Boys to men: Anniversary of boy's death

Published: Thursday, Aug. 13 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

The boys were 18 in 1999, the year they spent every evening in Cameron Westenskow's bedroom. They had just graduated from Highland High, so they were on the cusp of adulthood, ready to go out into the world, but still young enough to be curious.

They'd been coming to Cam's room since February, when his brain tumor finally stopped responding to heroic treatments. They came every night for six months, for an hour or two or sometimes three, bringing their jokes and their lives to the room where Cameron lay dying.

It was here they learned that a boy could be dying but also cheerful, that a boy who is dying is happy to still be treated like one of the guys, even if the guys have just pulled the plug on his air mattress. It was the months spent with death in that bedroom, they say, that made them all best friends for life.

Now they're 28, grown men with wives and children. Earlier this week, on the 10th anniversary of Cam's death, they gathered in Cam's parents' backyard, where Carolynn and Paul Westenskow were making a rock garden in memory of their son.

The rocks had been sitting in the Westenskows' garage for years, left over from the Christmas tree decorated in their son's honor at the Festival of Trees the winter after he died. The rocks are engraved with reminders about courage, kindness and friendship.

The rock-garden dedication could have been a somber occasion. But that's not Carolynn Westenskow's style. So there were hamburgers on the grill and a whimsical photo hanging from the side of the garage. The photo was taken at Jesse Greer's cabin in the summer of 1998, a time when everyone in the picture looks healthy and also definitely naked. Each boy is holding a strategically placed rock.

It was Carolynn Westenskow's idea for the men to pose again, this time with the memory-garden rocks. They are fully clothed but somehow more awkward this time, the intervening years having added some laugh lines around their eyes but also having made them a little more reserved.

"All of us had our whole lives ahead of us, as far as we knew," says Greg Lowe. "And then, all of a sudden, one of us didn't. It made us realize that life can be short. I don't think most 18-year-old kids think of that. It gave me a desire to use the time I have better."

By the summer of 1999, when the Deseret News first told Cameron's story, the boy could no longer walk or talk. "Cam lived vicariously through us," Gavin Gough explains. Just showing up and talking — Carolynn Westenskow used to call it "chatter therapy" — made Cam feel normal, his brother Brian remembers. "Cam despised pity."

In the 10 years since Cam's death, his friends have gone on missions, gotten degrees, gotten married, had children of their own. When they get engaged, says Carolynn Westenskow, they always want to show the girl Cam's room.

The room is, more and more, the place where his mother puts the papers and clothes she can't find another home for. "The catch-all room," she says.

In some ways it's just a room. But also a sacred place, says Gough. "It's where we learned what it was to be true men."

e-mail: jarvik@desnews.com

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