Art and soul: Evan Gary’s crafts, faith live on
Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
Evan Gary died of leukemia nearly four years ago at age 14, but he is still very much a part of his family.
He’s there in the photos that adorn nearly every surface in the Garys’ Litchfield Park, Ariz., home, images of three sons in descending sizes, boys with bright smiles under carefully combed blond hair.
He’s there in crafts he made during 25 months of cancer treatments — pipe cleaners formed into a fruit basket, a coral reef, a box with myriad tools.
“He made this for me,” said younger brother Jonathan, now the same age as Evan when he died, holding a black-and-white pipe-cleaner killer whale.
His name carries on in the Grand Canyon University Scholarship Foundation’s Evan C. Gary Memorial Scholarship and in the 4R_Evan team, which for the third straight year is participating in the GCU Foundation Run to Fight Children’s Cancer on Saturday, March 12.
But most significantly, Evan is a bright, warm, loving presence living in the hearts of his mother, Carol, his father, Grant, and brothers, Jonathan, 14, and Simon, nearly 12.
“At the end of the day, Evan is an inspiration,” said Grant, sitting on a couch beside his wife and sons. “Someday we’ll be with him again.”
Carol is passionate about the need to develop safer, more effective cancer treatments for Arizona’s children. Her family’s last 25 months with Evan would have been sliced to less than a year if not for the medical care he received.
Like Carol, Patti Luttrell, executive director and co-founder of Children’s Cancer Network in Chandler, Ariz., is a GCU alumna dedicated to helping families overcome the hardships of childhood cancer. Her son, Jeff, 27, is a long-term cancer survivor.
Luttrell’s organization and Phoenix Children’s Hospital are beneficiaries of Run to Fight Children’s Cancer, which to date has raised nearly $400,000.
The grieving process
Both mothers are equally eloquent about the devastation of childhood cancer, from the great need for funding to the loneliness that comes when friends and loved ones back away after a child is diagnosed with or dies from cancer.
Grieving continues well past the formal farewell of a child’s funeral, said Luttrell, whose network supports more than 650 Arizona families yearly. A child’s birthday, an anniversary of his or her death, and holidays can trigger sadness that family and friends can soothe.“It’s an incredible tragedy and it makes everyone so sad, and it shouldn’t happen and yet it does,” Luttrell said. “And when it does, some people don’t know quite what to do.”
“Keep checking in with the person, try to be there for them, let them be who they are and let them know you are there for them,” said Luttrell, a former faculty member in GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. “Just listening, sitting with someone and letting them talk and cry and just be, is so important.”
The Garys were comforted by an outpouring of support during Evan’s illness and passing, which Carol chronicled on the Caring Bridge (http:www.caringbridge.org/visit/evangary).
“However, within the first month of his passing, most folks had fallen off the radar. Postings to the Caring Bridge, personal emails, letters and calls slowed and then stopped altogether,” she said.
“We knew the outpouring would end at some point, and it was understandable that a vast majority of those who had been praying for him and hoping for his recovery no longer felt that they had a role to play in our lives.”
While Evan was still alive, Gary began to grieve in increments. At first, she doubted Evan would live to marry or have his own children. She gradually accepted that he probably wouldn’t graduate from college or high school, and she was right: Evan would have been a senior this year.
“You realize over time there are things you unconsciously let go of,” Gary said. “Your horizon of hope shortens over time.”
Her often bedridden and, at times, bald son endured numerous medical trials and rounds of cancer treatments. The family traveled to hospitals in Washington, Maryland and Tennessee as Evan’s illness became more about battling infections than fighting cancer. The Garys strived to keep him optimistic and looking ahead to the next treatment option, the next day’s activities, a possible trip to Disney World.
“The one thing that we could do was to protect his hope,” she said. Brought up in a family that is deeply religious, Evan also was buoyed by his belief in Jesus Christ. He had a servant’s heart and wanted others to experience his Savior’s blessings, his mother said, adding, “He always wanted people to know the love of the Lord.”
The night before Evan passed away, when he was so weak he needed help to move, he suddenly sat straight up in bed and told his mother, “I’m going to serve Jesus, and Him alone. I’m going to do what’s right. How about you?”
“He was so grateful that he knew the Lord and he knew where he was going at some point,” she said. “At the end of the day, it is our relationship with people and the Lord that really matters. He just really exemplified that. … He kept that faith ’til the very, very last.”
Refusing to be a cancer victim
Jeff Luttrell was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993 at age 5, on the second day of kindergarten.
He since has gone numerous rounds with cancer, including a bone-marrow transplant in seventh grade and bouts with secondary cancer of the mouth.
Once when Jeff was hospitalized in Tucson, Ariz., the young girl who shared his room passed away. Jeff’s sister, Jenny, was deeply moved by the plight of the girl’s parents, who had to suffer additionally because they didn’t have enough gas money to drive home from the hospital.
In 2004, the Luttrells founded Children’s Cancer Network, which offers educational resources as well as financial assistance in the form of gas and food gift cards, wigs, college scholarships and more. The network has provided more than $1.5 million in patient services, Patti Luttrell said.
“We work with Arizona families throughout their journey, wherever it is needed most,” she said.
The Garys felt called to homeschool their children from the time Evan was young, and Carol is paying it forward serving as the Arizona state ambassador for the Home School Foundation. That means helping homeschooling families through hard times, which often involves families whose children have difficult medical issues.
Whenever Evan was staying in an out-of-state hospital, the Garys traveled with 20 pieces of luggage, textbooks, art supplies and musical instruments and continued to homeschool. He made elaborate Lego and pipe cleaner creations, played music and devoured one book after another. A favorite was “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
“We never had to give up a day with him,” Grant said. “I think that is a lot of how the Lord helped us cope.”
On his last day, Nov. 28, 2012, his mother said Evan was ready for heaven. And she was ready to let him go when she heard God say, “Carol, I’ve got him. It’s OK. You can let go.”
Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.