No one heard anything. They only remember Jason Gray’s face.
He stood outside the glass partition at the OSF St. Mary Medical Center nursery in Galesburg the afternoon of March 23 watching nurses weigh and measure his newborn son, Zeke. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he snapped photos of the moment. His smile was endless.
“He was just smiling and crying,” his mother, Pat Gray, said. “He was just so excited, just tears running down his face.”
He was a dad for 53 days. This would have been the 29-year-old’s first Father’s Day.
“He always knew he wouldn’t get to raise him,” Pat Gray said.
* * *
Jason Gray never wanted to leave Galesburg.
The family’s move to Knoxville was only six miles. It might as well been a continent.
“He didn’t want to move to Knoxville,” his mother said. “He hated it. .... He was so mad at me for so long over that.”
The day before Christmas break in 1987, Chris Gray, then a senior at Galesburg High School, stopped by Silas Willard Elementary School to get his brother after school. Jason was transferring to Knoxville the next semester and was sobbing in the car.
“He was really upset and in tears,“ Chris said. “It really affected me quite a bit.”
Chris was eight years older, and the age gap created a natural barrier between the brothers. But after that day, their relationship changed.
“I tried to look after him closer,” said Chris, who finished his senior year at Galesburg. “He was leaving the school he had gone to and was leaving his friends.”
As it turned out, things were not so bad in Knoxville.
In a matter of weeks, Jason migrated to a group of boys in Knoxville his age. He loved his life there. From her house on Westview Drive, Pat would glance outside her windows and watch Jason spill every ounce of his energy playing with the neighborhood boys on an abandoned grass lot nearby.
“It was all the boys in our neighborhood,” she said. “I could look out my window and every day they were either playing baseball, basketball, football. Every day. Twenty-four-seven, those boys were out there.
* * *
Kati Lamb was the one. Pat Gray knew this deep in her bones.
“He was hooked on her,” Jason’s mother said. “He had dated a few before her, but this was it.”
At 16, Kati and Jason met while cruising the Galesburg strip down Henderson and Main streets one summer night. They had mutual friends dating and they soon fell into place.
They were opposites in many ways: Kati was a stellar student who would eventually study French and International Studies at Knox College, while Jason played the role of the jock who studied only out of necessity.
“She brought out the best in him. He was a smart guy but he didn’t like to study. If he liked the subject, he was very good at it. But if he didn’t, he wasn’t very motivated,” Chris said. “But she was a very good student and she had an excellent influence on him. There were questions whether he could get into college or not but he ended up going to (Carl Sandburg College and Western Illinois) and getting his degree in four years, faster than most of his friends.
“That was Kati’s influence on him.”
Jason rubbed off on Kati, too.
“She was a lot more serious and when they got together, she relaxed more and her sense of humor blossomed,” Chris said. “They were just a perfect match.”
Night after night, the couple hung out. “From the moment they met, they were inseparable almost to the point where the guys were like, ‘Where’s our best buddy?’” said Ryan Brown, a close high school friend. “They were head over heels for each other right away. They were madly in love and didn’t care who knew.”
* * *
Jason was a three-sport athlete at Knoxville. He was best in football, he loved basketball the most and the one he actually played in community college at Carl Sandburg was baseball.
“It was sort of a strange combination of things,” Chris said.
“He wasn’t always concerned about wins and losses. He just had fun. He worked hard and wasn’t the star of the team, but he loved being part of a team,” Chris said.
That’s the way Brown remembered him.
Their senior year in 1998, Jason was the starting first baseman for Knoxville. In one game, an opponent lofted a ball toward the foul line, which was set off by an orange, temporary snow fence. Jason gave chase and crashed through the flimsy plastic barrier.
Everyone could see Jason on the ground — and baseball on the ground near him. But he scrambled to scoop the ball in his glove and he popped up, coolly showing it off in the webbing.
“He obviously didn’t catch the ball but he jumped up like he caught it,” Brown said, chuckling at the thought 11 years later.
His teammates and the crowd burst into laughter. So did the ump.
“He was probably the most fun guy I ever knew,” said Brown, now the boys basketball coach at Annawan.
* * *
The setting for the big question was a hotel in Muscatine, Iowa.
In April 2002, Jason called Canterbury FantaSuites. The hotel was well-known for its theme rooms and Jason wondered if an Africa room existed there. Kati had spent a summer on the continent as a student at Knox and the memory was dear to her.
No, the staff told him. But they did have a jungle room.
Good enough, he figured. But upon arrival, they walked into a gaudy room with a zebra head jutting out of the wall above the bed.
“We had to sleep at the other end of the bed because it was too weird,” Kati said.
It didn’t stop her from accepting his proposal.
