Youth’s incurable cancer makes Christmas special
(Sept. 1, 2022) was beaming as an Ocean Pines fire engine, following a police car with lights flashing, made its way down Sandyhook Road Saturday evening.
And what to Josh’s wondering eyes did appear but Santa Claus, descending from the passenger seat of the fire engine, carrying an armload of brightly wrapped gifts to the teen who, as guests joined in a chorus of “Jingle Bells,” looked up at the merry elf from his wheelchair, the magic of Christmas in his eyes.
“Are you Josh? I’ve been looking for you. It’s a long way from the North Pole,” Santa said, handing the gifts to the 17-year-old who was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Ewing Sarcoma last July, after doctors discovered a baseball-sized tumor crushing his spine. It’s a cancer doctors won’t be able to cure, his mother wrote on the GoFundMe page, created to raise $50,000 to help the family with expenses.
But the prognosis didn’t dampen the young man’s spirits at Christmas in August on that evening of Aug. 27, as about 100 friends, relatives and neighbors, many wearing Santa hats, most dressed in red, arrived at the Alton home, decorated with lights and wreaths, courtesy of Kendall’s Christmas Lights in Ocean City.
A giant inflatable snowman was in the front yard and the family earlier put up a 9-foot tree indoors.
Mrs. Alton mentioned to her friend, Melissa Esham, that she’d like to have a small celebration, since Christmas is her son’s favorite holiday and since he’s been ill and burdened by testing and treatments.
Once Esham told Colby Phillips, an Ocean Pines resident known for her community involvement, it grew into a festivity, with the Ocean Pines Fire Department quickly agreeing to transport Santa, portrayed to perfection by Bill Ettinger.
When Esham contacted Phillips, “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I don’t know the Altons. I just met them through this event but we have a lot of close mutual friends,” said Phillips, who got Kendall’s Christmas Lights involved, saw that there were freshly baked cookies and gifts and that Danielle Pohland, owner of The Snowball Stand, was there in her truck, handing out free snowballs in a variety of flavors.
“There was a lot of emotion,” Phillips said the next day.
“This was about giving Josh and his family a moment to put aside the pain and the hurt of the struggles they are going through and feel the love,” Phillips said.
“One of the things I love about this community and being involved in so many different events like this, or fund raisers or gifts for kids or after fires we have had is, this community, without even thinking, just jumps to help. I think a lot of times people want to help but they don’t know how to help. For me, it’s that strength in organizing and communication,” Phillips said.
“It got bigger than it was intended it to be,” a smiling Mrs. Alton said, as she stood by her son’s wheelchair, watching the crowd grow larger, spilling into the family’s driveway and onto the street.
Pohland was busy inside the truck, making snowballs. “Merry Christmas from The Snowball Stand” was neatly printed on the window, with white snowflakes around the words.
Santa ordered a polar punch snowball. “It seems appropriate because this coat is not as cool as you may think it is,” he said with a laugh as children stood at his feet, gazing up at him and he told them, “I’ll see you at Christmas.”
“This is really fun,” Josh said, telling a guest he felt pretty well that evening, that he had taken a nap and was ready for what he calls “peopling.”
His favorite snowball flavors are watermelon with ice cream and sour apple, he said, as his 21-year-old sister, Jayden, walked over with a Santa cap for her brother.
“We are really close,” Alton said about Jayden who stood behind him, smoothed his hair that he said has grown back after he lost it due to chemotherapy, and pulled the cap onto his head.
At Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., he had spinal surgery to release pressure on his spine but hasn’t regained use of his legs.
Josh was working at Baja Amusements near Ocean City. He had been having back pain for weeks, but at work started losing his balance. He called his mother, who took him to the hospital. Doctors transferred him to Children’s.
On Aug. 18, Tara Alton posted on the GoFundMe page that doctors would not continue chemotherapy “as there is nothing more they can do with it.”
“There are things we can try to prolong life (including trials) after these infections clear up and only if he decides … we are planning to live life to the fullest for him and with him. We are heartbroken and crushed, but clinging to the little mustard seed of faith we have that God can heal and is still in the business of performing miracles.
“Either way, we know God is in this 100 percent and that the holds Joshua ever so close,” Mrs. Alton wrote.
The community is, too.
“Hi, Josh. I’m Theresa. Do you like my antlers?” a woman said, walking up to Josh’s wheelchair and extending her hand.
“They’re my dog’s. She looked at me funny when I left,” she said, referring to the antler headband she was wearing and making Josh, casual in blue shorts, running shoes and A Christmas Story T-shirt, laugh, too.
All day on Christmas Day, that movie plays in their house, his father, Jason, said.
“It’s just funny,” Josh said, looking down at his shirt, printed with the words “I triple dog dare you,” a line from the 1983 film.
A little later, a small circle of friends and family gathered around Josh to pray for him and he began to cry. His mother pressed his head against hers to comfort him.
As evening fell and clouds from an earlier rainfall parted, guests quietly sang “Silent Night.”
Josh’s dog, Chewy, ran to his wheelchair and a man turned to the woman beside him and, in a tender moment, said, “Peace by with you.”
Phillips called for everyone to make a circle for group prayer, a plea for serenity during a confusing and difficult time.
“We love you, buddy” someone called.
“We can do this. We love you.”