Cancer death teaches boy lesson about life

Thursday, July 18, 2002

At only 11, Austin Hawkins of Advance, Mo., has learned that clouds really do have silver linings, that good deeds are rewarded, and that there are angels among us.

When Austin was just a kindergartener, he had the sad experience of losing someone dear to him to cancer. He played T-ball, and the coaches for his team were his own mother, Nanie, and a friend of theirs, Darlene VanGennip. The two families were very close.

Then Darlene was diagnosed with breast cancer. As Austin and his mother recall, Darlene didn't let it get her down. She continued to help coaching their T-ball team as if nothing were wrong.

But Darlene's health continued to fail, and in the fall of 1996, she died.

Months before, Austin had started hearing a song on the radio that he liked. It was called "Angels Among Us" and was recorded by the country group Alabama. The song was stuck in Austin's head. He hummed it and sang it constantly. When his friend passed away, suddenly the song made a lot of sense to him.

That Christmas, he asked for a guitar, and he started singing and playing "Angels Among Us" for his friends and family. The song had touched his heart, and had made him feel that despite the death of his friend, not all was lost.

School assignment

Then when Austin went to first grade, his teacher at Advance Elementary, Lois Vayback, gave the students in her class an assignment. As part of the school's Young Authors program, the students were to each write a book about a topic of their choosing. Austin wanted to write about Darlene.

As his mother recalls, Austin's teacher was a little hesitant. She had never had a student who wanted to write about death. It seemed to be a very serious topic for a first grader. But, she approved his theme, and Austin began to write.

He wrote about how Darlene helped coach their T-ball team, and had become such a close friend. He wrote about her death. His simple illustrations, and his simple words, told the story of how one life can effect many lives.

In his book he wrote, "We miss her, but don't be sad. We love her still. Every time it rains and we see a rainbow, we know she is our guardian angel, and she is still watching us play."

Once the story was written, a lot of people read it and were touched by it. Darlene's mother had several copies of it made to give to family and friends. Before long, Austin was receiving notes and telephone calls from people about his book and how it had touched them.

And people started requesting to hear Austin sing the song that inspired him, "Angels Among Us." He started playing the song at weddings, funerals...wherever people asked him to sing.

"This really helped open Austin up," explained his mother, noting that he had always been very shy.

So, Austin's mother decided to write Alabama and tell them about how their song had touched her son, and how her son, in turn, had touched so many other hearts. She e-mailed them, and much to her surprise, they e-mailed back right away. The group was very interested in seeing Austin's book and in meeting Austin.

As it turns out, the group was to perform at the Sikeston Bootheel Rodeo. They sent the family backstage passes for the Aug. 7 performance so that they can meet Austin. They also sent Austin a limited edition book and compact disc featuring the "Angels Among Us" song. The book is a collection of letters and stories from people about how the song effected them.

"It has just been amazing to us how one thing has led to another," explained Nanie, Austin's mother. "This whole series of events has just led us to places we never expected to go."

"Sometimes when bad things happen, you really don't understand it at the time," said Nanie. "But this has been an example of something very sad being turned into something positive."

Austin agrees. He says his book his a way of keeping his friend's memory alive.

It is Austin's hope that Darlene is smiling down on the whole thing.

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