I was doing the math the other day. I’ve been a columnist at a variety of newspapers in different states for a few decades. I figure I’ve written maybe 5,000 columns.
A handful of them really stick with me.
Four years ago, I wrote a piece about an unforgettable kid named Jack Schumacher. Everyone called him “Shoe.” He lost a battle with bone cancer.
He was 14.
His mother, Tammi, told me she crawled into the hospital bed and cradled her son’s body in the final minutes of his life. She was clutching him tight when he died — 6:36 a.m. on a Friday in late May. The image of that scene crushes me, even now. Every time I think about it, I look around the room and if one of my children is nearby, I give them a hug.
Maybe you do, too.
I got an email from Tammi on the four-year anniversary of her son’s death. She wondered if I remembered talking with her and writing about her son.
“Do you remember our conversation?” she asked.
How could I forget?
Shoe was a ballplayer. He played T-ball at age 4. It wasn’t long before he became a pitcher for his Little League teams in Portland and Salem. A former journeyman minor-league pitcher named Jerry McMullen noticed the kid’s talent and offered to work with him.
McMullen attended college at Portland State. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 26th round in 1995. He played seven minor-league seasons, making it to Double-A with the Red Sox. I asked McMullen if Shoe might have developed into a good high school pitcher or maybe even played in college.
“He was no joke,” McMullen said.
Osteosarcoma isn’t either.
It started with hip pain. Doctors misdiagnosed it as a muscle tear and prescribed physical therapy. That didn’t help. The discomfort got so bad that Shoe had to take a series of hot baths every day.
His mother is a nurse. She knew something wasn’t right from the start. Her son had trouble walking and couldn’t get through an MRI without vomiting from the pain. By the time doctors found a large mass on the inside of Shoe’s pelvis, he was facing the end of his life.
Then, a surgery that took muscle from his back.
All Shoe wanted was to be normal again and play baseball. His pitching coach, McMullen, told me Shoe called one day and asked if he might meet at the ball field.
Shoe showed up with his glove, a walker, and a wheelchair. The coach brought a bucket of baseballs. Together, they tried to feel normal again.
“We stood him on his walker and put the bucket of balls on his wheelchair,” McMullen said. “It was just us, getting away from things. Watching him go through this was like somebody shoving an ice pick in your heart.”
The kid loved math. Mom figures Shoe might have gone to college to become an engineer. Maybe he’d have attended Oregon State — and who knows — Shoe might have even pitched. I’ll think about that this weekend when I watch the Beavers play Auburn in the Super Regional.
Also, I’ll think about Shoe’s giant heart.
In his final months, he spent a lot of time at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. He noticed that the younger kids who were there getting cancer treatment didn’t have enough LEGO sets to play with.
“Mom,” he said, “I’m going to make it a goal to collect 100 LEGO sets for those kids.”
He put the word out, telling neighbors to donate old LEGOs. He called friends and asked them to help him raise funds to buy new ones. That goal — 100 sets — became a mission that allowed Shoe to focus on something other than his own pain.
He collected 300 sets.
His three siblings, Zach, Rebekah and Isaiah, had to grow up the last four years without their blue-eyed brother. They watched him battle to the end, his pelvis removed and his central nervous system smothered by tumors. They also heard him tell his parents that he wanted whatever healthy organs he had left to be donated to other people who might need them.
Again, that’s Shoe.
His mother wrote this week. She wondered if I remembered her son. I sure do. I think about him sometimes when I drive past a Little League field and see kids laughing and playing. Also, sometimes when I see a LEGO on the family-room floor, I think about his mission.
Shoe’s family has continued his quest. They’re still collecting and donating LEGO sets to children’s hospitals. In fact, they’re in the middle of a LEGO drive right now and have created an Amazon wish list if you’d like to help.
Since his death, Shoe’s family has donated more than 3,500 boxes of LEGOs. They’ve blown past his 100-set goal and I don’t think they’ll ever stop.
Said his mom: “He would be so proud.”
Our mailbox is filled with high school graduation announcements. We’ve attended a couple of parties, celebrating kids who are moving on to college. They talk about summer jobs and majors. They’re busy signing up for orientations and filling out roommate questionnaires.
His former classmates at West Salem High will graduate tonight. They’ll walk in a ceremony.
Shoe should have been right there with them.
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John, I am so honored and blessed by your tribute for my son Shoe aka Jack. He was a beautiful, funny, kind, sarcastic, talented, loving your man. His life mattered and to be able to carry on his legacy is something I will do until the day I die. Today he should be graduating from West Salem High School. Thank you for honoring his life and remembering him on a day he should be celebrating. I am forever grateful ❤️
Yes, I am crying! I had to stop reading to collect myself. John, you have no idea how close to home this column hits for me. Wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing “Shoe” with us.