Prince Liam The Brave

“Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.”

– Cat Stevens

This is Liam Witt

Little boys are supposed to run around in the sun.  They’re supposed to ride their bikes, play sports, get dirty and scuffed up.  They’re supposed to beg and plead to stay outside because there’s still a few minutes of sunlight left in a fading day.  They’re not supposed to get sick.  They’re not supposed to have cancer.

They’re supposed to learn life’s greatest lessons from people much older than them — not the other way around.  But I’m going to share the story of a little boy who over these last few weeks has taught me an incredible lesson about life, about love, and about the courage both require of us.  The ironic thing about this little boy is that I’ve never actually met him.  But I was blessed with the opportunity to speak to some of the people that cared about him the most.   And yesterday, as I looked into his mother’s eyes and told her how much her son’s story meant to me I recognized it wasn’t the first time she witnessed how much her little boy inspired someone…

…and it won’t be the last.

This little boy’s name is Liam Witt.   But to those that know him best…he’s Prince Liam The Brave.   As you’ll learn from this story — it’s much more than a nickname.

*         *         *

For the past few years, I’ve had the honor of producing videos for The Ira Sohn Foundation’s Annual Conference.  Every year, they raise millions of dollars for hospitals and research institutions that are involved with pediatric cancer patients and research.   One of these hospitals is Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City.  Here, a brilliant scientist named Dr. Nai-Kong Cheung is working tirelessly on a cure for a form of pediatric cancer known as neuroblastoma.  Like many other “orphan” forms of the disease, neuroblastoma is considered “too rare” for pharmaceutical companies to even bother with the funding necessary for their research.   It’s an unimaginable reality that the parents of 700 children face each and every year.

4 years ago, Liam Witt was one of these kids.  He wasn’t even 3 years old.

I first learned about little Liam last April when I interviewed his mother Gretchen for a tribute we were doing at last year’s conference.  She came up to a meeting room for the interview while Liam waited with friends downstairs.  They had just come from treatment and she was anxious to get him home.  In the time to follow, I asked Gretchen questions about her little boy.  She described him as precocious, curious, intelligent, sweet…brave.  He absolutely dug the color orange.   He loved and looked out for his little sister Ella.  He always wanted to be at the beach, feeling the sand beneath his toes and the summer sun on his face.  He enjoyed listening to Jack Johnson’s music.  He was fascinated with “how things worked,” always asking questions of the doctors at the hospital and the scientists in the lab — scientists working day and night to find a cure for little kids just like him.  He loved trucks, especially firetrucks — she told me he talked about being a firefighter when he grew up.  Before he left anywhere, he always made sure to tell people that he loved them.

Liam with his mother Gretchen

Gretchen left that room that day to go be with her little boy and I would come back and work with our editors to tell his story.  Hopefully we could help the conference inspire people to give to the cause, to help fund the research that could save Liam’s life.   We shared Liam’s story at the conference — it certainly moved people.  It moved me making it.   It felt good to take the best of what I am and use it to help, it always does.  But a few days later my life went back to “normal.”  I became preoccupied with myself, the things I wanted, the frustration of the situations and circumstances in my own life that didn’t go my way.   I forgot about Liam and the fact that he was the one really struggling.

A few months ago, we were contacted by The Sohn Foundation to talk about this year’s conference.  In our first discussion they told us they wanted to do another story on Liam.  It wasn’t to update us on his recovery or remission…but to remember him.

On January 24th, 2011 Liam Witt lost his battle with cancer.  He was 6 years old.

Little by little, information about and footage from the past year trickled into me.  The first was a skyped video from a famous friend.  Over the summer, Jack Johnson recorded his favorite song “Talk of the Town,” especially for Liam.  According to Gretchen, Jack’s music helped Liam sleep on even the most difficult of nights.   At the end of the song, Jack tells Liam to, “take care,” and that he’ll, “see him soon.”

The song was a moving gift — but it was nothing compared to what some of Liam’s other friends did for him.  Throughout Liam’s treatment, he would go over and visit the firefighters at Engine Company # 24 Ladder 1 — located right near Madison Square Garden.  A few weeks ago, I went to that firehouse with my crew and I interviewed a few of these firefighters.

