An emotional first day of kindergarten for mom who lost son to leukemia


This story originally appeared in The Aurora Beacon-News on Aug. 26, 2014.

By: Kalyn Belsha

AURORA — In many ways Daniel Gonzalez is the opposite of his older brother, Aries.

Daniel, 6, loves Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He does handstands in his living room, plays T-ball and football and can whiz down store aisles while balancing on a shopping cart. He’s so full of energy that his mother, Nicole Gonzalez, fondly calls him her “wild child” and “monkey.”

Aries, three and a half years Daniel’s senior, loved Spider-Man, Fat Albert and the children’s program “Caillou” on PBS. Calm and low-key, he got more excited about new clothes than toys.

But on Monday morning, as he prepared for his first day at East Aurora School District’s new full-day kindergarten center, Daniel said something that reminded his mother so much of Aries, the son she lost two years ago: “I don’t want to be late for school.”

After a five-year fight with leukemia, Aries died the day after his kindergarten graduation. Though complications from a stem cell transplant caused him to wear thick glasses and discolored his skin, Aries kept his love for school. It helped keep him alive, his mother has said.

After Aries died, Gonzalez says she missed him and tried to make Daniel more like him.

“But I realized I can’t,” she said. “He’s his own person.”

Warm start

With humidity hanging heavy in the air and the sun already beating down at 7 a.m., Daniel and Nicole Gonzalez arrived at the bus stop outside Rollins Elementary on Monday. Daniel had picked out his own outfit, a new lime green shirt with striped khaki shorts.

As the bus waited, Gonzalez kissed her son three times. She felt her heart pumping as he waited in line to board. She threw six more kisses through the tinted bus windows before the engine started. It’s weird, Gonzalez said, to be doing all the things with Daniel that she hasn’t done since Aries was alive.

Daniel’s new kindergarten teacher, Lindsey Geshiwlm, taught Aries for two years and knows the family well. Back in February she wrote a letter to the school board members asking them to name the new building after Aries, the little boy she video chatted with and brought homework to after he was too sick to come to school.

The board voted instead to name the school’s media center in his honor. Gonzalez hopes to frame Aries’ cap and gown and hang it on the wall, along with his artwork and graduation photo so other kindergarten students can learn about his story, and so Daniel can help share it.

“He can tell his story,” Gonzalez said after the naming was announced. “He’s able to say … I know him. That’s my brother.”

First day

Geshiwlm recalled in her letter that on Aries’ first day of school he cried, afraid that students would tease him because he looked different. Curious and forgiving, she wrote, the other students simply asked questions and accepted him for who he was.

Gonzalez says Aries so admired his teacher that he’d blush when she asked him if he had a crush on her. Whenever he could, Aries tried to reteach Geshiwlm’s lessons to Daniel at home and would retell stories he’d heard in her class.

After Monday’s breakfast was cleared away, Geshiwlm asked the 22 new students in her kindergarten class to do their first activity: write their names on a sheet of white paper and draw their families.

After gulping chocolate milk, Daniel picked up a crayon. Quietly, he announced he would draw Aries.

“My brother passed away,” he said to the little girl in the seat next to him, as he continued drawing his father, his grandfather and his aunt.

Geshiwlm walked by Daniel’s desk. He held up the paper to her.

“This is your old student,” he said to Geshiwlm. “Guess who it is?”

“I know who it is,” she said.

“That’s my brother,” he replied.