A Child’s Death Reminds Us: Life Is Fragile. Celebrate Every Chance You Get

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Britt Kennerly, Florida Today

St. Francis was honored to care for Bryson and his family when they needed us.
Special thanks to Britt Kennerly, FLORIDA TODAY for this article and Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY for the photos.

Imagine that you’ve been told you have an illness that very likely could kill you.

Then, a few months later, you learn that the treatment you’ve been undergoing isn’t working.

You have a choice to make about how you want to live the rest of your life, which could mean discontinuing attempts to save it.

Now imagine that when you get this horrible, overwhelming news, you’re 12 years old — that wonderful, weird, sometimes rocky bridge between childhood and the teen years where everything still seems possible because you’re a child and everything should seem possible.

What would you choose?

With the exuberance of a boy and the wisdom of someone far beyond his years, Bryson Caster sat down with his family and decided to drop the treatment and live as normally as possible, as long as possible.

And then he decided to have a party. A big, boisterous, joy-soaked party, with family and friends and a guest list that would be the envy of many children his age and adults, too.

The party, on a beautiful night in February was, in a word, epic.

So was Bryson, who dreamed of being an NFL star.

He died March 5 after showing incredible courage in his final days. He is survived by his parents, Lauren and Danny Artis, and his younger siblings Kennedi, Hayden and Abbigail.

He was so, so loved — and though it wasn’t in a packed NFL stadium, Bryson was a goal-scoring star in every way that matters.

A child with inner strength

Bryson, born in Amarillo Texas, and a Longhorns fan of major proportions, was diagnosed with stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of bone marrow cancer, in August 2021. He’d been limping and complaining of back pain after a family trip to Savannah for the Fourth of July.

Weeks of treatment followed.

But on Feb. 11, the Rockledge family learned that Bryson wasn’t responding to treatment, and that, as his mother put it, the cancer was “spreading again like wildfire.”

“We decided as a family we were going to be just that — a family,” said Lauren. “We were going to do things that feel normal.”

And that, for Bryson, meant being with people he loved and who loved him.

The grounds and buildings at Faith Fellowship Church in Melbourne were packed with about 500 people on Feb. 18, with an event planned in five days by friends, neighbors and the church families from Faith Fellowship and East Coast Christian Center.

Inside, at a VIP reception, the boy with more strength than I can describe chatted with an astronaut. Law enforcement officers. A pro football player. An NFL coach and University of of Florida gridiron stars, past and present. NFL free agent J.T. Hassell, a Florida Tech graduate, and John Fassel, the Dallas Cowboys’ special teams coordinator, ran plays with Bryson, agile in his wheelchair, as quarterback.

Outside, a country music star sang. Kids played games. Vendors donated everything from pizza to miniature s’mores kits with Bryson’s picture on the marshmallows.

Bryson was poised, polite — and grinning the entire evening.

In a moment that truly soared, Bryson shot off a model rocket with shuttle astronaut Winston Scott as hundreds of people, young and old, cheered.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” he told me, his eyes gleaming. “I never got to do this before.”

Moments that matter

I’ve interviewed adults in their final days and parents of children with incurable illnesses. I’ve attended countless celebrations of life. Assignments like this are excruciating. And this was a party for a child who knew what was happening to him.

So what an incredible gift that, even with the solemnity of the occasion, photojournalist Malcolm Denemark and I found ourselves enveloped in an atmosphere of celebration.

Malcolm’s photos are stunning in their simplicity, with Bryson’s angelic smile, again and again, shining through.

“It’s the kind of photo assignment photographers dread, a party for a dying child. It is a living oxymoron, people trying to be happy at a sad event,” my colleague told me.

“But it wasn’t a sad event. It was an outpouring of love with Bryson almost glowing, surrounded by those who loved and cared about him. It was an honor to have had the assignment, to meet Bryson, and capture the joy of a child in photos.”

The week of his party, Bryson was baptized.

A week before he died, Bryson’s school friends pushed him in his wheelchair 25 laps around a track for a fun run.

So, again: Imagine that you’ve just learned of your probable death. That you will likely not be around to fulfill every dream you nurture, big or small.

What would you do with the days you had left?

Would you worry about political differences, or petty, hurtful squabbles on social media, or all the trivial matters that add needless drama to our lives?

Or would you look at all the love and happy one can stuff into a day, grab a loved one by the hand and squeeze the joy out of every moment you had left?

Bryson sure did.

And oh, it was epic.