MODESTO — The plan was this: Eighth-grader Tyler Gilbert and his best friend since kindergarten would cross the Somerset Middle School graduation stage together today.
Tyler would be the one pushing the wheelchair. James Ramirez, avid swimmer and basketball player until two months ago, would be the one with the biggest whoop and widest grin, even behind a germ-blocking mask.
But when you're fighting for your life, plans can change.
In April, James went to the doctor for a backache and was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer. Emergency surgery on his spine, three rounds of chemo done and three rounds to go, have circumscribed his life since then.
But it hasn't kept him down.
Tuesday night was the Somerset eighth-grade dance. "I'm going to the dance for him. I'll take pictures," said Tyler, a tall teen with braces and a buzz cut. He shaved his head the same day James did a few weeks ago. Dances are not normally his thing, he said, but James told him he had to go.
"Somebody had to go for him and dance Gangnam style," said mom Hillarie Horn, laughing during a call from James' hospital bed in Oakland.
Couple of 'pretty bad' days
The awful nausea from chemo let up this week, giving everyone hope James could make it back home for graduation. "The chemo's reducing the masses. It's working. It's been a really aggressive treatment," she said. "He's handling it better than any adult. We've had a couple of days that were," she took a deep, steadying breath, "pretty bad. But he says, 'It could always be worse. There are kids here sicker than me.' "
James did make it home, and enjoyed visiting on Friday with cousins. But Friday afternoon, he was on his way back to Oakland; a throat infection made it impossible for him to take medications orally, his mom said, and he needed pain control.
So there's a new plan: Rather than push James across the stage today, Tyler will carry him in spirit and in the form of a poster-size photograph. He'll accept James' diploma on his behalf, as Hillarie, her mom, sister and aunt watch proudly from the audience. And James may get to watch it all himself, as it happens, if a family friend is successful in making a FaceTime video connection.
James' chances are good 80 percent that this will just be a rough chapter in a long life, Horn said. He's looking forward to starting at Beyer High in the fall, maybe joining the robotics program, she said.
"He woke up out of surgery with a smile on his face. He's just incredible. Such a fighter and not a complaint through all this," she said.
It's not his first fight. James talks openly with friends about having Type I diabetes.
Diabetes has complicated his cancer fight, Horn said. "It's been a day-by-day thing," she said Tuesday. On Wednesday, James arrived home and Tyler stopped by, reading "Star Wars" to his buddy as he slept, Horn posted in her own medical battle Facebook page, Help for Hillarie. Horn said she is waiting for a kidney and liver transplant, her own destroyed by disease.
Managing her own health and nutrition needs through all this has been "up and down," she said. "We're hanging in there."
Through it all, younger brother Alex, 11, said he's missed the Monopoly games and daily swim practice with James on the Blue Tide Aquatics team. "It's a little bit different. I don't really get to see my brother," Alex said with a shy smile. He's a sixth-grader at Somerset Middle School.
So many supporters
Somerset has taken up the fight for James in its own way, raising $6,728 in a month of fund-raising with a dinner, silent auction and $2 buttons, said organizer and school health clerk Alice Garcia. "James was in leadership (class). He was always really hardworking, so happy and bubbly," she said.
"It was really a rare time when you didn't see him with a smile. He was always like, 'Yeah! Let's Go!' " said classmate Jake Ballantyne.
Most kids said grandparents were the only people they knew who had cancer or any other serious illness. "I couldn't help but cry. He has it double diabetes and cancer," said Samantha Souters, who decorated a box to serve as James' mailbox in the Somerset office. She made it sunny, like his disposition, with grass and basketball stickers because he likes being outside playing games with friends.
Those friends include Israel Garcia and Ethan "Ponytail" Case, who with Tyler were court competitors every lunch. Ethan said James told him not to shave his head the ponytail had to stay.
"I've been overwhelmed," Horn said. "James said he wanted to say thank you. To everyone. Had it not been for his friends, helping him mentally get through this, keeping him strong," his mother said. Especially Tyler, who has been there every step of the way, she said. "He appreciates having a best friend since kindergarten, who has been so supportive. Tyler and James have a very special bond."
An account has been set up for donations at Valley First Credit Union under James Ramirez or Hillarie Horn.