August 20, 2010

Memories of a Wish Kid, My Brother, Gabriel Wayne Kostreva


By Brad Kostreva

It's a bit mind-boggling, but I can now state that I have memories from more than 25 years ago. Now, I'm not all that old in the grand scheme of things, barely in my thirties, but I pondered recently some very clear memories and realized, wow, that was over two and a half decades ago!

Now, that part of my life should have been the same as most kids; Saturday morning cartoons, my early school years, playing on bikes and running around outside. And, in reality, I clearly remember watching Looney Toones while eating coco-puffs (slowly, so the milk would turn to CHOCOLATE MILK, of course), I remember riding outside my house on the sidewalks and streets of Kenosha with friends from the neighborhood and church (it was a silver and red Huffy bike which I rode both with and without training wheels), etc, etc, etc... I had Go-Bots, some GI Joes, a few Star Wars toys and a cat named Munchkin (who started off as a little skinny calico kitten, got "fixed" and blew up into a fatso - but she was very sweet). I remember the day we got some new-fangled "Cable TV" and visiting my grandparents houses (I even remember my maternal grandparents’ farm house in some blurry fleeting memories, which, according to my estimated timelines would make me 3 or 4).

But my "normal" childhood memories come with a little bit extra.

I grew up in a five-person family for the first several years of my life. I was the "middle child" - born 18 months after (almost to the day!) my older brother Gabe, and 18 months before my "baby" sister Kristy. On April 26th, 1987, just a week or so before I turned 8, my five-person family, sadly and tragically became a four-person family. But, forgive me as I'm going to tell the end of the story at the end. First, let me back up about 5 years...

In mid to late 1982 I was barely three years old, and I remember sitting in an examining room at the local hospital. I remember rubber straps that "snapped" like a rubber-band and I remember being there at least one time. I can still sometimes smell the ultra-sanitized clinical smell of that place, and anytime I'm around a hospital or medical facility, that smell flashes back into my mind this sense-memory.

What was happening at this time was Gabe was being examined because of a jaundiced condition on his body. Basically, he turned a strange yellowish-tan color all over his body. A few appointments and scans and tests later, and the hospital had diagnosed him with a form of Hepatitis.

About three months later, the Hepatitis and jaundiced condition hadn't cleared up, so the family pediatrician recommended we go to Milwaukee Children's Hospital (MCH) to have Gabe re-assessed. Dr. Stye from MCH took a few looks at the scans and results from his first diagnosis and essentially threw it out and had Gabe re-examined. The results were as difficult as they were heartbreaking.

Gabe was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma just before his 5th birthday, in October of 1982.
From "Google Health":
Neuroblastoma is a malignant (cancerous) tumor that develops from nerve tissue. It occurs in infants and children.
 Gabe's tumor was causing pressure on his common bile duct, backing up bile (which is a yellow digestive fluid) causing it to spread through his bloodstream, hence, the jaundiced coloration.

There aren't many specific series of events that I can remember for the next two or three years, but I have images and flashes of memories of my brother and the life that we lived during a year and a half of treatments. And if you know anything about cancer, these treatments are just plain old torture on the body.

But that's not what sticks with me. In fact, extremely few of my own memories are anything but of a smiling Gabe. Despite a couple rounds of chemotherapy, whole body irradiation and at least one bone marrow transplant, my memories of Gabe actually are mostly of having an older brother who went bald earlier than most men in my family. I can't honestly imagine the level of strength, courage, and faith Gabe found within himself and his family, friends and doctors that kept him moving forward. Even when he had an incision in his belly as the doctors re-routed his bile ducts to prevent the bile backup, he always, along with my parents, was willing to keep his spirits very high. We used to joke about "Charlie" (I believe that was the name of the catheter that my mom had to clean and dress) and the "ketchup" that had to be applied during the cleanings.