They told me how Liam would come in all the time to look at the trucks and how he’d ask dozens of questions about how they worked.  Sometimes before they could reply, he already had the answer ready.  He’d eat their ice cream and watch TV with them…and then he’d go for treatment.  If too many days passed between visits many of them would feel it, they’d know something was missing.  Usually it meant that he was going through a difficult point in his treatment and was staying at the hospital.  During those times the firefighters would go over to the hospital to visit him in shifts.   They talked about how they learned about his death, the chain of phone calls from firefighter to firefighter, each informing the next that their friend was gone.  And then they told me about how they chose to honor him…

When a firefighter passes away, it’s tradition for him to be given a “Hero’s Salute,” by his fellow firefighters.  And this is how the firefighters of Ladder Co # 24 would honor their friend, because according to them, he “was one of them.”  At a Memorial Service held in Liam’s honor on Valentine’s Day…bagpipes would play in Liam’s honor, dozens of firefighters would stand tall and proud.  And those of them that were closest to Liam would give a helmet and folded American flag to his mother.

Firefighters from Ladder Co 24 Engine Co 1 honor Liam at his Memorial Service.

Back at their home, the firefighters would dedicate a locker to Liam, adorned with his name and a letter he had once written them in magic marker that reminded them how much he loved them.  In that locker would hang a little fireman’s jacket and reside a little helmet.  They belonged to Liam, and they always will.

Every time he goes out on a call, one of these firefighters carries a wallet-sized picture of Liam in his helmet.  When I asked him why, he told me, “because he’s my little angel, and it reminds me that he’s always with me…looking out for me.”

One of the first things I noticed that day, as I wandered around that firehouse was a gigantic bell and plaque dedicated to the firefighters lost on September 11th.  I immediately thought back to that day, now almost 10 years ago, and how we were all reminded of what COURAGE really was, what BRAVERY really meant.  And that day I would discover a new meaning for it, one embodied by a six year old boy.

I asked each of these firefighters what they learned from their friend.  He taught them perspective and understanding, he reminded them about the importance of empathy and the value of true, unconditional friendship.  But most of all, this little boy showed these grown men what it really meant to be brave.  Each of these men talked about how they choose to enter burning buildings every day, but this little boy didn’t ever have a choice when it came to his fate.  Despite this, whether he was leaving his friends at the firehouse or the doctors and nurses at the hospital, nobody remembers Liam dragging his feet, throwing a tempter tantrum, or complaining about the pain.  All they remember, that no matter where Liam was going next, he was always sure to tell people he loved them before he left.   Liam reminded them, and me that we don’t always have control over what happens to us or what other people do to us.  What we do always have control over though, is how we handle it.  That’s always up to us.  Even on his darkest days Liam chose to see the bright side.

A little boy shouldn’t have to show this much strength.  He shouldn’t be asked to struggle with that kind of pain.  He shouldn’t be robbed of long summer days.  A little boy shouldn’t ever be asked to teach US a lesson about what it means to live a life to its fullest.  But Liam Witt did do these things, he did leave that lesson behind.  In my opinion, the least each of us can do — is learn what that lesson means for us. If you ask me, in his six years here, Liam Witt knew more about what it means to live life than most adults…including me.

I never had the honor of meeting Prince Liam the Brave, but I can tell you what I’ve learned from him.  I’ve learned that the cancer that stole his life wasn’t really that “rare,” but his spirit and courage couldn’t have been any more precious.  I learned that telling people you love them doesn’t cost anything other than courage.  He reminded me that happiness isn’t something to be found in someone or something outside of us…the key to it is always within us, and it’s a door that only we can choose to leave open.

I’m not a firefighter.  I’m not a scientist or a doctor…and I’ll never be.  But I am a teller and sharer of stories — and this is how I choose to honor Liam Witt.

I hope this story has stirred and inspired you.  If so, I now challenge you to find the courage within yourself to discover how YOU can honor this brave little boy.   It doesn’t necessarily need to be much…maybe tomorrow when you’re leaving your home or getting off the phone with someone you care about, take the extra few seconds to tell them you love them.

That’s what Liam would do.

*      *     *

If this story has inspired you, please join Liam’s parents in their fight against pediatric cancer at:

http://www.cookiesforkidscancer.org

And to learn more about The Sohn Conference Foundation please visit:

http://www.irasohnconference.com

~ by Dan Fabrizio on May 27, 2011.

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