* * *
On June 7, 2003, the couple was married in a picture-perfect ceremony at the gazebo in Lincoln Park in Galesburg, in front of a massive group of friends and family.
The reception at the Galesburg American Legion was Hawaiian-themed, at the request of the groom. He wanted the guests wearing flip-flops and island shirts, not stuffy dress clothes.
“He was so laid back, all the time,” Kati said.
* * *
Jason’s body soon began acting strangely. He bloated with water weight. His blood pressure elevated to hugely abnormal levels. His bone mass deteriorated.
On Nov. 26, 2004, the news came. He had tumors on his liver and pancreas. Kati remembers the date easily. It was her 25th birthday.
Two months later he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumors, exceedingly rare for a person younger than 60. The tumors caused him to have Cushing’s syndrome and the disorder exposed him to high levels of the hormone cortisol, explaining his symptoms.
“Anything bad that could happen, happens with that,” Kati said.
The couple began going to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. In April 2004, he learned the tumors existed on both ends of his liver. Surgery was not an option.
He was dying.
“There wasn’t anything they could do,” Kati said.
* * *
In January 2006, doctors removed his adrenal glands to stop the swings in water weight and other symptoms. The day after the surgery, his weight plummeted. Jason’s muscles had atrophied to the point where he could not move on his own power. He was miserable.
But his humor was undiminished.
“Can you weigh me? I’m curious because I think I lost a lot of weight,” Jason asked the Mayo Clinic staff.
He was down more than 100 pounds — in one day.
“Hey,” Jason said, “I lost an Olsen twin.”
* * *
With Jason sick, the couple tried to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization.
In July, they learned that Kati was pregnant but their enthusiasm was tempered. It was one year after another pregnancy had miscarried, and they told only close friends and family of this latest attempt.
“When we found out it worked, we were hesitantly excited because it worked one other time before and we lost it,” Kati said.
The threshold after which couples could feel safe was generally regarded as 16 weeks. In October, their fears were allayed. The date had passed.
“It better be a boy,” Jason told Kati.
A month later Kati had an ultrasound with Jason at her side. It was Nov. 26, another of Kati’s birthdays spent in the hospital.
“I don’t give numbers,” the sinographer told the couple. “I don’t give guarantees, but I think it’s a boy.”
“How sure?” Jason asked.
“I just said I don’t give numbers,” she said.
“But if you were going to ...”
“But I don’t.”
“So we’re talking like 80 percent?” Jason said.
“Look,” the sinographer said, showing Jason the pictures on the ultrasound.
“Oh,” Jason said, “OK.”
Later that day, Jason looked over at Kati.
“At least it’s good news on your birthday,” he said.
* * *
Before his diagnosis, Jason started coaching. He helped out at his old high school by working with the sophomore boys basketball team. He was a natural with kids.
After he turned ill, coaching became his haven. Many people questioned him about using the time he had left coaching, but the job meant three hours daily for five months where his mind was filled with basketball minutiae.
In those final years, the couple lived as normally as possible.
Jason continued to work at Sears in the Sandburg Mall and mix in some hours as a substitute teacher with the Knoxville School District. He was obviously sick. His skin was ashy, the deterioration of his once-stout body striking. But he rarely talked of his problems.
“He didn’t want the pity. He wanted to just live his life best he could,” Pat Gray said.
Jason stayed at Knoxville for five years, but he missed most of 2006 as he received treatment at the Mayo Clinic. In spring 2008, the head boys basketball job opened up. Jason threw his name in. But the School Board instead hired Mark Simpson, who played at AlWood High School the late 1990s.
But Jason wouldn’t be out of the game long.
* * *
Mike Reynolds was hired to revive the Galesburg boys basketball program that same spring and was looking for qualified volunteers to help on his staff.
In September, Reynolds contacted Jason about meeting with him and sophomore coach Ryan Hart for an interview. Jason was unsure. He would be a late addition and was an out-of-towner.
At least since the third grade.
“He went to Knoxville. He graduated from Knoxville. He coached at Knoxville. He was used to Knoxville,” Kati said. “He was all worried.”
After the short meeting, Reynolds hired Jason as a volunteer sophomore assistant on Sept. 25.
“You could tell he was comfortable talking about the game,” Reynolds said. “You could see he had a lot of experience because he had a comfort level in being able to talk about the game.”
* * *
Kati understood Jason’s desire to coach. But she had one condition.
Kati demanded that Jason inform at least one of the coaching staff members that he was sick.
She traveled to most of the games, but if she missed one, a coach needed to know about Jason in case he passed out. Without his adrenal glands, his body lacked the natural jumper-cables needed to restart. A shot was necessary to revive him or he would be dead in a matter of minutes.