We had mostly normal Christmases and birthdays with Gabe. I remember distinctly one Christmas where I believe my mom got a new hammer for just regular household picture hangings and whatnot (my mom was a pretty handy interior decorator, she was a wallpaper installer and she did some decorating on some spec homes, if memory serves). Well, for some reason, I picked up the hammer and thought, well, Tom and Jerry do this all the time, and bonked Gabe on the head with it - probably to see if the "lump" that typically grows a few inches on Tom would actually grow. He looked at me with a ridiculous face for the briefest of moments (as I waited for the celebrated prize) before starting to cry. And that, my friends, is how I learned bonking people on the head with a hammer hurts them. In retrospect, it's a little funny, not because I hurt him of course, but more the bewildered look on his face for a brief moment and my childish expectation of a lump. Oh, don't worry, he got back at me in several ways mom and dad will never know about (as is the normal practice of an older brother getting back at the younger one)!

My brother won a GI Joe Aircraft Carrier from a Milwaukee Channel 18 afternoon cartoon contest of sorts as well, and boy, did we love playing GI Joe with it! Of course, he was the Joe side, and I was Cobra because after all, he wasn't going to get beat by his kid brother at GI Joe! We used to collect those GI Joe "points" from the back of the cardboard packaging and send them in to Hasbro to get some of the not-available-in-stores toys too, like the Sgt. Slaughter toy and the parachuting Joe.

Mixed into these memories are flashes of my brother in the hospital for some of his treatments and checkups, as well as memories of not being home. See, when Gabe was in multi-day (or longer) treatments, my parents had a rough time sorting out getting to Milwaukee to be with him while still getting me and Kristy to school or babysitters or what not. I remember many nights staying at my Aunt and Uncle Kresse's house in Milwaukee, staying with the St. Peter's in Kenosha or with the Mathis's. I remember trips to the Ronald McDonald house in Milwaukee and the cheeseburgers they would give us. These were times when Gabe was certainly tried the hardest. Kids obviously always have a bond with their parents, but there's another "sibling" bond as well, like a sub-team where brothers and sisters have a commonality of purpose and friendship (sometimes based on "surviving being our parents kids" in our own silly ways). I'm sure the hardest of times I was shielded from, with Gabe taking the brunt of it, and my parents aching with him at every turn.

But Gabe had friends in the hospital as well. Dr. Casper, or "JC" as Gabe called him (or "Dr. Peanut-Butter-Nose" - though I don't know where that came from other than Gabe's imagination and sense of humor... or possible once Gabe stuck Peanut-Butter on his nose!), as well as many athletes who support the MAACC Fund. The MAACC Fund stands for "Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer" and was supported by many local Milwaukee celebrities such as Jim Gantner, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Al McGwire, etc, and they would visit the cancer patients at MCH. I remember meeting a couple of them myself, though they weren't here for me nearly as much as for Gabe, who beamed as best he could when one would visit. Once, right around when the He-Man and She-Ra "Secret of the Swords" movie came out, well, He-Man and She-Ra made an appearance at the hospital as well!

In 1984, Gabe was finished with his treatment and officially, his cancer was in "remission." This is a grace period, both medically and in reality for us. What it basically meant was that the cancer was basically no longer detectable in his body, and the doctors will simply have "checkups" to ensure that it is truly gone for a period of years before announcing that the patient is "cured."

The next 26 months were probably the closest thing my family may have had to "normal life" in that, outside of the normal check-ups, we did the same things that many families did. We took road trips, went to Kenosha Twins minor league baseball games ($10 got a family in, plus a hot dog!), went to school, church, played with friends, trick-or-treated, and just basically enjoyed being a family.

As seems to happen many, many times, the final days of Gabe's life came very quickly. In mid to late 1986, after 26 months of remission, the cancer came back with a vengeance. The doctors at MCH could do very little with traditional treatment options because of various reasons, and a new experimental treatment protocol called Interluken 2 was started. I don't necessarily know much about the drug or its effects on Gabe, but I distinctly remember the name. Perhaps because of how aggressively the cancer had resurged, it may have been difficult to tell the difference between the drug’s effect on his body and the cancer's.

