“My mom sped to the Emergency Room of Norwalk Hospital to see what a brain tumor was. The doctors did many thorough tests to determine what was wrong with me. I was worried and frustrated to be at the hospital on my birthday. When the tests were over, my dad came into the building from church. When he entered the room, I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him to death. Later that morning I called my sister to break the news to her. After I finished my story, she began weeping. The two words ‘brain tumor’ had knocked her heart over. For her, I knew I had to be strong.” —from “The Brain Tumor,” by Mikey Czech
Jim Keneally recalls that he and Mikey Czech had been good friends (“always nice to each other”) at East School, and that they got to know each other much better after ending up in the same class as Saxe Middle School fifth-graders.
Remembered by Keneally as a huge sports fan who was “always smiling and full of energy,” Mikey Czech halfway through that academic year—on his 11th birthday, Jan. 6, 2008—was diagnosed with an inoperable, incurable brain tumor.
As he underwent treatment for the balance of the fifth grade, Mikey Czech attended school as steadily as possible.
“It was kind of a constant reminder how lucky and how blessed we all are,” Keneally, now a New Canaan High School senior along with the rest of Mikey Czech’s class, recalled Wednesday afternoon during a break from football practice at Dunning Field. “And then he would come back for days, and those would always be a lot of fun. Kind of celebration-like. And especially when he started coming back more and more toward the end of the year. I think he was there for a couple of weeks at the end [of the school year].”
Keneally would move with his family to London after fifth grade, attending a private American school there (TASIS, in Surrey) for three years before returning to New Canaan. He was away just a few months when the news reached him: Mikey Czech died on Sept. 7, unexpectedly and at home, while watching the pregame show for the season-opening weekend of the NFL.
“When I moved away, obviously I was away from all of my friends, so his passing didn’t quite seem real,” Keneally recalled. “It didn’t hit me as hard as it obviously hit some people here. That he was gone. For me, I was away. I never really processed it. I didn’t go to the funeral. I still haven’t been to the grave. It was kind of a surreal experience.”
Immediately and ever since, in ways that perhaps are still coming into focus for Keneally (“I think his personality kind of stuck with me”), Mikey Czech’s passing affected him deeply. Keneally for his second and third years in London rallied his classmates to designate the newly created The Mikey Czech Foundation—dedicated to pediatric brain tumor research—as its beneficiary charity.
And this Friday night—bookend to a week that saw Rams football players and cheerleaders raise money for the foundation through selling bracelets and baked goods during lunch—an idea that Keneally had for honoring his deceased childhood friend and supporting the Czech family will unfold at halftime during a football game versus neighboring Wilton.
The 7 p.m. game will be played in Mikey Czech’s honor, with Rams players sporting a decal of the foundation’s logo and a planned, extended halftime will feature a video on the big screen at Dunning Field, where dad Steve Czech will have a chance to address the crowd—a crowd that will include, perhaps for one of the last times prior to graduation commencement in June, so many New Canaan kids and families that knew Mikey personally.
“With this being senior year, and just how much he liked sports and enjoyed it all, I thought it would be nice and a good way to raise some money,” Keneally said.
For Steve Czech, and for a family that has marked would-be milestones such as birthdays and first days of school—painfully and perhaps rather more privately, as these intervening years have passed—the fact that his son is remembered now by his pal from East School and clearly means so much to New Canaanites, speaks to a level of support here on which the family has come to depend.
“Oh, this is extraordinary,” Steve Czech said. “Number one, it shows how much people care. Number two, when you think about it, something like this happens and everybody is very supportive, and then the person dies and life kind of moves on and all of us have a tendency to forget and things happen and it becomes less and less front of mind, and for them to do something six years after, it’s reflective of the character of everyone involved, and it makes us feel wonderful.”
New Canaanites, as Mikey Czech battled his brainstem tumor— a “diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma” or DIPG—and after he died, have found different ways to raise money for the foundation and remember Mikey Czech. Some of those efforts are captured on The Mikey Czech Foundation website, which also includes a wonderful list of Mikey’s personal favorite things (“wall ball at the Lake Club,” “hot fudge sundaes without the fudge,” “doing his homework right when he got home after school,” “The Doobie Brothers,” “cuddling with his mom”).
As Keneally noted in remembering what it was like for him to return to New Canaan as a high school freshman, “You can still sort of see bits and pieces around town” that commemorate Mikey Czech and his legacy. Keneally specifically noted the “Baskin Robbins night”—an annual “thank you” from the Czechs to New Canaan on the first Friday after Labor Day, where a scoop of Baskin-Robbins ice cream costs 11 cents (Mikey was 11 when he passed) and the family picks up the difference.
Asked about her active participation in supporting the Mikey Czech Foundation, Baskin-Robbins owner Anna Valente-Krolikowski recalled bringing ice cream—including Mikey’s favorite, chocolate chip cookie dough—to him and other kids at The Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders at NYU Langone Medical Center, where he underwent treatment through much of 2008.
“We all have children,” Valente-Krolikowski said. “You feel for people with a child that is sick. You want to give them your arm, anything to help out.”
It’s a fellow-feeling that Steve Czech said not only defines New Canaan—without it, the family likely would not have found the strength, then or now, to work through his son’s passing.
“We are huge advocates of New Canaan, and people ask me, ‘Why are you such a big advocate of New Canaan?’ and I say, ‘Living in New Canaan is like having a 20,000-member family.’ It is the most extraordinary place to live. In my 51 years I have lived in 12 places, we’ve lived in New Canaan for 13 years now and it’s just an extraordinary place.”
“This means the world to us,” he added. “The mere fact that somebody would volunteer to do something like this six years after the fact proves the point further, not just of people being ‘nice neighbors.’ They care.”
For Steve Czech, telling people here what was going on, acknowledging that they needed help to get through it and seeking out support from the community was the “greatest thing we ever did.”
“We’ve been intimately involved in at least a couple dozen cases since Mikey died, and we’ve seen firsthand what happens when people reach out and ask for help and when people do the opposite, close down and wouldn’t ask for help and the ramifications of that decision have ranged from divorce to one person killing themselves because they couldn’t deal with it and had no support network,” Steve Czech said. “And I will be the first person to say it on Friday night, in front of everybody, and this is probably the last time we will be able to address so many of these kids and families that knew Mikey, that we could not have gotten through that without the support of everybody in town, because 90 percent of getting through it is what happens after the child dies, and we were just extraordinarily fortunate.”
The experience has taught him how important it is for people to connect to each other and to take a chance and reach out, even if it’s not explicitly asked for, Steve Czech said.
“The takeaway is that when people are hurting, don’t assume they don’t want your help,” he said. “And for people who may think it won’t make a difference, they should understand that people do want help, and don’t ever assume that they don’t want help, because it’s amazing how some of the smallest things can have the most lasting ramifications.”