One day, Jason told Kati he had told Hart.
And what did he say, Kati asked.
“That’s crazy,” Jason said. It sounded like something Hart would say.
But that wasn’t the truth. He never told Hart — or anyone else.
He died months later not knowing the Silver Streaks coaching staff had become aware of his health issues through the grapevine. But the other coaches just figured if Jason didn’t want to talk about it, neither should they.
“We were just like, ‘If he doesn’t want to tell us, we’re not going to pry,’” Hart said.
* * *
After Jason arrived, few of the sophomores wanted to ride with Hart to games. The coaches took two vehicles on the road, Hart driving one and Jason handling the other. Jason was the preferred choice.
“The kids loved him,” Hart said.
Jason’s humor and passion made him a favorite. As an assistant, he was allowed to play the role of the good guy. He was a natural. He was the coach who cut through the seriousness and lent his ears to venting teens.
“Even if things went bad, he would have a joke,” said incoming Galesburg junior Andrew Steck, whose grandmother worked with Jason at Sears. “If somebody made a bad play or funny play, he would have a joke.”
For a man at first worried about connecting with those in the program, Jason grew incredibly close to the players and coaches in his six months there.
“I really appreciated what the Galesburg coaching staff did for Jason. He loved to coach. When I heard Coach Reynolds was going to have him help out, I thought that was a perfect scenario,” Chris Gray said. “I could not tell those guys enough how much I appreciate them giving him that opportunity. He had a great experience.”
* * *
Jason was sitting at home when the call came.
A Caesarean section was scheduled for that Friday but Kati awoke the Monday before with cramps. Hours later at work, her water broke. The baby was coming early. He had prepared for years for that day, but Jason freaked out.
“We almost had to stop by the mall for him to throw up,” Kati said. “He was so nervous.”
But his nerves calmed. At St. Mary Medical Center, he looked after Kati. Was she comfortable? Did she need anything? Did he need to talk to the doctors?
At 1:42 p.m. on March 23, their baby boy was born. They named him Zeke, a name the couple agreed “was somewhat normal and not too crazy,” Kati said. He weighed a shade under seven pounds.
“He came early,” Kati said. “He didn’t want to wait.”
They hadn’t much time left.
* * *
Six weeks later at St. Mary Medical Center, Jason hadn’t slept or eaten in days. By then, the right side of his diaphragm was paralyzed and he could barely breathe. He needed an oxygen tank, cranked to its highest output. Walking a few feet was an exhausting chore.
His insides ached and he flopped constantly in bed. Pat Gray would place a pillow between his legs, but the comfort was fleeting. In a matter of minutes, he would toss and turn again.
“It was just constant,” Pat said of the pain.
In the evening of May 14, Kati brought Zeke to visit his father. Jason saw his son for an hour before he became too tired.
“Go ahead and take him home,” Jason told Kati.
“Would you like me to come back and stay with you?” Kati asked.
* * *
Jason Gray died five minutes before midnight on May 14, with Kati and Chris at his bedside.
The next morning, Hart awoke to several text messages on his phone. He guessed the bad news. Reynolds received a phone call from Kati after second period at Galesburg High School ended. Reynolds scheduled a team meeting in the boys locker room to break the news. A counselor was there with the team members, many of whom never even knew Jason was dying.
“That was something they needed to be told by me and not the newspaper. It was good for them to hear it from somebody who’s familiar,” Reynolds said. “It was a rough day. It was hard because you have to try to put on a strong face because you lead the program, but it hit pretty close to home for us.”
After telling the team, he pulled Steck off to the side. He was one of the players closest to Jason.
“When Coach Reynolds told us, I knew I had lost a good friend,” Steck said.
A month after Jason’s death, Reynolds has started working on early plans for a memorial dinner. Nothing’s official yet, but Reynolds wants to hold the event before the first Western Big 6 conference game next season.
“We just want his legacy and his dedication to our program to not go unnoticed,” Reynolds said.
* * *
In the Knoxville house the couple once occupied together, Kati has a letter Jason wrote to Zeke stored away. In it, Jason talks to the son he knew for seven weeks.
“He’ll have that when he gets a little older,” Kati said.
Zeke lay in her lap, cooing, as Kati recalled Jason’s life last week in that house.
“I don’t have time to think a lot about it. The baby requires all your attention,” said Kati, 29.
“But he looks just like him. He looks just like him. It definitely has kept my mind off it. I don’t have time to sit there and stew. I have the baby. He has helped all of us.”
In Zeke, a piece of Jason lives on.
“Thank God for that little baby,” Chris Gray said. “It’s a part of Jason. We can watch him grow. It’s a memento that he left us . . . something for us to remember him.”