My 15-Year-Old Student Died Of Cancer. He Gave Me A Life-Changing Gift I Never Expected.

"Josh died on Jan. 18, 2018, in his mother’s arms, 354 days after his diagnosis — and my world, as I had known it, ended."
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Josh with Olivia, the neck-sleeper.
Josh with Olivia, the neck-sleeper.
Courtesy of Penny Castle

Dedicated to Joshua Adam Cosmo Castle. See you later, alligator.

A shadow passed over my desk. A 13-year-old boy looked down at me, grinning as he showed me a picture on his phone. “This is Olivia. She’s my cat and she sleeps on my neck sometimes,” he told me. I laughed, inwardly blessing Grade 8 students. They haven’t worked out how to be “cool” yet, so you get them in all their unadulterated quirkiness.

I thanked Josh for sharing his photo of Olivia with me. He waved goodbye, and I carried on grading class papers. Josh’s essays were always a highlight. He was witty, mature and bright. Oh, and he loved cats. He became a firm favorite, which is probably why I felt like I had been hit across the face with a shovel when we were told of his cancer diagnosis in a staff meeting at the start of his Grade 9 year. “Josh has said that he would like visitors in the hospital if you are able to,” my principal said, reading from her notes.

I got his mother’s details and arranged a visit for the same afternoon. Even now, the smell of hand sanitizer takes me back to that corridor, to Josh’s room. People were scattered around it, Josh in the center. “Ma’am!” he exclaimed, jubilant at some fresh entertainment. He introduced me to everyone around him. I forgot all the names instantly. There was only him. My boy.

I gathered the news in jagged fragments. Cancer. Something called cholangiocarcinoma. He was six decades too young to get it, and he had it. All four stages of it.

I visited him every few days, as often as I could. He was put into tights to assist with deep vein thrombosis. One day, I arrived with my satin ballet slippers. He was delighted and wore them for hours. We’d chat about school, what the others were doing, what he thought of the nurses and the hospital food. I’d complain about my timetable and admin load. He nodded. “Know what’s worse than a bad timetable?” he asked. “What?” I replied. “Cancer,” he said, sagely, smirking as people around him gasped in shock. That was his humor ― couldn’t take him anywhere.

Josh was discharged to die at home ― there was nothing they could do, apparently. Josh was indefatigable. “Will you keep visiting me at home?” he asked, worried I would say no. “I would visit you on Mars, cherub,” I told him. Mars turned out to be down the road from my apartment.

Josh wearing the author's ballet slippers
Josh wearing the author's ballet slippers
Courtesy of Tayla Blaire

There were fewer people at his home than there had been at the hospital. “People are done visiting,” Penny Castle, his mother, said, as she knelt in the dirt of her garden, rummaging through emerald vines for the fattest eggplants. “Do you eat these? My family will accuse me of poisoning them but you look like someone who eats vegetables on purpose,” she said, tossing me one, large and toasty from the sun.

I could see where Josh got it all from ― his family emanated light. His father, Shannon, was quick and dry. His younger brother, Chris, was warm and gentle. My visits were frequent, and lengthy, with tea time becoming dinner more often than not.

Penny and her magnificent garden.
Penny and her magnificent garden.
Courtesy of Chris Castle

I sought an appointment with my psychologist, whom I’d last seen years back. I asked her how I could start to process that my kid, my student, a child I loved, was going to die. I remember her tearing up. I recall thinking that I’d somehow “won” therapy, when I was able to make my therapist cry at how miserable it all was. At the very least, it made me feel better about how much I was crying any given day.

She told me I had two choices. I could either distance myself from him ― and soften the blow later. Or, I could embrace the time I had left, and jump in, knowing I wasted no time, and knowing it would break me. I chose the latter. I threw all “properness” away about maintaining appropriate distance and detachment between a teacher and a student. Josh wasn’t a student anymore ― he would insist on attending school when he felt well enough, but I saw more of him at his home than in class.

Josh modeling the hats that his grandmother knitted for the cancer charity CHOC.
Josh modeling the hats that his grandmother knitted for the cancer charity CHOC.
Courtesy of Penny, Shannon and Chris Castle

I stopped thinking of his family as being connected to the school. They had become friends. I got to know the extended family, meeting just about everyone in it. One day, Penny turned around from the polenta pot on the stove, and asked why I had been hiding my fiancé from them. I hadn’t been ― I just thought it would be rude to bring him when they didn’t know him. She invited Chris (my Chris) for dinner that night. Josh sat at the head of the table, growing frailer by the day, but no weakness impacted that razor-sharp gaze of his as he sized up the man I had agreed to marry. He softened when Chris (dubbed Chris the Elder with Josh’s brother being Chris the Younger) held his own when talking about DC comics. DC is superior to Marvel, they agreed. And thus, Chris could stay.