Gabe's body and spirit at that point took two distinct stances. His body was failing him. Looking back at pictures between September of 1986 and April of 1987, the changes were extremely dramatic and progressively worse. But my memory of Gabe was something a bit different. His spirit, his "gumption" was exceptionally strong. I think Gabe at that age had a pretty good idea what was going on. I know for a fact that he never gave up, but was fighting a war he also knew he couldn't win.

In the beginning of 1987, Make a Wish came to the house. I don't know who referred them or how they learned about Gabe, and frankly, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that they came, and quite literally gave Gabe, as well as the rest of the family, a wish come true. Gabe wanted to go to Disney World. He also wanted to ride on swamp buggies and air boats in the Everglades and see some 'gators! I remember very vaguely the discussion in our living room when Make-a-Wish talked to my parents about making this happen. I don't know if before then I understood what happy tears were.

Maybe three or four weeks later, we went to the airport. Gabe, still on his Interluken 2 treatment, my parents, my sister and I all walked onto that airplane for an adventure to Florida. We went to Disney World and Epcot Center. Gabe got a "Goofy" hat that had Goofy's nose as the bill and his ears flopping down along the sides. My mom still has that hat today. Although we went to a gator and snake farm, that's not the only place we saw gators! I remember on the swamp buggy ride there were gators on the sides of the road. I even remember back where we got on the swamp buggy the sheepdog with the two different colored eyes, running around and looking past the dog and seeing gators just hanging out by the road, chillin'. I remember Gabe smiling quite possibly the biggest smile a 9 year old could smile as the air boats loudly tore through the Everglades, skimming across the top of the water. Gabe had as much fun as a 9 year old kid could have. We, as a family, had one more chance to have a son and a brother, to be a family. Me and Gabe and Kristy, we could be kids in a kids favorite place - Disney World. There was so much laughing and smiling.

By the time we came back from Florida (and if I'm not mistaken, we returned a couple days before our luggage did), Gabe's body was in a free-fall. When we left for Florida, Gabe walked onto the plane with the rest of us. When we got back, he was in a wheelchair with an IV for hydration. His body was tired. He was tired. Gabe knew it, but he wasn't going to tell us. No, as far as my sister and I were concerned, he was going to be our big brother, and be as strong as a big brother needs to be.

Shortly after our return from Florida, the doctors informed us that the Interluken 2 had failed. I can't believe I remember this, but I actually can hear my mom trying to explain to me and Kristy that the doctors were going to "make him comfortable" at this point. We were both too young to really know what that meant, and I don't think I ever really knew the end was coming for Gabe. For the last few weeks, we saw Gabe's nurse, Lee, and Lee’s DeLorean at the house regularly. When Gabe felt up to it, Lee would take Gabe on mini-trips on the "SS Jedi" (the DeLorean's license plate).

Gabe lost a lot of weight at the end, and was basically just always tired. But I don't remember once him complaining. I have just one or two memories of Gabe after that. Mostly I remember him lying on the couch with the cat, under the afghan that was made for him (I had a matching one - I believe my great-grandmother made them for us).

The rest of the story, I really don't have any memory of, but my mom filled in the blanks for me.

Gabe fell asleep on the 24th of April, 1987, lying on the couch. My dad carried him to bed that night, the lower bunk bed of Gabe and my shared room. He slept the entire next day (I have no memory of that day), and Lee and our Church Pastor Wayne Matejka stayed at his side, and our family's side the entire day and into the night. At 10 or 11 that night, Kristy and I were both asleep when my Dad took us from our beds and put us down on the master bed. I had no idea this had happened.

At 1:30 the morning of April 26th, 1987, my brother, Gabriel Wayne Kostreva, let his body die so his spirit could soar.

It's been 23 years since my brother died, and in reality, I only had about 6 1/2 years to be his kid brother that I can remember. But those 6 1/2 years have given me a lifetime of memories. And even though memories can fade, some things can never go away. The fact that I had a brother, that he was my brother, that will never go away.

