.- Five-year-old Jackson Laskowski goes to kindergarten at Harrisburg Elementary School in Harrisburg, N.C. Like any other little boy, his favorite things include riding the school bus and playing on the playground and in the school's computer lab.
But unlike most five-year-olds, Jackson has endured years of surgeries and treatments to fight Stage IV cancer in his liver and lungs. The cancer is incurable, doctors say, so the Laskowski family treasures every milestone young Jackson achieves.
Last week, Jackson celebrated a significant milestone in his Catholic life, as he celebrated his first reconciliation, first Holy Communion and confirmation at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Charlotte.
After numerous conversations with the parish's former pastor, Capuchin Franciscan Father Remo DiSalvatore, and fellow Capuchin priest and family friend Father Martin Schratz, Jackson's family decided to move forward with preparing him for the sacraments, said his mother, Maggie Laskowski.
Making the decision to celebrate the sacraments early wasn't because his family thinks Jackson won't make it to the appropriate ages, Laskowski said, adding, “I hold on to my faith that he's going to survive.”
“It's more about Jackson receiving the love – and grace and peace – he'll receive with the Body and Blood of Christ. With all the treatments and hospital stays and all he's gone through, we felt it would be a good thing to be able to receive them.”
Father DiSalvatore said he had no doubt that Jackson was ready to receive the Eucharist.
“It's a good thing to receive a sacrament. They want to do it now to open him up to more of the grace of God – whether it's healing or to strengthen him.”
Jackson has been battling cancer for much of his short life. After he was first diagnosed in January 2010, he underwent 11 rounds of chemotherapy, several lung surgeries to remove the remaining cancer, and then a liver transplant. By August, he was cancer-free.
But that changed a few months later. He endured more lung surgery and chemotherapy, and the cancer went into remission again.
Then in April 2011, the cancer came back, and Jackson began another round of treatments that ended in May when the cancer went into remission for the third time. But doctors told them the cancer could come back as early as this fall, so Jackson goes for tests once a month to check for the disease.
“We've already had two relapses,” his mother said, adding that doctors “sat down with us earlier this year and said there are not a lot of options left.”
Jackson and his family pray that he remains cancer-free.
“Today he's good. As of today, he's cancer free,” she said on Oct. 1.
“They said to take the next year and a half and make the best of it.”
Jackson has been preparing for the sacraments for a while, his mother said, with Father DiSalvatore and Father Schratz and the support of their fellow parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
“It's amazing how much he gets and understands,” Laskowski said. “There's a lot about faith and God he understands … He understands as much as he can for a five-year-old. He has to pray a lot. We pray a lot.”
Jackson made his first reconciliation on Sept. 26. On Sept. 29, Jackson received his first Communion and confirmation during the Saturday vigil Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Church.
Jackson was very excited to receive his first Communion, and his mother said it went very well.
“It was very emotional. I didn't expect it to be so emotional. When your child is diagnosed with cancer, you don't know what milestones you're going to be able to hit. Being able to make first Communion and confirmation, I was surprised how emotional I found myself,” she said.
“It was beautiful, and he did a fabulous job.”
Father DiSalvatore said Jackson has a depth of faith he's never seen before in such a young boy, and that's a testament to the Laskowski family.
“It all starts with his parents. They are very faith-filled people,” Father DiSalvatore said. “Their faith and their family are always in the center of the lives. He's grown up in that. He's a bright little boy.”
Father DiSalvatore recalls a moment with Jackson about a year ago that has remained with him.
“His family was bringing up the gifts, and Jackson was carrying the paten with the hosts in it. I knelt down to give Jackson a hug, and he asked, 'Are you going to make this Jesus now?' I was like, 'Wow, he knows what's going on.' To me, that spoke volumes of his faith at such an early age.”
When Jackson sees other kids suffering at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, he prays for them, Father DiSalvatore also noted.
“At such a young age, the poor kid has been anointed a couple times. The last time I anointed him was before I left (Charlotte),” he said. “After that, he wanted to pray over me. He sat down and put some holy water on his thumb and made the sign of the cross on my forehead and on my hands and he said a little prayer.”
The Laskowski family has turned to God, their priests and fellow parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas for support through Jackson's illness. Laskowski said she leaned on Father Schratz when her oldest son died at only 100 days old.
“He was a strong part of our life when our first child passed away. We are still very close with him. To us, he's uncle Marty.”
The Laskowskis even named Jackson Martin in Father Schratz's honor.
Jackson chose Michael, his father's name, as his confirmation name. He was confirmed on the Feast of the Arch Angels.
And Father DiSalvatore, who has recently been reassigned by his order to a parish in Hoboken, N.J., had supported Jackson and his family through the battle with cancer.
Now, Laskowski said she hopes to set up Facetime, online calls with web cameras, so Jackson can talk to Father DiSalvatore, Laskowski said.
“Father Remo has gone through the whole journey with us,” she said. “He has been my spiritual strength throughout the last few years. He's really helped my family.”
When Jackson was first diagnosed, his family reached out to their parish because they didn't have any family nearby, she said.
“We knew we needed prayer, emotional support and spiritual support,” Laskowski said. “It never hurts to have too many prayers and blessings. Father DiSalvatore was very good about putting it out there for the church and asking everyone for prayers. Our parish in itself has just been amazing with the support we have gotten.”
Now, she looks to Fathers Patrick Winslow and Matthew Kauth, the current pastor and priest-in-residence at St. Thomas Aquinas Church to help guide Jackson's faith journey.
“When we decided to allow Jackson to do the sacraments, we were told we could do it privately or at a vigil Mass,” Laskowski said. “We have gotten so much support and the parishioners have traveled the journey with us. There are so many people who care about him and love him. We chose to do it at the vigil Mass and open it up to all those who want to attend – it's been as much their journey as ours.”
Laskowski continues to turn to God and her parish for spiritual support.
“It's hard because today he's good. He's very good,” she said. “I've lost a child already and the thought of losing another one is so very difficult to think of. We take every day we can and make it the best we can.
“That's why, if or when the cancer comes back, I want him to be able to feel the peace, love and grace you can only receive through the Body and Blood of Christ.”
Keeping Hope alive
Through Jackson's fight with cancer, his family set up the Keep HOPE Alive Fund, which helps families of other children like Jackson who are battling cancer. Their first fundraiser was primarily to help Jackson because he was in need of a liver transplant, Laskowski said. Now the fund helps other Charlotte area families going through similar struggles.
“We raise money for families like ours whose children are battling cancer in areas that are not covered by medical insurance,” she said.
The fund helps to cover living expenses, prescriptions, travel to get second opinions and, sadly, funeral costs. They partner with Levine Children's Hospital. The third annual fundraiser was held the night before Jackson received first Communion.
Posted with permission from Catholic News Herald, official newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.