The Berns siblings Connor, Laney, Alyssa, Lacey, Logan, Kaleigh, DJ and Hope stand with Hunter, at the Princess Anne High School graduation.
Story by Irene Bowers
For a long time, Robin Berns kept a photograph of her 3-year-old son, Hunter, taped to the dashboard of the family van. Each day’s trip to Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, she would look at the photo and pray.
“I wanted that Hunter back,” she said. “I prayed so hard to have him back.”
It is now 18 years later, and Hunter is no longer taped to the dash. Last time I looked, he was sitting in his wheelchair in the van’s interior, wearing his cap and gown for graduation from Princess Anne High School.
I begged for a ticket for the day because I wanted to witness history: Hunter, now 21, pushed across the stage by fellow graduate and younger brother, Connor, age 18.
I first wrote about the Berns for The Virginian-Pilot in January 2000. The story was about their experiences as a military family with a toddler, Hunter, who was a patient at CHKD. Since then, we’ve become close friends.
Hunter has confounded medical science for most of his life. He should have died at age 3, after suffering a prolonged grand mal seizure during radiation treatment for brain cancer. The resulting brain injuries took away his ability to form words or control his body.
His doctors determined he could not finish the cancer therapies, and Hunter set off into uncharted waters.
Wheelchair-bound despite sustained efforts to retain muscle and bone strength, he lived beyond expectations at ages 5, 10, 15, 20 as each life-threatening issue was surmounted.
This past September he was placed in hospice, with everyone drawing the same conclusion. The move to the next life is between God and Hunter, and neither is telling.
Connor is tall and handsome, heading to ODU to study engineering. He played football, wrestled, captained the lacrosse team, served on the altar at Little Creek Chapel for years. He surfs, works part time at Home Depot, and locally markets the outdoors game RampShot.
He and Connor have shared a bedroom for most of their lives, in an addition that dad, Mike Berns, built onto the house.
Every morning of this past school year, Connor cleaned and dressed his brother, lifted him into his wheelchair, fed and readied him for the bus to classes in Princess Anne’s West Wing, and, only then, prepared for his own school day.
Every night, he completed Hunter’s bedtime routine before closing his eyes to sleep.
Connor’s biggest senior-year ambition was to ensure that Hunter graduated with him. It was deeply personal, and the whole family was there to witness their victory.
As families go, they are exceptional. There are nine siblings in all, with Hunter the exact center, the fulcrum. Every kid either graduated from or is currently attending Princess Anne High. They are so common a sight there as to be overlooked, much as you stop gaping when you live next to the Grand Canyon.
Hunter’s four older siblings are a doctor, special education teacher, military officer and elementary school teacher. The younger four are split between college and high school, all holding jobs and involved in a million activities. I’m pretty sure one will be president someday.
These kids have lobbied Congress for better pediatric cancer research, lugged Hunter around the bases in Challenger Baseball, pushed him in more road races for cancer research and for CHKD than can be counted.
They are comfortable with brain shunts, feeding tubes, oxygen levels, catheters, wheelchairs and Hoyer lifts. They have never caved to the disease and its decades long shadow, opting instead to live in the light of love and craziness, faith and humor.
A version of this story is played out every day by all the people who care for each other from both sides of the thing that would separate them. It may be cancer, concussive brain injuries, dementia, birth defects, strokes, mental illness, old age, anything.
They are asked to live the impossible, and they do it.
None of us wants to be in that desperate place where Hunter’s mom, Robin, found herself those many years ago. I don’t pretend to understand that it gets better, but she will tell you so.
“I finally realized we couldn’t go back; God was asking us to go forward,” she said. “Our lives have been blessed through Hunter ever since.”
I thought about that during the Princess Anne ceremony. What is the value of graduation except to honor effort applied over time, the employment of talents to the best of one’s ability, perseverance in achieving goals?
Connor’s walk with his brother honored their parents and siblings, his brother’s beloved doctors and teachers, and the many good people who have shared Hunter’s journey over the years.
It honored his brother’s irrepressible will to live, and quite without intending, it brought honor upon Connor himself.
It was a graduation for the ages, with yet another blessing from Hunter: Life is a stage. Push on.
by: Irene Bowers