Leah Weisburn had just been blindsided by the unsettling news of the death of James Bennett.
Like many of her friends and Revere School District classmates, the Richfield girl was emotionally spent.
Hours later, she received a call from James’ mother, Sarah Mader Bennett, asking a favor. An unusual and special one.
She wanted 14-year-old Leah to design the urn that would contain the ashes of her long-suffering son — her only child.
James died July 30 at Akron Children’s Hospital following a diagnosis 16 months earlier of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. A diagnosis that kept free falling and tanking into medical difficulties.
Until now, Leah — artist extraordinaire, but oh so shy — has kept quiet about her final gift to James.
After considerable nudging by this columnist, however, she agreed to talk about the role she played in creating the vessel for James’ remains.
Weeks later, it’s still a tender subject.
The effects of James’ journey can still be seen on her face and that of her mother, Hope Weisburn.
“They came in very emotional, of course,” Sarah Costic, artist and owner of the Richfield Art Studio and a huge supporter of Revere school students, said about Leah and Hope.
“We stayed up late into the night, sharing stories about his life and exploring what would be the appropriate vessel for him,” said Costic who created the urn.
“In between crying and sitting around the pottery wheel we decided it needed to be porcelain, the most precious clay.”
“This was such a special moment to be invited to be part of,” she continued.
“We just wanted this [vessel] to be special for Sarah Bennett and her family,” said Hope Weisburn, who is a freelance industrial designer. It’s obvious her two daughters, Leah and 12-year-old Hannah, share her artist gene — a talent both have honed with special art classes and workshops.
Like James Bennett, Leah has many layers of interests. Perhaps, that’s what was at the core of their strong friendship — the one Sarah Bennett intuitively recognized in deciding to entrust Leah with this monumental undertaking. So sure she could get the job done and done properly.
Leah did not disappoint.
The first step was deciding on the shape for the vessel.
“The vessel — which started out from 8 pounds of clay — went through a lot of changes as we talked,” said Sarah Costic about the three’s time around the pottery wheel.
“It started out more rounded. But as they shared more and more stories I started angling it more, making it more masculine. It actually has a classic Greek-like form with a large belly and fluted top.”
It measures 10 inches tall and 8 inches wide.
“Hope and Leah wanted it to be very earthy and sturdy,” Sarah Costic continued.
“James loved nature,” Hope Weisburn chimed in.
“And he wasn’t a commercial, store-bought kind of kid,” Leah said knowingly.
“He was a one of a kind,” she added, her words trailing off.
James — after the initial (April 2011) diagnosis — underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Then there was a diagnosis of adenovirus (a complicated infection in the respiratory system), the removal of his colon and encephalitis (a swelling of the brain).
Remarkably through it all, he managed to maintain a positive “pushing forward” attitude.
He was genuinely grateful to everyone who ever did anything for him — the medical staff at Akron Children’s Hospital, his family, of course, and his friends he kept in touch with online. He also developed a special friendship with Barbara McKelvey and her partner Sammy, a rescue Bichon, who regularly volunteered with the Delta Society’s Pet Partner Program and Akron Children’s Hospital’s “Doggie Brigade.” Sammy is assigned to the hospital’s oncology unit, where he met and befriended James.
Even as life was slipping away, James turned his attention to the well-being of others evident in his final message to the at-large community:
“Mommy and Daddy, thank everyone for the well wishes, prayers and good karma …
“Please ask them to donate blood, platelets and bone marrow.”
Capturing his personality
Before cancer took him hostage, James was active in a number of things. His greatest joys were being outside, practicing archery with his bow and arrow and woodworking.
He also loved playing baseball and soccer, horror movies, zombies and dogs.
The self-driven Leah — who is in honors classes and academic clubs, golf, band (vibraphone and oboe), Student Council and more — had the lofty goal of capturing her friend’s essence on his urn.
Hope, camera in tow, accompanied her daughter to the Bennett home to help with the research.
They learned from James’ mother that he always sat on a sofa by the front porch. The view was of a Japanese maple tree from his window.
Ultimately that was the design Leah settled on.
She created a template from her mother’s photo and traced the tree’s design on the urn.
“I did a basic outline of the trunk,” Leah explained, painting and building levels of the tree.
The tree — which wraps around most of the vessel — is brown with red leaves. The background is light blue with white clouds and green grass.
Near the top of the tree is a white dove. In cursive is the word “Peace,” which speaks so poignantly to what those who knew and loved James wanted for him after such a long struggle.
The dove underscores Leah’s overall inescapable message “moving upward and onward … free,” Hope Weisburn added.
Meticulous in every detail!
The pale-yellow lid or knob, Leah explained, represents the sunshine and heavens.
Underneath the lid is yet another significant post from Leah:
Even though the urn is sealed, including the message was urgently important to Leah.
Leah aptly signed the bottom of the urn in keeping with James’ greatest fear — not of dying, but of being forgotten — this way:
Painted by Leah.
The Richfield Police Department is also doing something incredibly special in memory of James Bennett, who touched so many lives in quiet ways.
Patrolman Mike Simmons designed a plaque — 14 inches by 8 inches — dedicated to the memory of the teen he first met when James was in Revere Middle School. It will be formally unveiled at the Oct. 2 Richfield Village Council meeting.
“It has a photo of him at the [Cleveland] Indians game. [The date of James’ birth and death] Oct. 28, 1997-July 30, 2012 ,” Simmons said.
“And these words [from poet Maya Angelou] because he never wanted to be forgotten:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said.
“People will forget what you did,
“But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Simmons also said his police family and the Fraternal Order of Police have donated to a special memorial fund at the school sponsoring an eighth-grader from the Revere District to attend the class trip to the nation’s capital in the spring.
“We’re really pushing that,” he said. “It was something James had looked forward to. We think he would like knowing another student will be able to go.”
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.