Boy’s Christ­mas wish: A grave­stone for friend

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY GE­ORGE HUNTER The Detroit News

The friend­ship of Kaleb Klaku­lak and Kenneth “K.J.” Gross was cut short too soon, but a sym­bol of their child­hood bond some­day may be etched in stone.

“I love Ms. San,” he said. “I was sad she couldn’t af­ford it. I wanted peo­ple to be able to find (K.J.’s grave) when they went to see him.”

Two weeks ago, Kaleb’s mom, Kristy Hall of Romeo, helped him set up a PayPal ac­count and posted on Face­book: “If you have bot­tles or odd jobs that Kaleb can do to earn money he would greatly ap­pre­ci­ate that.

“I re­ally think this is a great thing for Kaleb to fo­cus on and help him with his heal­ing as well as K.J.’s mom, who misses her baby and has to visit an un­marked grave,” Hall wrote.

Do­na­tions, deposit bot­tles and job of­fers came in, and Kaleb’s mom says he’s about half­way to his goal of $2,500.

Sin­gle­ton, who lives in War­ren, said she’s over­whelmed by the ges­ture.

“My son’s not here, but (Kaleb) still loves my son enough to (do) this,” she said, her eyes wa­ter­ing. “It just speaks vol­umes to the type of peo­ple that they are, and it speaks to the type of per­son that K.J. was — he im­pacted peo­ple to where they want to do this for him.”

When K.J. was hos­pi­tal­ized for the last time in Jan­uary, Sin­gle­ton quit her job as a school cafe­te­ria worker so she could sit at his bed­side full-time. She re­turned to work at Madi­son Heights High School in Septem­ber, but with five chil­dren and a mother with Alzheimer’s dis­ease, she says money is tight.

Last week, Kaleb, his mom and step­fa­ther, Jimmy Hall, sur­prised Sin­gle­ton with $900 they had raised. The mo­ment was cap­tured on cell­phone video: Sin­gle­ton buried her face in her hands and sobbed be­fore giv­ing Kaleb a long, tight hug.

Sin­gle­ton said she cried plenty af­ter K.J. was born.

“We found out at 13 months old that he had leukemia,” she said. “He got a bone mar­row trans­plant from his sis­ter. Three­and-a-half years later, he re­lapsed, and he had to get an­other bone mar­row trans­plant from an un­known donor.”

When K.J. started sec­ond grade at the Ma­comb Montes­sori Acad­emy in War­ren, he gushed about a new friend he’d made, Sin­gle­ton said.

“K.J. used to come home ev­ery day telling me about Kaleb: ‘Mom, you’ve got to meet Kaleb; you’ve got to meet Kaleb,’ ” she said. “At the end of the school year, I fi­nally met Kaleb. Then I met his mom, and we all just clicked.

“He and K.J. were so much alike,” Sin­gle­ton said. “They were kin­dred spir­its; they were like broth­ers. Even their fa­cial fea­tures were alike — the glasses and ev­ery­thing.”

Kaleb in­vited K.J. to Va­ca­tion Bi­ble School at Em­manuel Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in War­ren. K.J. en­joyed it, re­turn­ing reg­u­larly for ser­vices and other ac­tiv­i­ties, his mom said.

The boys of­ten hud­dled in front of the TV, thumbs tap­ping away at their PlayS­ta­tion con­trollers as they com­peted in the vir­tual WWE ring.

Af­ter he had strug­gled for years with leukemia, in 2015, K.J.’s doc­tor told him he was cancer-free. But the chemo­ther­apy had taken a toll, and he was di­ag­nosed with con­ges­tive heart fail­ure.

Al­though K.J. was in and out of the hos­pi­tal for three years with heart problems, he main­tained his sunny outlook, his mom said.

“He was al­ways smil­ing. He could tell if you were go­ing through some­thing, and he’d come up to you and say, ‘It’s go­ing to be OK,’ ” she said.

But K.J.’s con­di­tion wors­ened. He needed a heart trans­plant. On Jan. 7, he was ad­mit­ted to Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Detroit for the last time.

“Be­fore he went in, we knew it was go­ing to be long-term,” Sin­gle­ton said. “I moved in there with him.”

K.J. had two leaky heart valves, so as he waited for a donor heart, doc­tors im­planted an HVAD pump in his left ven­tri­cle. It was fu­tile.

“Af­ter he had the de­vice put in, ev­ery­thing they ex­pected to hap­pen, the op­po­site hap­pened,” Sin­gle­ton said. “The de­vice was not help­ing him.”