Maybe the one thing that bothers me the most is his voice is gone to me. My memories are extremely visual, but not terribly audible. I try and try, but I can't hear his voice, I don't remember what he sounds like. Then one day, not long ago, my Grandpa had his old Betamax Home Movies out, and there was a home movie with my brother in it, laughing and playing and chatting away. As much as I didn't recognize his voice, I still knew it was him, and I have cherished the memory of that moment of watching the video ever since.

My brother would be 33 this November. I often wonder to myself if he'd be proud of me. I'd like to think that despite my own mistakes, flaws and foibles, something about his strength, courage and selflessness made its way to me. Sometimes, when I make mistakes in life, especially huge mistakes, what can jolt me back is that exact thought. I can be better than this, because my older brother, going through all his trials his entire life, was.

Now, 23 years later, I'm continuously looking for ways to be a better me. I blame Gabe for that mostly. If I'm a better me, I can be a better husband, friend, family member. I need not look far for a hero, for an example of love, strength, faith, and basically all the good things in life.

So, one thing I am doing is supporting the Make-A-Wish foundation by participating in a 5K Run, along with my sister, her husband, and their two kids, in honor and memory of Gabe, a Wish Kid from 1987. As I explained in my story what Make-A-Wish did for our family, the organization does this for families all over the U.S. - when a family needs it the most.

Consider joining me in supporting the organization. There's a lot of ways to do so. You can participate yourself in a 5K run/walk (they do several of them in different parts of the US). You can donate directly if you want, or you can join me and Kristy and her family by sponsoring us in honor of not just the memory of Gabe, but in honor of who Gabe was, and continues to be in our lives.

Please consider clicking HERE to make a donation or sponsor our run.

For more information on the Make-a-Wish foundation, and their Walk for Wishes event, please follow these links:

If you have any questions, or would like to contact me directly, you can do so by clicking HERE

Thank you very much for reading and considering the Make a Wish Foundation and what it can bring to a family when it needs it the most.

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  1. Thank you Brad for sharing your beautiful story with us. And thank you to the Racine Post for publishing this on your site! It made me cry but in a very heart warming way. Awareness is certainly the key to opportunities.
    I read a quote many years ago and after raising a child with special needs myself, I still live by it daily.
    "We strive to teach our children about the world, but we must first teach the world about our children"
    Author Unknown

  2. This is an amazing piece of writing. Thank you for sharing such a special, and personal story.

  3. Thanks for putting more memeories of my sweet cousin in my head. Since Gabe and I were only a couple of years apart but a generation in gap of the family, I appreciated the small times we spent together. He had a great sense of humor for such a sick child and I know he loved you and your sister very much. CJ

  4. You are an amazing storyteller. Your brother would be proud of the man you've become. May the run be profitable financially as well as spiritually.

  5. I remember Gabe and know you well. He would be so proud of the brilliant, humble and self-aware man you have grown up to be.

  6. Brad ~ There are many days that I think about Gabe and remember our days in school together. Thank you for writing this! You truely gave him light and gave people the opportunity to see a glimpse of the Gabe that we all knew and loved. I still remember that Sunday Mom and I had just gotten to church and someone came up to me and told me that Gabe had passed away. My heart broke! I hold a special place in my heart for Gabe...and he will never be forgotten!!
    Shannon K

  7. All, thank you so much for your kind words and donations.

    I have written an update and posted it on my blog at:

    Thanks again!


  8. Brad, what a beautiful story! i was looking for the date Gabe passed into his New life, because his funeral was a day before my husbands. And the overflow of relatives who came to my husbands, were from Gabriel's celebration. You are an amazing writer and i have no doubt that your brother Gabe was with you a lot more than you might know. Gabriel was an Angel, and that is two-fold in your life! Your brother is looking for the day when you will join him - but don't hurry, he understands.God Bless you and thank you! dee (Leisner) landerman