Sixteen-year-old Ben Leary smiles too much. That’s what they tell me.
“Ben’s smile could light up a room,” says his aunt. “It absolutely lights up the room.”
Tonight, Ben’s smile is lighting up a little room inside the Ronald McDonald house on Alabama Avenue, in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s been there since June.
Right now, he’s probably lying in bed, watching movies on his laptop. Or maybe he’s texting with friends, or watching YouTube.
This last year has been a doozie. Radiation treatments have taken his energy, and he’s been tired. Inside and out.
But he smiles a lot.
It all started with headaches last September. Ben was getting ready for homecoming. He was going to take his neighbor, Julia, to a dance. It was going to be a good year. A very good year.
But headaches kept getting worse. Then came the bouts of anxiety. Then, exhaustion. The symptoms seemed minor at first, but became crippling.
One morning, he awoke with head pain too intense to bear. His mother took him to the emergency room.
Bad news. The MRI showed a tumor on his frontal lobe. A big one. Glioblastoma—one of the most aggressive brain cancers there is.
They rushed him to the hospital for surgery. It was traumatic—not just for Ben, but for the whole family. And surgery was only the beginning of a long road.
More heartache came afterward. Another brain operation, a few months later. Hospital transfers. Medications. Recovery. Thirty-six radiation treatments. Thirty-six.
This is cancer in the twenty-first century, and it’s not cheap.
You know the drill, the family’s world gets shaken upside down like a piggy bank. And it’s nothing but waiting rooms thereafter. His parents slept in vinyl chairs, his brother and sister lived on vending machine food. And Ben fought.
But the radiation wasn’t working. Soon: three new tumors. Two at the base of the brain, one on his spine. One growth, so big it impedes Ben’s vocal chords—he can hardly swallow. But he can still smile.
“It’s not often,” says Ben’s sister, “that he doesn’t have a smile on his face.”
Maybe Ben smiles because he knows something most people don’t. Something big. Something I wish I knew. Something that makes him unafraid.
Or maybe it’s because only six hours South of Memphis, thirty-four thousand people are thinking of him. Praying for him. Hoping for him.
Ben’s hometown of Houma, Louisiana, is your average offshore oil town. It’s full of shrimpers, crabbers, fishermen, oystermen, oil-rig workers, and shipbuilders. And these hometown folks take care of their own.
The support has been staggering. The high-school choir performed at the local Italian restaurant to raise funds for Ben’s family. His classmates made bracelets that read: “Hope with Ben.”
Then came the area-wide prayer service. Over four hundred students, faculty, neighbors, friends, and family turned out. Then, there was the benefit auction.
And I’m just warming up.
Louisiana State Police Troop C sent Ben to New York City. Ben saw the skyscraper lights, Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the Empire State Building.
There have been online fundraisers, hospital visits, video messages from classmates, phone calls, texts, emails, voicemails, truckloads of stationary, chicken casseroles, plastic-wrapped gift baskets, colorful bouquets, and enough prayers to split Peruvian granite. And love.
Maybe that’s where his smile comes from. Maybe.
I don’t know. But I do know that news of Ben’s trademarked grin has traveled beyond Houma, outward to Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
One Dallas neighborhood, for instance, sold hot chocolate to raise money for a new laptop and headphones so Ben could watch movies and listen to music. It’s the same laptop he’s probably using to read this.
I hope he does read this. In fact, that’s why I’m writing it.
Because yesterday, Ben told his aunt that he couldn’t wait to see his name in black-and-white print.
I hope he knows that this redheaded writer’s attempt to depict him in black-and-white is pathetic. That’s because Ben’s smile could never be described on a page. Not when it’s a smile like his. The smile of a kid who happens to be made of steel inside. A smile that lights up a room.
No. Not a room. The whole world. Forever.
I am praying for you, Ben.