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brain cancer

METRO photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

One day, you’re playing with your twin sons at home, running around with a ball on the driveway, calling and waving to neighbors who pass by when they walk their dogs or take their daily stroll through the neighborhood.

The next day, your life changes.

You want to know why or how, but you’re too busy trying to apply the brakes to a process that threatens the nature of your existence and your current and future happiness.

Your son had some gastrointestinal issues for a few weeks. You took him to the pediatrician and he said he’s got to get over a virus.

You wait, hope, and maybe say a few extra prayers, because the hardest thing for any parent to endure is the sickness of a child.

You check on him, day after day, hoping he’s better, only to find that there’s no improvement.

Suddenly, three weeks later, you’re in the hospital, trying to keep yourself, your spouse, and your other son calm while doctors remove a malignant brain cancer in a 5-year-old boy who defines “goofy” and “playful.”

One of our close friends in our neighborhood just started this unimaginable battle against a disease many of us know all too well, although the specific form of cancer varies.

Their babysitter shared the horror of the prior weekend with me outside the window of her passing car, where she normally would have driven both the twins to school.

I heard the story because I asked about the empty car seat in the back, where both boys typically showed me whatever stuffed animals or toys they had decided to bring to school, either for show and tell or because they were carrying an object that began with a particular letter.

As I talked with the babysitter, who spoke in the kind of hushed and dramatic tones often associated with discussions about serious health crises, I thought about how hard it was and will be for the other son. I thought he needed the kind of 5-year-old normalcy that might become hard to find when he’s worried about his brother and the anxious adults around him.

I asked him to show me what he was holding. He had a pink llama, who he said wanted to poop on my head or on my dog’s head.

I told him that my dog wouldn’t appreciate the poop unless the stuffed llama somehow pooped pink marshmallows.

He laughed, flashing all his straight baby teeth.

As I walked home, I thought of all the things my wife and I planned to offer our neighbors. Maybe we’d babysit the healthy son, walk their dogs, help with house chores, bring over food, do anything to lighten the unbearably heavy load.

I also thought about all the scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University I have known who are working towards cures for cancer.

Many of them know someone in their family, their friend group, their neighborhood, or their schools who, like my daughter’s beloved first-grade teacher, suddenly were in a battle for their lives against a disease that steals time and joy from people’s lives.

Their labs often invite or include family members of people with cancer to staff meetings and discussions about their work, making the connection between what the scientists are studying and the people desperate for solutions.

It seems utterly cliche to write it, but I’m going to do it anyway: we should appreciate and enjoy the days we have when we’re not in that battle. The annoyance of dealing with someone who got our order wrong at a restaurant seems so spectacularly small in comparison. 

We can appreciate that the person who seems like a total jerk for cutting us off on our way home may also be the one racing back to hug his child or spouse after an impossible day that changed his life.

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Glen, Zachary and Renée Cote are receiving a new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo from Renée Cote

By Desirée Keegan

After a series of unfortunate events, a string of fortunate ones led the Cote family to their soon-to-be new home in Miller Place.

Glen and Renée Cote, and their 7-year-old son Zachary, were chosen to be the receivers of the 11th home for returning veterans, a program put in place by Rocky Point VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch.

Renée Cote said to be chosen for the home on Helme Avenue is a dream come true.

“It’s extremely overwhelming — we feel extremely blessed,” she said. “I’m just happy that my son is going to have a home and that my husband and I are going to be able to live in a community that’s done nothing but support us.”

The framing is up for the new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place, which the Cote family will receive as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The framing is up for the new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place, which the Cote family will receive as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The family has, until recently, lived in a rental home in Sound Beach, but found out in March that it was being evicted because the landlord had let the home fall into foreclosure. But that’s not where the hardships began.

Glen Cote, who was a U.S. Army combat medic from 1988 to 1992 and specialized in deployment training and immunization for a bulk of army medics in the Gulf War, met and married his wife following his service. In 2002, Renée Cote was diagnosed with a rare and painful metabolic disorder called acute intermittent porphyria, which requires expensive biweekly treatments that she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital. As a result of her illness, which there is no known cure for, she has suffered three strokes.

In 2009, the couple welcomed Zachary into their lives, who in June 2014 was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, and has since endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy. His treatment had to be halted when he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

“We’ve had the most horrific circumstances happen to us, but in every event there’s been such a huge blessing that’s come out of it,” Renée Cote said. Two years ago, the family was chosen to be recipients of a fundraising effort during Shoreham-Wading River’s Lax Out Cancer fundraiser, which supports local children with cancer. The family was chosen again as the beneficiaries of this year’s event.

“This isn’t a free movie ticket or a handbag. This is a home that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. We’re still trying to process it.”

—Renée Cote

“We’ve mad a lot of friends, a lot of contacts,” Zachary’s mother said. “There are so many people in this area that genuinely want to help people, and it’s so amazing to be on the receiving end of it. It’s awkward, but it’s very humbling. My husband and I just look at each other and feel extremely blessed.”

Due to his illness, Zachary had to start kindergarten a year late, and his parents were worried about how he would manage school, but Miller Place school district has also been supportive of the family, and their fears melted into appreciation.

“The way that the teachers and faculty have personally taken to Zachary on a whole different level, it’s just incredible to see the love, and it’s a very humbling feeling to know that strangers are so willing to help,” his father said. “It was tremendously important that we stay in the district, and for this to become available, so we can set roots here and Zachary can be stable and make friends in the neighborhood. I couldn’t ask for much more at this point in time.”

Glen Cote also suffered a serious incapacitating injury on the job, to the point where he qualified for Social Security disability. Testing showed that his injuries led to a diagnosis of degenerative disk disease and shoulder and knee arthritis.

Following the eviction notice, the Landmark Properties owner was connected with the family when a friend of the Cote family contacted the vice president of Bridgehampton National Bank, who sent out an email to the chain. The manager of the Rocky Point branch knew what Baisch does for veterans, and immediately contacted him on their behalf.

That’s when Baisch asked to meet them.

Zachary Cote enjoys a day at the beach. Photo from Renée Cote
Zachary Cote enjoys a day at the beach. Photo from Renée Cote

“When they came in her, I didn’t know them from Adam, but they were very forthcoming and told me their story. It was a little overwhelming to take in,” he said.

He told them he’d contact Cognitore and get back to them, but the family wasn’t going to get their hopes up.

“We left thinking that there was just no way that we’ll be able to get this to go in our favor,” Renée Cote said, but the following week they were asked to come back to his office and were told the good news. “I honestly never thought something like this would happen to us. This isn’t a free movie ticket or a handbag. This is a home that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. We’re still trying to process it.”

The family will be moved in by Christmas, which Baisch is thrilled about, after he found out that the Make-A-Wish Foundation couldn’t send Zachary to LEGOLAND until next year.

“The happenstance of this is incredible,” he said. “Can you think of anyone else more deserving? I feel privileged to do what I do. It’s been a very good year for me. I’m on cloud nine.”

Knowing that they’ll never have to move again is what excites the family most.

“My son will make marks on the walls and I’ll tell him you did that when you were 8, you did that when you were 9,” the mother said. “Now knowing that no one is going to come knocking on my door telling me ‘you need to get out’ because of somebody else is mind blowing.”