Life and Death of Nels Stumo

On February 10, 1999, a little 26 month old boy, Nels Stumo, returned home from the hospital with his parents. “Out,” Nels urged his mother to take him for a walk outside. Returning inside five minutes later, he said “Sit,” and his mother laid him down on the living room couch. “Water,” he asked his Daddy and, sitting up, he took a sip. Always in command of his needs, Nels, in the arms of his parents, slowly leaned back and lost his eight month long battle with neuroblastoma cancer.

Everybody who came in contact with Nels, during the agonizing months of going to hospitals and clinics from Hartford to Boston to Philadelphia to Houston, was touched by his character. Little children often have distinct personalities. But Nels also had character.

Even before the first symptoms of this deadly affliction appeared in May 1998, when one of his feet started dragging, there was something different about this little boy. He was bright, but this was not what caught one’s attention. At six months when he was carried into a room full of people, his eyes scanned the room, absorbed and reacted. As he grew older, he would scan, absorb and respond.

Nels saw his older siblings, age six and four, play and fall. He would rush over to help them, even when his body was weakened by the cancer and the various cancer treatments. Once wracked by pain, with tubes through his nose, he remained an outward child. “I love Torleif,” he would repeatedly say as he lay near his twomonth old brother one morning.

With one of the tumors, the size of a grapefruit on the side of his head, he would say “Book” to his mother so as to distract the pain. Once on the phone, he said to his great aunt — “Mama is going to read me a book about ducks.”

In the painful midst of blurting “Aowee, Aowee,” and pointing to the place where he was hurting, he had the self-possession to urge neatness. “Put back on the table,” “cover me” he would say.

Nels was not self-absorbed under the kind of pressure that would cause most children to implode. He was very patient. When his mother had to interrupt her almost constant attentiveness, in order to nurse infant, Tor, he would utter an understanding “Ok Mama.” When his mother could not hold back her tears, he would notice through all the feeding and chemo tubes and utter “Mama, don’t cry.”

Nels had lots of support — round-the-clock committed mother and father, relatives, friends, his Church. Both his older sister and brother made life more normal in very abnormal circumstances — not a glimmer of sibling rivalry. None of this loving care and attention spoiled him in the least and he had the awful discomfort, despite pain relievers, to have let himself be spoiled.

Nels had other business he wished to attend to during his illness. He was a networker, an includer of people who would come to wherever he was. Nurses and Doctors marvelled at his reaching out. At age two, during one hospital visit, he hobbled over to the watercooler and started handing out cups. The littledispatcher that he became with adults charmed and astonished his well-wishers.

Remarkable self-control, compassion, observational powers un-related to his immediate condition, a dignity even when he was throwing up, and crying from dire provocation of that cancerous hurricane throughout his body and then recovering his sunny disposition with that famous smile — all this while being battered from blood draws, transfusions, conventional medicine and experimental medicine by many health care people.

Once in a moment of respite, Nels was sitting on his mother’s lap in a sitting room and he saw me enter. Immediately, he handed his empty glass of milk for me to get a refill. I motioned toward the kitchen where his grandmother was. Nels started mildly crying with some agitation. I didn’t understand that he wanted me to bring him his milk in order to include me with others in the room. His request was more social than one of thirst.

That was Nels, a little teacher and arranger. The world will never know what it lost when this “deep character” child left it. But the memories of Nels will stay on to teach others because, even at such a tender age, his traits, like those before him, are for the ages.

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