NEW PALESTINE — Eight-year-old Brody Stephens touched the lives of many of his New Palestine neighbors, whether they knew him well or not at all.
The second-grader at Sugar Creek Elementary School died on April 29 from a viral complication he developed during his nearly year-and-a-half battle with leukemia — his second bout with the disease.
Sunday, some 2,500 friends, teachers, relatives and complete strangers — many wearing Brody’s favorite shade of orange or the jerseys of his favorite sports teams — packed the gymnasium at New Palestine High School for his funeral service.
The thousands who piled into the place were there to pay their respects to a little boy whom many called an inspiration, to say goodbye to the youngster they’d rallied behind for months.
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To celebrate Brody’s life.
Though short, that life was wonderful, his family told the crowd Sunday. It was filled with laughter and heartache and love. His spirit was strong, matched only by his bravery to keep fighting a demon no one his age should have to face.
Brody was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — a cancer of the bone marrow and lymph nodes — when he was 18 months old. He overcame the disease but was diagnosed a second time in December 2015, a month before he was set to celebrate his fifth year in remission.
At the time of the second diagnosis, doctors told Brody’s family he had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of leukemia in children, characterized by the presence of too many immature white blood cells in the patient’s blood and bone marrow.
In August, Brody underwent a bone marrow transplant — his best chance of survival, doctors had said — and he remained at Riley Hospital for Children until he last week when, as the Rev. Taylor Lehman told the crowd Sunday, “he traded in his hospital gown for a crown.”
The tale of Brody’s courage — a word that floated over his little casket Sunday, spelled out by gold balloons — stretched far beyond his hometown. An avid sports fan, Brody drew the attention of his favorite professional basketball and football players, many of whom traveled to Riley hospital to visit him, to take photos and chit-chat about sports. Those were some of Brody’s favorite moments, his mother, Celia Stephens, said during the service. Many of the celebrity-athletes who came to his bedside were Brody’s heroes — and they each thought as much of him.
Some of those very people joined the crowd Sunday, for once not the center of attention in a crowded arena; Pacers forward Glenn Robinson III and Colts tight end Jack Doyle were among those who served as pallbearers, lifting the tiny casket of a boy they’d grown to adore.
Even when Brody was sick, he was joyful, said his older brother, Eli Stephens. He smiled through his pain and tried to make others laugh even when laughter was difficult.
One of his favorite memories, Eli told the crowd, was when he, Brody, and brothers Ian and Aidan played vacuum roulette.
“You roll the dice, and wherever it lands, that’s where you had to put the vacuum hose,” he said. “Brody got cheek … and it made it look like his whole face was being sucked in.”
The crowd roared with laughter at the story — a moment of happiness to break up the grief brought on by the death of a child, the reality of a cancer battle.
Some of those gathered in the gym Sunday know that reality too well.
Emily Schlund came to the service with her son, Anthony, a 6-year-old who is currently battling leukemia and was a patient at Riley with Brody.
Brody and Anthony often played together during their hospitals stays. The little toy room in the cancer wing where they used to giggle seemed like a safe place, where sick kids could just be kids.
Parents thrust in these tough situations never let themselves imagine that death is a possibility, she said; instead, they stay strong, hold out hope and believe that some day, everything will be better.
“This is tough,” she said, running her hand through her son’s hair. “This brought it home. It makes you realize you don’t know what tomorrow will be.”
Midway through the ceremony, the Stephenses played a short video that flashed photographs of smiling Brody and showed snippets of his days in the hospital, the good and the bad.
It ended with Brody speaking a prayer in a strained voice:
“As I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”