By LESLIE COLLINS
March 6, 2013
Even before the age of eight, this brown-eyed boy whose vivacious smile could melt your heart, possessed an unrivaled maturity.
“He was like a little man, almost,” Trailwoods Elementary School Instructional Coach Leah Starr said of Brian Rosa.
“He was a very special boy. I don’t know how to explain it,” Brian’s father, Tono Rosa said.
Perched in Tono’s lap was an oversized stuffed monkey clad in a royal blue jacket, which he hugged tightly as he spoke.
Both Tono and Brian’s mother, Nelsi Yanez Rosa, spoke only Spanish and used the school’s ESL instructor and paraprofessional Sonia Cervantes to interpret.
For such a young boy, Brian deeply impacted Trailwoods Elementary and united the school.
“I think Brian has been such an inspiration to all of us,” Trailwoods Elementary Principal Christy Harrison said. “I think he stretched everyone here to their capacity, to love, to give, to just be genuine about one another. I think sometimes that’s something that’s missing in the city. I think Trailwoods really became a family more than ever before, and that’s because of Brian.”
Raised in a devout Catholic family, Brian learned from an early age the value of faith and prayer. When Brian was four, his father lost his job and Brian sensed something was awry. When Brian walked into the room, he asked his father what happened and Tono responded, “Nothing. Nothing happened.”
Brian must have overheard his parents talking earlier and said, “I know what happened to you,” and immediately walked to the bathroom and shut the door. When Tono headed to the bathroom to check on Brian, he found the four-year-old with his hands clasped in prayer.
“He was praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe, so I could find work,” Tono said. “That was very special to me. The next day around noon I found a job.”
“He was always a helper,” said Trailwoods Elementary teacher Beth Brown, who taught Brian in both second and third grade. “He was a very high reader, so he would help the other kids no matter what. The kids just loved him. They always wanted to be his partner because he was nice and sweet to them.”
Trailwoods staff described Brian as a respectful boy with a knack for reading people’s feelings and one who adored school. His common pastimes included reading books and swinging on the swing set, his mother said. He also wanted to play soccer like his older brother.
“He was a very happy, playful boy,” Brian’s mother said, “but when they told him he was sick, everything changed. His life changed completely. I was never prepared to receive the bad news. I felt like my life stopped at that moment. Cancer doesn’t run in the family. We’ve never had it in the family. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Despite their own fears, Brian’s mother and father tried to be strong for the sake of Brian, Nelsi said.
Brian’s symptoms began with swollen lymph nodes in his neck and progressed from there. It took doctors about two weeks to figure out what was wrong. The answer was leukemia. Doctors said Brian had a 70 percent chance of surviving – but that’s before they discovered Brian had a rare and aggressive form of leukemia.
When Brian heard the word cancer, he panicked. He squeezed his mother tightly and said, “I don’t want to die.” His mother assured him he would be fine.
His diagnosis came shortly before Halloween in 2011 and Brian trick-or-treated in the hospital. He saved back part of his candy stash for his brother, whose birthday fell on Nov. 1.
Despite treatments, he continued to attend second grade at Trailwoods and attended part of the year in third grade.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Cervantes said. “I remember last year when he would come into my office and read to me. He really enjoyed reading and was really good at it. He was just so happy. Some people have that glow to them, that good aura. He was just that kind of kid, even when he was sick.”
“Even when he wasn’t feeling good, he was smiling, no matter what,” Brown added.
When Brian lost his hair due to chemotherapy, his mother asked if he felt embarrassed at school.
“No, because my friends told me I look good like that,” he replied.
During his hospital stays, Brown visited Brian on a regular basis and updated him on homework assignments. One time, she came armed with a Happy Meal from McDonald’s.
“See, they want me to eat McDonald’s!” Brian told his mother.
When Brian couldn’t attend school, the stuffed monkey, also known as “Brian Monkey” sat in his seat at school and tagged along on school field trips. Students took pictures with Brian Monkey during special events and trips to the Sea Life Aquarium and a Kansas City Royals baseball game. During the game, Brian Monkey had a seat to himself and like the other students, had a box of Cracker Jack.
“Anywhere we went we had Brian Monkey with us,” Brown said.
Inside Brian Monkey’s backpack, students would tuck away notes for Brian.
Brian received the monkey through the “Monkey in My Chair” program, which provides a “monkey kit” to pre-school and elementary children who miss school days because of their cancer diagnosis.
Trailwoods didn’t forget about Brian during his absence and students made a quilted blanket and a pillow signed by teachers and students. Throughout the year, his classmates decorated numerous cards and wore orange ribbons, the color for leukemia.
“All I’d have to say is, ‘We’re making this for Brian,’ and they were as good as gold and ready to do anything,” Brown said.
The school held numerous fundraisers for the Rosa family, which consisted of Brian’s parents and his four siblings.
“I feel this school is a part of my family because during the moments he was very sick, the school gave me support,” Nelsi said. “We are so glad to have this school. We feel so blessed.”
Brown became a second mom to Brian, Nelsi said.
During a hospital stay, Brian asked his mother for a book set from Costco and said he wanted to give part of the set to his third grade classroom. Brian was also known for sharing candy with the class and during his battle with cancer, he continued that tradition.
“When he was sick he was still thinking of others. That’s just the kind of kid he was,” Starr said.
At one point during his treatment, Brian underwent chemotherapy and radiation twice a day for 14 days, Nelsi said. The last resort was a stem cell transplant. However, his cancer metastasized and Brian later lost his vision and ability to speak.
When his mother assured him not to worry, that she would still bring candy for his class, a look of satisfaction washed over his face. He then closed his eyes and took his last breath on Dec. 13, 2012.
Harrison delivered the news to the third graders and the class used up three boxes of tissues.
“A great number of them immediately dropped down in the middle of class and started praying,” Brown said. “It was very moving to see. I think that had a great deal to do with Brian. He had a great deal of faith.”
Several of the students attended his funeral and one student commented that Brian “looked so handsome all dressed up.” Following the burial, Nelsi kept her promise and handed a bag of candy to Brown to distribute to Brian’s classmates.
When the students returned from Christmas break, they hosted a party in Brian’s honor. Brown bought 26 blue Kool-Aid bottles, Brian’s favorite flavor, and the class made a toast to Brian and then shared his last bag of candy.
Students pointed out that Brian’s Jan. 28 birthday was still listed on the birthday calendar and asked Brown how they should celebrate. She stood speechless. “Can we sing him, ‘Happy Birthday?’” they asked.
“Absolutely,” Brown said.
The week of his birthday, Brian’s mother visited the third grade class and handed out drinks and cupcakes to celebrate.
To honor Brian, Trailwoods volunteer Ed Lacey donated a redbud tree and planted it outside of the third grade classroom. This spring, the school hopes to add a plaque and the third graders want to add a bird feeder and flowers. Students hung an “I’m a Be Kind Kid” pledge card on the tree, stating that Brian was always kind.
During recess, the third graders often visit the tree and say hello, Brown said.
“The kids are very protective of it,” she said.
They call it the “Brian Tree.”
Pockets of snow now surround the small tree, but it will survive.
Friends and family will never know the adult Brian; he will forever remain that adorable eight-year-old boy who possessed a keen sense for reading people and showing compassion. But, the Brian Tree will continue to soar. It will flourish. It will sprout its branches and delicate purple flowers and serve as a reminder of the little boy who united his school.