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Farewell, Jack …

Jack Kunkle died yesterday morning.

He was an amazing, amazing young man whom I met when he reached out to me as an 11-year-old in treatment for a brain tumor. I knew him for a long time, but admittedly, not very well. You can read some of the details in the post titled, “Emily, Matthew, Jack & Jack” below.

What I didn’t write about at that time is the big impact Jack had on me. I meet kids with cancer all the time as a result of having written two fairly popular books on the subject, and of course they’re all nice to me. I mean, I’m the visiting author, and I wrote two books to honor their experience. Why wouldn’t they be nice to me?

The remarkable thing about Jack, and it was impossible to spend any time in his company without realizing it, is that he was nice to everyone, all the time. Think about how hard that is, even if you aren’t fighting cancer. When you factor in the extreme difficulties of Jack’s seven years in and out of treatment, which also included dealing with a bout of cancer his mother went through, his unfailing kindness was extraordinary.

So extraordinary, in fact, that I based the main character of my next novel, a sixth grader who wakes up one morning and decides to be unfailingly kind, helpful, and heroic, regardless of the consequences, on Jack. And, of course, the book will be dedicated to his memory. I had sent the first eighty or so pages of the rough draft to Jack so that he could see what he had inspired, and, typically, just a few days ago, he emailed me to ask whether I wanted him to send me feedback as he went along, and if so, what type of feedback would be the most helpful. I just wanted Jack to see what he had done for me, but he was trying to the end to help me.

Ever since I spent a couple of hours with him at a Starbucks last spring, I have been thinking and thinking about some of the things that happened while we were there. He offered several times to pick up the tab. He kept asking how I was enjoying my food and drink. He wanted to know whether my flight and the drive out to his home had gone smoothly. This wasn’t a put-on, or simple good manners; this was who Jack was. Another remarkable thing was how many people came up to Jack and hugged him, shared a quick smile or a little anecdote, and then left. It was very much as though I were sitting with the mayor of his small town. And again, his desire to put each person at ease was clear. This was a young man who’d gone through brain surgery just weeks before, but he asked every single person, “How are you doing? How’s your wife? Your little sister? The dog? The cat?”

He appeared truly to be interested in everyone else’s needs, at a time when his would always be the greatest in the room.

We spoke, as we generally had online, of our shared loves: the Beatles, the theater, creative writing, comedy. Then, as the time came close for me to leave, he got the closest he had all day to the semi-forbidden topic of the future. (As in every interaction I’d ever had with Jack, or with anyone in his family, I felt the avoidance of the topic was to make others, rather than the Kunkles themselves, more comfortable.) He brought up his friends who would be leaving for college in the fall, and the fact that he’d had to defer his college plans for the duration of his cancer treatment. Then he mentioned his desire to major in creative writing, which was his truest passion. He told me he was worried, though, about whether that was practical. In what I was coming to see as classic Jack fashion, he was concerned about making a living after college because he didn’t want to be a burden on anybody. In his final analysis, though, he concluded that you had to at least try for your dreams in life — didn’t you?

Jack was supposed to have six days of intensive chemotherapy earlier this month, and then undergo an autologous stem-cell transplant. However, after the first two days of treatment, things went south, and the doctors discovered that Jack’s tumor had grown unexpectedly. The decision was made at that point to stop treatment.

And now Jack is gone. Like many, many others who knew him — most far better than I did — I am crushed. But I am choosing to believe he has finally gotten to go to college, at the most beautiful floating creative-writing university in the sky.

So, Jack, please feel free to take a three-day weekend. Relax, and get used to the place. Because on Tuesday bright and early, you have Improv Comedy 101 with Drs. Radner, Belushi, and Williams, followed by Intro to Songwriting with Lennon and Harrison. Then on Wednesday, you start Writing for The Stage with Dr. Shakespeare. They’re all waiting to meet you.

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