K.J. was de­pressed, so his doc­tor bent the rules to al­low Kaleb to visit him, Hall said.

“Kaleb was too young to go into the ICU, but the doc­tor made an ex­cep­tion ... be­cause he thought K.J. needed his best friend,” she said. “They would paint to­gether, and play video games to­gether. K.J. was in­tu­bated, so he wasn’t able to speak. But they would com­mu­ni­cate. It was pretty amaz­ing to watch.”

Most Wed­nes­days, K.J. tuned into live video streams of ser­vices at Em­manuel Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church.

“K.J. loved to sing, so when he was able to, he’d sing along,” Sin­gle­ton said.

One morn­ing, with his health rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, K.J. woke up at 6:30 and wrote out a re­quest to his mom.

“He was in­tu­bated, but he was able to com­mu­ni­cate on a white­board what he wanted to do,” she said. “He loved do­ing art in the hos­pi­tal, so he wrote, ‘I want to paint.’ We painted all day; he painted some­thing for ev­ery­body that he loved. Then he slept for three days. I be­lieve that was his way of giv­ing some­thing to ev­ery­body he loved, be­cause he knew it was get­ting close.”

Sin­gle­ton said she fi­nally asked her son an ag­o­niz­ing ques­tion: Did he want to stay on life sup­port?

“I told him the de­ci­sion was his — as long as con­tin­ued to want to fight for the heart, I’d be there for him,” she said. “I would’ve loved to keep him here for­ever, but I told him if at any point he got tired, just to tell me and we’d stop. I kept ask­ing him: ‘You still want to fight? You still want your heart, K.J.?’ He’d say yes.

“Right be­fore he passed, I asked him if he wanted his heart, and he didn’t an­swer. He just looked at me. I knew that he was tired. He mouthed to me that he couldn’t breathe. They al­ready had the ven­ti­la­tor at the high­est set­ting. He had to be put back on dial­y­sis, and he was bleed­ing out. And I knew that it was just time.”

Hall said she got the bad news as she pre­pared to take Kaleb for his weekly hos­pi­tal visit.

“It was a Tues­day, our usual day to go visit K.J., and I texted his mom and said, ‘so is our lit­tle buddy ready for a visit to­day?’ Some­times if he wasn’t feel­ing well, we’d make it for the next day.

“She called me right away, so I knew some­thing was wrong,” Hall said. “And she asked me to bring Kaleb to come say good­bye, be­cause they were go­ing to take him off life sup­port.”

Hall and Kaleb went to the hos­pi­tal and went into K.J.’s room. “He was alive but not con­scious,” she said.

Kaleb couldn’t bear to watch his friend die, so Hall took him to a wait­ing room.

“Af­ter he had passed and San had some time alone with him we were able to go in the room and see him,” Hall said. “He was tube free. He was a beau­ti­ful an­gel. It was the first time in months we got to see just him.

“We left and Kaleb be­gan throw­ing up from a mi­graine,” Hall said. “This was his first ex­pe­ri­ence with the death of any­one close to him.”

Sin­gle­ton said her son “went peace­fully. He was ready to go . ... God wanted him back.”

Af­ter his fu­neral at Em­manuel Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist, K.J. was buried in a fam­ily plot at Elm­wood Ceme­tery. Soon, Kaleb hopes, the gravesite will bear a marker.

Sin­gle­ton said Kaleb and his fam­ily are help­ing her deal with los­ing K.J.

“They’re amaz­ing peo­ple,” she said. “When you just think that the world is in such a bad place, and ev­ery­body is so an­gry, and there’s so much ha­tred ... they make you think of things dif­fer­ently.”

Kaleb said he’ll cher­ish his fa­vorite mem­ory of K.J.:

“I kept hid­ing and scar­ing him,” he said. “He laughed a lot.”

Do­nate to K.J.’s head­stone fund at paypal.com.

David Gu­ral­nick / The Detroit News

LaSon­dra “San” Sin­gle­ton said she’s over­whelmed by Kaleb’s ges­ture. “It just speaks vol­umes to the type of peo­ple that they are, and it speaks to the type of per­son that K.J. was.”

Klaku­lak fam­ily

K.J. and Kaleb were best friends since sec­ond grade. “They were kin­dred spir­its,” said K.J.’s mother, LaSon­dra “San” Sin­gle­ton.

Fam­ily photo

K.J. was di­ag­nosed with leukemia as an in­fant and en­dured surg­eries through­out his life.

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