“Yeehaw!” the 10-year-old little boy dressed in a cowboy hat and boots greeted Kerry Bremer, and she couldn’t help but smile. But when he told her his name, her heart tugged. Kerry, a special education teacher, had come to the Concord, Massachusetts, CASE Collaborative School’s “Cowboy Day” to meet her new fall students — including this little cowpoke named Jake Manning.
“It’s a sad story,” the school’s administrator had explained when she pointed out Jake’s name a few days earlier after giving Kerry her upcoming class roster. “His mom, Jean, is a single mom, raising a son with Down syndrome, and she has metastasized breast cancer.”
A mom herself, Kerry had felt a rush of sorrow. And now, as Jake introduced himself, she made a silent promise to do everything she could to help him through this difficult time … never imagining how far she’d go.
A Heartfelt Offer
In class, Jake could be a handful, leaping onto tables, pretending to be Batman. But he was also the sweetest little boy, always quick with a hug and an “I love you.”
“I think he knows every fact about every animal,” Kerry told Jean during a parent-teacher conference. Jean smiled proudly. But Kerry could see the pain and weariness in Jean’s eyes, and she yearned to do something more to help. “Maybe I could invite Jake over for an overnight to give Jean some breathing room,” she told her boss.
“That would be breaching boundaries,” her supervisor warned. So Kerry held back. But during winter break, when Kerry called to check on her students, Jean had devastating news. “We both caught the flu and … my cancer has spread to my brain,” Jean told Kerry, her voice quivering.
Kerry’s breath caught. That poor woman. And Jake … Kerry thought of her own kids, Kaitlyn, Jonathan and Kristen. Ranging in age from 16 to 21, they were all pretty much grown. Yet they still needed their mom. How would Jake go on without his? Kerry’s heart broke in two…but this time, she had to do something.
“This boy will need love and support, and I was thinking maybe we could give it to him,” she told her family that night. They had already heard a lot about Jake, and having a close relative who also had Down syndrome, their hearts instantly opened to welcome him.
During her next phone conference with Jean, Kerry steeled her courage. “I could really be overstepping the boundaries here,” she said, broaching the delicate subject. “But if you need a plan for Jake … my family and I are willing to offer guardianship.”
Jean felt a rush of emotion. Since her diagnosis, her greatest fear had been what would happen to Jake if she didn’t make it because her own family wasn’t in a position to help. “Oh, thank you,” Jean choked. “I am going to sleep better tonight than I have in a very long time.”
A Place to Call Home
In the coming months, Kerry began inviting Jake to her home for regular sleepovers so he could get to know the family. He loved playing action figures with his “brother” Jonathan, and doing puzzles with his “sisters.” And he never left without a big hug for his “Kerry Mom” and “Dave the Dad.” Meanwhile, Jean fought hard and somehow managed to hold on for nearly four more years. But then, one day last fall, Jake kissed his mom goodbye as he left for school — and for what happened to be the very last time.
“My mom’s in Heaven with God. She’s an angel,” Jake declared at her funeral, after which Jake moved in with the Bremer family. Today, he still talks to Jean as he gazes at her picture on his bedside table. “Your mom will always be with you. She lives in your heart,” Kerry tells Jake, who is now 14.
“Jean was so brave, doing what needed to be done for her son. There’s nothing more powerful or fierce than a mother’s love,” says Kerry. “I know Jean is watching over us, and we won’t let her down.” — Bill Holton
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.