Weekly visits now involved both of us, in our mid-20s, and our unanticipated friends: a 14-year-old dying of cancer, his younger brother, and his two parents in their mid-40s. Yet it worked. We had dinner. We went to the movies. Penny and her sister came to our wedding, leaving early when Josh took a turn for the worse, and then for the better.

He fought tooth and nail. His favorite quote was about being “the man in the arena” and he was. He had been given weeks to live. Through experimental surgery, chemo and anything else that could be lobbed at him, he kept fighting, even while his body grew lighter.

For his 15th birthday party, he asked for care packages to donate to underprivileged families with children fighting cancer. His cupcakes had tombstones on them ― “not dead yet” inscribed on them. Like I said ― his humor.

I remember once driving him to meet his family for dinner. Someone shot a red light and I swore, my hands trembling on the steering wheel. He cackled. “Imagine I beat cancer only to die in a car crash because my English teacher was driving,” he laughed. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. I chose laughter ― around him, around his family, I always chose laughter.

Josh’s cupcakes. When Penny sent the author this photo, she said it was funny that one tombstone was falling over.
Josh’s cupcakes. When Penny sent the author this photo, she said it was funny that one tombstone was falling over.
Courtesy of Penny Castle

I wish I could tell you that Josh beat the odds, that he’s turning 20 next year, studying robotics or astrophysics at an Ivy League school. Josh died on Jan. 18, 2018, in his mother’s arms, 354 days after his diagnosis — and my world, as I had known it, ended. Grief, as I had never known it, began. It consumed me.

This child was never mine, and yet I had loved him so fiercely. And then came my fear. It was held at bay in planning the memorial ― Josh had instructed everyone to wear a superhero outfit and had chosen his soundtrack, ranging from “Shitty Flute Music” to “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” and “Sweet Child of Mine.”

Once the memorial was over, I was terrified that his family would ask me to stop visiting them. After all, Josh wasn’t there anymore, and I was just his teacher. They would want to mourn privately, in their inner circle, I told myself. I hovered at the edge, and they pulled me in with them. Our visits continued, and we leaned on one another.

Over time, the well-wishers stopped visiting, but Chris and I stayed. People wanted to stop talking about Josh, for fear that it would upset his family. All I wanted to do was talk about him, and we did. It was messy, it was loving, it was real. We adopted two cats, and named the black cat Cosmo, a reference to Josh’s middle name. She doesn’t sleep on my neck but on my shoulder instead. We honored Josh’s birthday with sour worms, Nando’s and DC movies. A week without seeing the Castle clan felt strange. Empty.

"Our chosen family," the author says.
"Our chosen family," the author says.
Courtesy of Chris Castle

In 2021, the Castles told us they were emigrating to England. Their decision gutted me, but it was not mine to make. I have had friends move countries before, but this felt different. Visceral. I celebrated the last birthday I would have with them before they left. Among the balloons was an envelope with a Photoshopped plane ticket in it. My name was there, along with my husband’s. The flight path indicated return flights between Johannesburg, where we lived, and London. The class, instead of “business” or “economy” said “family.” The back of it read “you won’t get rid of us that easily.”

More time has now passed since Josh died than the years in which I had the honor and privilege to know him. In that time, his family has become mine. My best friends are 20 years my senior, and their son, Chris, 10 years my junior. People whom I should only ever have encountered at parent-teacher conferences became the most important people in my life.

I think Josh knew exactly what he was doing when he asked me to visit him in the hospital that day and when he asked me to keep visiting him at home. He was expanding his family, widening our support, so that we could have more people to lean on when he was gone. Josh may have been my student but he taught me so much more. He taught me about the concept of “chosen family” ― not by blood, but by love. People who carry my heart in their hearts, and theirs in mine.

The Castles
The Castles
Courtesy of Shannon Castle

Tayla Blaire is a South African freelance writer, educator and traveler. Her work has appeared in Refinery 29, Insider, Stylist, and more. You can follow her on Twitter or visit taylablaire.com for more of her work.

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