There they were, palms full of food, arms stretched into a cage, feeding a 300-pound silverback gorilla. As the beast snacked out of their hands, Brandon turned toward his son, Austen, to catch him smiling in awe. It wasn’t the first time Austen had faced something so big, so intimidating, even scary. This huge animal – not so different from humans, Brandon recalls – could do so much damage, but in the end, it was majestic, gentle and kind. Brandon knew it wouldn’t get them, just like those scary situations before this one didn’t.
Brandon and Austen’s wildlife encounter happened four years ago, when Austen’s wish to be a zookeeper was granted. He was 8 years old then – he’s 12 now – and he remembers wishing to be a zookeeper because he loves animals, especially penguins. At the time, Brandon and Austen were still coping with life without Brandon’s first wife and Austen’s mother, who died four years earlier. They were also trying very hard to move on from Austen’s cancer diagnosis and the chemotherapy treatment that followed.
“That gorilla was exactly like what Austen went through,” Brandon recalled. “We walked in not knowing what was going to happen, and every step of the way was going to be a new experience, good or bad.
“But for that short time period,” Brandon continued, “we were able to say Austen wasn't a kid who had cancer. He wasn't a kid who was going through treatment. He was something completely different. I was able to see him walk freely. We didn't have to worry about whether he was going to be sick. … All of this calmed my nerves because he was having fun, and at the end of the day, that's what wishes are about.”
Indeed, a wish helps a child with a critical illness experience life beyond a diagnosis. Little did Brandon and Austen know that a wish also has the power to bring hearts and souls together.
Natalie was one of Austen’s wish granters. With many years of wish-granting experience, Natalie had already seen lots of wishes through from start to finish. “I was single for a long time, so this was something for me to do that was close to my heart,” Natalie says. In her role, Natalie helped wish kids decide on a wish that would be good for him or her, talking them through their passions and interests.
But something was different about her interview with Austen and Brandon. “You could just tell that Brandon was such a kind and gentle man,” Natalie recalls. “He talked about his work, and how hard he was working as a single dad to make Austen’s life great.
“He also does the funniest gorilla impression.”
Brandon performed that for the wish granters that night, and the group talked for hours. Natalie also learned that Austen was getting ready to finish his cancer treatment; he was finally going to get some reprieve. “This was a time in their life that something positive was happening,” Natalie says.
After Austen’s wish, Natalie dropped off a scrapbook at their house – alone, which wasn’t usually the case. “Brandon will joke that I set it up that way,” Natalie laughs. “But I walked out that day and I just thought, ‘gosh, I would love to stay in contact with this family.’”
Brandon must have felt similarly. A few months later, he summoned the courage to ask Natalie out to watch football over pizza. They were engaged three months later.
“We were put into each other's lives for a reason,” Natalie says. “I think it's so important for people not to feel alone. And I think that's one of the huge things that brought Make-A-Wish to Brandon as a single dad. I think that was a time he didn't feel so alone.”
Today, Austen is thriving. He got to pitch in baseball for the first time last summer and he recently ran the ball in football. He’s getting A’s in school. And he has a 2-year-old baby brother whom he loves deeply. “This is a kid who we never knew whether he'd be able to do those things,” Natalie says. “Make-A-Wish highlighted for Austen and Brandon that it's the small things that can really make a huge difference in a kid's life.
“Austen calls me mom now,” she continued. “If he hurts, I hurt. If he’s happy, I’m happy. Even going to all of his oncology appointments now with him – I always take a breath of fresh air after that.”
And they share a special bond over his wish from so many years ago.
“It's so much fun to talk about his experience with his wish and looking back at his scrapbook and talking about that time,” Natalie says. “People would never know that he went through such a tough time in his life. It's still amazing to talk about that time he went through, though. We even have paintings that the zoo sent home with Austen, painted by animals such as a bear, hippo and tiger. It's fun to look back on those and just talk about those memories.”
Meanwhile, Brandon sees another side of his son now, after the dust of so much change has settled.
“He’s very humble,” Brandon says. “He acknowledges the road he has been down. He knows that life could be a whole lot different. He uses that to push himself.”
Austen's wish was granted by Make-A-Wish Nebraska.
Show us some love this week by posting your favorite Make-A-Wish memories to Facebook or Instagram using #HugsAndWishes.
BECOME A WISH GRANTER! Make-A-Wish trains wish volunteers to help children identify their most heartfelt wish, and then bring the experience to life. Visit your local chapter’s website to learn more about its volunteer needs. FIND MY LOCAL CHAPTER
Did you know that this week is Congenital Heart Defects Awareness Week? A child with a congenital heart defect may be eligible for a wish. REFER A CHILD TODAY