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Boy dying of cancer held on long enough for graduation

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 1:45 p.m. HST, Jun 6, 2011

He made it.

For all of the prayers offered on his behalf, for all of the white-knuckle negotiations with higher powers, for all of the stubborn faith friends and family had invested in him, was there anyone at last week’s Kamehameha Schools graduation ceremony who witnessed senior Keaton Wong take the stage to receive his diploma and didn’t feel a warm swell of amazement?

Keaton — 17 years old and dying of cancer — made it to graduation day.

We featured Keaton here back in March, just after he had made a similarly astonishing appearance at the Kamehameha Song Contest, joining his classmates (they carried him to his spot on the stage) for a stirring senior class sweep of first-place honors.

By that time he and his father, Newton, had already come to terms with the fact that Keaton’s exhaustive battle with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of nerve cancer, was coming to a close. “My immediate goal is just getting to the next day,” Keaton told us. “I don’t really think about the long term as much.”

But Keaton did have goals, all of which revolved around making the most of the time he had left with his classmates and family.

He wanted to go to his senior prom. And he did.

He wanted to make it to graduation. It almost didn’t happen.

Just 10 days before commencement, Keaton was admitted to the hospital for what everyone feared would be the last time.

“But somehow, two days before graduation, he rallied,” says Newton. “He had the will to do what he was going to do. He fought to say, ‘This is my goal,’ and he made it.”

With help from Kamehameha teachers and staff, Keaton was able to take his place amid his fellow graduates, raise his voice with theirs to sing their class song, and — tossing aside the oxygen mask that helped him breathe — cross the stage to get that diploma.

In the reception area afterward, a weary Keaton sat in his wheelchair, his pale skin, bald head and emaciated frame a stark contrast to the robust kid with the long curly brown hair captured on a homemade sign brought by one of his relatives. Before him a seemingly endless line of well-wishers — family and friends, teachers and administrators, staff from the hospital — offered their tearful congratulations.

Keaton returned each show of affection with a blink, a nod, an embrace if he could manage it.

“We kept asking him throughout the evening if he was ready to go home, but he didn’t want to leave,” Newton says. “Everything about him was, ‘I want more time. I want more time.’”

Keaton died four days later.

The news spread almost instantly as Keaton’s classmates exchanged RIP tweets, Facebook postings and text messages, all thanking Keaton for the blessing of his friendship and expressing admiration for his strength and resolve.

If these last months of Keaton’s life were in fact a gift, they were a gift paid for in daily installments of fortitude and courage and bestowed lovingly by the dying young man to the friends and family members who remained ever at his side.

“In the last two days we had together, I felt like I got to know my son even more,” Newton says. “I miss my son, but I’m so proud of him because he accomplished his goals and he did them his way.”


Reach Michael Tsai at

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