As Nickia Williams sat by her son’s bedside, watching his little body dying by inches underneath his Spiderman pajamas, she’d begin to cry. Quick to comfort her, he’d tell his mom he’d be OK. Just don’t worry.
Christopher Nesbitt was 8 years old and dying of neuroblastoma, a pediatric cancer of specialized nerve cells.
The fourth of eight children born into poverty to a single mother, Christopher had spunk, always on the go and talking to everyone he met. Nickia describes her son as a "little man," one of those rare souls aged beyond their years. She counted on him to keep her other kids in line. "Remember what mom said…," he would remind his older brothers and sisters. He was more settled with himself than her other children, she says, content with who he was and with whatever little bit he had.
And when cancer took him by storm, the strength of Christopher’s personality reached out to all who encountered him.
"He changed my life. I learned a lot from him. His bravery influenced me to do a lot of things I didn’t think I could do," his godfather Lamont Sharpe says. "He lives life to the fullest and that motivates me to never give up."
Always careening around their working class neighborhood on his bike, Christopher shook off the normal bumps and bruises of childhood. But one day he fell off his bike and hurt his knee. Thinking it was just another minor injury, Nickia encouraged him to get back to playing. But the pain continued and then Christopher, who could eat like a football linebacker, stopped asking for seconds during meals. Soon he was eating very little. Nickia thought he was coming down with a cold or the flu until she picked him up from daycare and noticed how heavily he leaned on the wall to walk down the stairs. His stomach was so distended he looked pregnant.
The diagnosis of neuroblastoma left Nickia wracked with guilt. What if I had realized what was wrong sooner? What if I had taken him to the doctor as soon as he fell off his bike, Nickia agonized. But Christopher rarely let his mother or his grandmother, who helped care for him, know he was suffering.
Christopher started chemotherapy at Children’s Memorial Hospital, where he remained for several months. Nickia stayed as often as possible, but she was pregnant with her eighth child and had six others at home. Christopher was often alone.
"When times got hard and I wasn’t able to sit with Chris (during chemotherapy), I would have to drop him off and go take care of my other kids and come back when he was done, and whoever was in the room with him loved him to death," Nickia remembers.
Unfailingly polite and undaunted by his time alone in the hospital, Christopher kept his pain to himself and set about endearing himself to those he met. He took to visiting the nurses’ station, chatting with his favorite nurses or giving them back rubs when they were tired. The nurses nicknamed him the Mayor of the Fourth Floor.
"So many people that I met, when we’d come back to the hospital, they would know him. Wherever we were, he touches the heart of everyone," Nickia said.
One day at the hospital, as Nickia talked on her cell phone about her financial problems, another patient’s mom came up to her. "We were going through a crisis," Nickia says. "I came home to get the kids ready for Thanksgiving and I borrowed my mom’s car to get back to the hospital." Pulled over on her way to see Christopher, the car was impounded for previous violations. The $200 to get the car back was more than either Nickia or her mom could come up with. "We didn’t have any money and the car was gone. I was frustrated. It was overwhelming." The woman, whose name Nickia never found out, said she adored Christopher. The woman pressed something into Nickia’s hands and walked away. It was $700.
"A lot of good comes from Chris," Nickia says. "I thanked God and said you touched the heart of someone to help me. I was on my knees crying."
When Christopher came back home, he had tubes in his chest to continue chemotherapy but still longed to keep up with his older siblings. He frequently begged to go with Lamont, a 22-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, whose godsister was close friends with Christopher’s older sister.
Charmed by the little boy who was determined not to let cancer slow him down, Lamont took Christopher out—trips to Chuck E. Cheese where Lamont worked, out to see the Fourth of July fireworks. Watching Christopher, Lamont says he learned about bravery, about pushing past pain and living life no matter how tough the circumstances. "There’s times I’d start crying and he’d be in pain and he’d tell me he’s fine so that I’d stop crying," Lamont says.
As Christopher’s illness progressed, Lamont wanted him to have a dad helping him through. "I asked to be his godfather because I felt really close to him," he says. "I made a pledge to myself to do what I could to make his life better. I took him like a son."
Instead of spending his weekends partying and enjoying college life, Lamont headed to Markham from Wisconsin to see Christopher. Eventually Lamont was spending weekends sitting by Christopher’s bed holding his hand. Sometimes he just asked Lamont to hold his hand while they watched cartoons—usually his favorite, Spiderman. As the illness progressed, Christopher had days where he was afraid to be alone. He wanted to be held.
But most days Christopher remained strong. "We’d have to tell him it’s OK to tell us you’re in pain," Lamont says.
As it became clear even to Christopher that he couldn’t beat the illness, he gave Lamont a favorite pillow that he’d bought on a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World. "He said no matter what happens, always think of me like this pillow. I’m always there," Lamont remembers.
Hospice had asked Nickia to tell Christopher it was OK to go, that he’d fought hard enough, but the night before he died, Nickia wanted to know how. "I have to let him go, but whoever could do that? When I was holding him, I tried to tell God you could take him but I just couldn’t do it. I just asked Him why couldn’t He make him better. I asked Him why does it have to be my child?"
Christopher has the best soul and spirit you could ever want, she says. "He’ll love you even when you don’t love yourself," she says. Even when you struggle and fight against his leaving, even when you lose your faith because you don’t understand why God could do this to your child.
On the morning of Jan. 14, in a small corner room in their rundown home, Christopher opened his eyes, saw his mom there with him and closed his eyes for the last time. "Chris has been so strong," Nickia says. "He was stronger than me."