for seven years before he passed away at 17.
Jesse was diagnosed a year after Jason, but passed away at 15 in 2009. Jesse had been planning on walking for Jason in Auglaize County’s Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society when he found out he was sick, too.
“They were good friends who used to go toilet papering together,” Amy said her eyes noting she was drifting off to a memory. “Then they got closer. They had a special connection.”
Graduation has been bittersweet for the mothers, who have found attending graduation parties to be one of the hardest parts.
“I feel out of place, like Jason should be there,” Judy said. “I’m almost in denial these kids are as old as they are, especially when our boys aren’t.”
Former classmates threw streams of toilet paper with their caps at commencement and placed toilet paper rolls by chairs left empty at the back of the class for the two boys.
The families in May joined together to dedicate two blue spruce trees and an engraved rock at Wapakoneta High School in their sons’ memories. They also have established scholarship funds in their sons’ names, which this year were awarded to some of their friends.
“We want to keep his memory alive,” said Amy, who also is taking steps to make sure Jesse’s younger siblings remember him.
Judy said her husband Rick Strauser’s biggest fear is that people will forget Jason.
Judy and her family have been actively involved in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Auglaize County for years since Jason’s diagnosis, participating in “Cancer Sucks” fundraisers and forming their own Rock Out Cancer (ROC) team. Amy, her husband Tony Tester, and their family join the Strausers’ team to walk each year beginning with the opening ceremony and staying through the lighting of a luminary in Jesse’s memory.
“I help out when I can,” said Amy, who because of younger children can’t take on a more active role. “I’m there for Miss Judy just like she’s there for me.”
The mothers say they are in a club no one wants to be in.
Judy said she first became active in the Relay for Life because she felt she had to do something to help find a cure for cancer. Her daughter, Tiffany Fullenkamp, is serving as the chair for the event this year.
“We want people to know what they went through, what we went through,” Judy said. “You have to make something good come from something so horrible.”
Friends of the boys also have joined together to form their own team to support the cause.
“I think it’s really cool they want to support, remember and honor our boys,” Judy said.
She said she plans to always attend Relay, something she participated in even before her own son’s diagnosis, and both mothers also plan to support research and other efforts to help families in a variety of ways on Jesse’s and Jason’s behalves.
For Shelby Gonterman, who is helping to serve as captain of the high school Relay for Life team for her former classmates, she said most of them were friends with Jesse and Jason, and she and the other captains — Tayler Drummond and Shelby Cook — also all had mothers with cancer.
By getting underclassmen involved they are hoping the tradition continues with the high school having a team for years to come.
“Why not help in the fight against cancer?” Shelby Gonterman said.
“Even though they lost their lives, let’s prove to cancer that we are stronger than it and will not let it take over our lives,” she said.
“We want to help find the cure.”