Ben Keaty, 9, running to keep best friend's memory alive

HUNTLEY – There was a time not that long ago when Ben Keaty didn’t have enough endurance to run around the cul-de-sac in his family’s neighborhood without having to stop to catch his breath.

To consider running any longer was unthinkable – let alone in a formal race environment where the finish line was 3.1 miles from the start. But that’s when the 9-year-old Huntley boy started to think about the obstacles his best friend, Carter Kettner, had endured.

And suddenly, completing the Hyundai Hope On Wheels 5K that is part of the Chicago Half Marathon festivities, didn’t seem so daunting. Like he did last year, Ben will spend part of his Sunday morning running in memory of Carter, who was 6 when he died from an malignant brain tumor in 2010.

Like last year, Ben expects he might be a little nervous – and perhaps, even a little scared. But once he begins to run, he will remember happier times with Carter and his worries will all but disappear.

Ben won’t just run for Carter, but for countless other children stricken with brain cancer who face an uncertain future.

“That’s why I’m doing it,” Ben said. “So other kids can be happy like Carter.”

Carter Kettner was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 5. Over the next 15 months, with doctors unable to operate because the tumor was so tightly fused to healthy brain tissue, Carter’s family moved from Huntley to Memphis, where Carter underwent 33 radiation treatments in three months.

Back home in Huntley, Ben struggled to understand what was going on with his friend. Growing up next door to one another, the boys were inseparable. They squeezed together into a black miniature car, both anxious to take control of the steering wheel. They played video games. They rode their bikes and made trips to the library, to the movies and to get ice cream.

During sleepovers at Ben’s house, the boys would imagine there were monsters in their room. That’s when Ben’s mother, Pam, would come in and spray Febreze – or “Monster Spray,” as the boys called it – to keep any imagined intruders at bay.

But then, a month before he died, Carter’s condition worsened. He lost the ability to speak and spent the majority of his days in bed. Ben’s parents wanted to soften the blow of Carter’s condition as much as they could.

“It was definitely tough – we didn’t want to lie to him, but we had to try to sugarcoat it somehow,” Pam Keaty said. “We told [Ben] it was like a bug – it was a bug in [Carter’s] head. It’s not something he put there or that he did anything to get it there, but that’s what’s in his head and they can’t take it out.”

Ben kept asking questions. Is Carter going to die?

Again, his parents wanted to be honest with Ben, who was 4 then.

“Sometimes, the cancer wins and sometimes the person wins,” Pam told her son.

During Carter’s last months, he lived out a series of wishes. He made two trips to Disney World. He saw “Mary Poppins” on Broadway. He threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. And even when he wished it could rain gumballs, a local merchant donated 50 pounds of gumballs. With Carter knowing it, a few people went on the roof of the Kettner’s home and started dumping the gumballs out of buckets as the young boy watched from his bedroom window in amazement.

But more than anything else, Carter wanted to see other kids’ dreams come true.

When Carter died in May 2010, Ben started to think of how he could help carry out Carter’s wish. Ben worked with Carter’s parents, Joe and Cinnamon Kettner, who started a not-for-profit foundation, Cancer Kiss My Cooley (the word Carter used to refer to his backside).

Ben started to sell bracelets that he made out of colorful strips of duct tape as he began to raise money and awareness about brain cancer among children. He also started to think about running in last year’s Hope on Wheels 5K, training for 10 months with his father, running at first a block at a time before walking another.

Soon, father and son started to cover longer distances. They ran to the bridge that is a mile from their home and then to the library, which is two miles away. The first time Ben ran five kilometers, he celebrated with his dad at McDonalds with a Chicken McNugget meal and a chocolate milkshake.

In preparing for last year’s race, Ben raised nearly $1,200 to help pay for wishes for other young cancer patients – a goal he again has set for himself this year. As of now, he has raised nearly $1,000.

Before last year’s Hope on Wheels event, Ben was awarded a necklace with a pendant bearing the Cancer Kiss My Cooley logo for being the top youth fundraiser. Ben told Pam he wanted to wear the necklace during the race so he could “feel Carter.”

As he approached the finish line, Ben grabbed the pendant and thought of Carter, who Pam says Ben still sees in his dreams. After finishing his run, Ben went over to watch Joe Kettner finish the Chicago half marathon, sharing a private moment with Ben he likely would have had with Carter.

This year, Ben’s fundraising efforts included selling the bracelets. After filming a commercial that Pam posted on Facebook, Ben started going door-to-door, explaining why he was trying to raise money. He has sold 100 of the orange, yellow and silver bracelets, but has discovered that making his friends and neighbors more aware of the cause was even more important.

“It feels good,” Ben said.

Last year, Ben finished the 5K run in 30 minutes, a time he hopes to beat when he tackles the course again Sunday. He feels better prepared than he did last year, building his endurance by playing baseball and soccer and running on the treadmill in the basement of his home.

Pam, who admitted watching people run never interested her before last year, again will cheer her son and husband on as they conquer the 5K course. Like Ben, Pam will spend the day thinking of her son’s best friend.

“Carter definitely had a purpose in life, and his purpose was to create all this other stuff,” Pam Keaty said. “His life is not going unnoticed. It’s not over. It’s not done with. I would trade back everything that has happened to get him back.

“But because of what happened, it’s made [Ben] such a much more empathetic and thoughtful person. It’s not just about him. He looks at other people.”

Ben again will run for Carter’s memory, remembering a friend who he established a bond with that Cinnamon Kettner said still is tough to fathom.

“Ben was always Carter’s best friend and it never really dawned on me until after Carter passed away that he was going to be a permanent fixture in Ben’s life,” she said. “Before, it was just a title – that’s your best friend. He grew up next door, he’s always going to be your best buddy.

“I just thought he was kind of Carter’s best friend on paper. And then when Carter died, Ben said, ‘That’s my best friend and I’m not going to let anyone forget him and I’m not going to let anyone forget how he died, why he died and something has to be done about this.’ ”

Cinnamon’s response was pure and simple.

“You go, kid.”

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