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Death Be Not Proud

Fred Barnes's Polish errand

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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On the Weekly Standard cruise to Bermuda in July, I received an unusual request. After dinner one evening, I was approached by Carrie Ann Stallings from Jackson, Mississippi. She was on the ship with her husband, Alan.

Alan Stallings III

Alan Stallings III

Stallings family

She had heard I’d be leaving the cruise early, flying to London, and joining Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel and Poland. Maybe I’d mentioned my plans when I spoke to cruise participants. I don’t recall. But Carrie Ann and Alan were interested in the fact I’d be going to Poland.

Their son, Alan III, had died in 2008 after a long battle with brain cancer. He was 11 years old. A curious and perceptive boy with a strong wanderlust, he had studied maps and loved geography. He knew exactly the places he wanted to visit, only couldn’t after he became mysteriously ill when he was 5.

His father, Alan Jr., and Carrie Ann didn’t forget his plans. To honor their son and ease their grief, they decided to spread his ashes in places young Alan had been eager to see in person. They’d already done this along the Douro River in Portugal, on a beach in Ireland, and in Italy, Bermuda, and the Atlantic Ocean. But not Poland.

Thus Carrie Ann’s request: Would I take a container of Alan III’s ashes and spread them on Polish soil? On Weekly Standard cruises, I’m usually asked about politics. This question took me by surprise. But how could I say no? Besides, I wasn’t inclined to. I said yes, and within minutes, Carrie Ann had gone to her cabin and returned with the container.

I had one worry. It wasn’t about finding an appropriate spot in Poland for a boy’s ashes. It was about airport security. Would the container in my luggage show up in X-rays or searches and raise questions? Might it be seized?

I’ll get back to that, but first I’ll tell you about Alan III, nicknamed “A3,” and his parents. Discovering your child has cancer is among the worst nightmares for parents. But there’s something even more cruel. Alan and Carrie Ann watched as their son suffered through more than six years of tests, faulty diagnoses, operations, radiation, and, perhaps worst of all, false hopes. Yet Alan III never complained. “He wasn’t fearless,” his father says, “but he was brave.”

The first symptom appeared when he was playing soccer. His father noticed he didn’t turn his head to follow the ball. He turned his whole body. Why? “It hurts to turn my head,” he told his father.

That began Alan’s odyssey as a patient. His father, an anesthesiologist, knew where to start. Alan III saw an orthopedic surgeon, a neurologist, and a rheumatism specialist. He was put in traction for nearly a year. Then, in an MRI, a brain tumor was discovered. “The tumor was vanishingly rare,” his father said, “probably much less than 100 worldwide per year.”

The prognosis was grim. “Nobody wants to face the mortality rate on this,” Alan Jr. said. Still, he was furious when a doctor within earshot said of patients with this kind of tumor, “They all die.” 

Alan III had two operations at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), one lasting 11 hours, the other 18. The family went home to Jackson. When Alan III experienced weakness in a leg, he returned to Philly for a stem cell transplant, after which he seemed to be doing fine. There was hope for survival. But an MRI found a new tumor. And hope died.

I learned two special things about the boy. He missed most of the second grade and all of the third, but went back for the fourth and excelled. The Make a Wish people awarded him a trip anywhere he’d like to go. He couldn’t speak. He wrote “Brazil.” He was too sick to go.

The Stallings are now on the board of visitors for neuro-science at CHOP, raising money for research on tumors like their son’s. “The key to this one seems to have Nobel Prize-magnitude spin-offs and .  .  . [may] provide a window for a cure for cancers that are much more prevalent,” Alan Jr. says.

As for me, I had no trouble with airport security. When I got to Poland, I skipped Romney’s session with Polish officials and wandered through the old city of Gdansk. I was looking for a church. I found one but no churchyard. Nearby there was a cool spot shaded by trees. I scratched a hole in the ground and dropped the ashes of Alan Stallings III in it. I said a prayer. My task was done.

Fred Barnes


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