“We were helping him out in Pre-K,” said the exuberant Joey, now in seventh grade at Saint Mary School in Williamstown. “He was so shy. We helped him out of his comfort zone. Even in kindergarten I’d see him and just yell out, ‘Hey buddy.’”
WILLIAMSTOWN — As Joey Rouse tells it, he and his classmates were looking out for Aidan Eberhardt long before third grade.
And it worked. By first grade, the two were fast friends, best friends, bound by a love of Marvel and all things superhero. Joey described how their first sleepover turned into an all-night Marvel marathon, sealing the kind of friendship that lasts forever. And then came the third grade roster, with the crushing revelation that Joey and Aidan would be in different classrooms.
That was the summer of 2015. At the time, no one could anticipate the separation the entire grade would face just after Christmas, when Aidan was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He spent the rest of the school year at home, much of the time in treatment.
Being at home didn’t keep Aidan apart from Joey and his other friends or the school and parish community. Those ties grew stronger. During his homebound days in third grade and the ups and downs of fourth and fifth, the school welcomed Aidan whenever he could make it, on his terms. He took part in holiday celebrations and often joined his mom, Chris, when she volunteered at the school.
“Even when he didn’t feel well he could take part. It can be alienating to be sick,” said Aidan’s father, Glenn.
“We supported them for whatever they needed to do for all three of their children,” said Saint Mary’s principal Patricia Mancuso. “It was so easy to get everyone on board to really root for this family and pray for this family.”
And root they did. At the end of third grade, Aidan entered the school one day to find 450 students lined up along the hallways to greet their own superhero. Dressed in their favorite superhero costumes, they clapped as Aidan made his way to the decorated cafeteria where he was greeted by a stiltwalker and ate lunch with his classmates.
The Eberhardts’ extended families were an integral part of their support system, but not close enough to be there on the spot in an emergency. Chris and Glenn credit the Saint Mary’s community for jumping in when they needed to shift gears unexpectedly.
“It was easier to relinquish control of the other kids knowing I could pick up the phone, no questions asked,” said Chris. She said she could call the school with no notice and her younger sons, Connor and Owen, could stay late or other parents would help out. “It was so different from a large school, where there are five or six classes [in each grade]. It gave me a level of calm,” she said.
Chris and Glenn are connected to other parents who share the journey with critically ill children. They described some of the comments parents have made about their school experiences — from impersonal, insensitive requests for absence notes, to sick children being bullied at school. The Eberhardts have seen nothing but kindness from other students and said even their doctor was amazed by the support they received at Saint Mary’s.
“Aidan’s class has a special place in my heart,” said Chris.
Aidan died in August 2018, just before the start of sixth grade. Nearly 18 months later, tears, sadness, joy and laughter flow freely from his parents and school friends when they talk about him — how he loved the attention of superhero day, despite his quiet personality, or the way a downward glance could yield a new Lego set from his fans at CHOP.
When Aidan’s friends were asked about ways they remember him, Joey scrunched his face and said, “It’s not remembering Aidan. It’s knowing him. I don’t need to remember him because he’s always here. Every time I see a superhero or Legos I see Aidan. He was the greatest friend I ever had — no offense to you two,” he added, looking at his buddies Stephen and Mikey.
Glenn said he believes being in a Catholic school has helped students, including his other sons, deal with Aidan’s death. “It helps that they learn about God, heaven, and Jesus’ love. They are immersed in faith. They know [death] isn’t the end.”
The Eberhardts remain active at Saint Mary’s. They said they still benefit from a supportive community where teachers who know and understand the family’s history watch out for Owen and Connor, who are now in third and fifth grades.
Aidan’s presence continues to bloom at Saint Mary’s. When his classmates wanted to plant a tree in his memory, the family chose a Ginkgo tree. Glenn said they chose the Ginkgo for its perfect form, long life span, and resilience to disease and pests. The real beauty, he described, is in its leaves, which shed in a short timeframe to create a beautiful yellow blanket.
Principal Mancuso said the school bought a birdfeeder to go with tree, but they moved it this year so it would still be visible to Aidan’s classmates. When they rise to eighth grade, the birdfeeder will go with them. And as they watch the free wings of Aidan’s spirit come and go, his friends will continue to see the message etched at the top of the birdfeeder: Love grows here. Live with purpose.