Woodstock, Halloween night, 2008. The town’s main streets, a quaint cluster of earthy boutiques and cafés, are closed to traffic, allowing the teenagers of the Catskills to take part in an annual tradition known as the Shaving Cream Rave. With dance music pumping from massive speakers, kids gather at the triangle where Tinker Street merges with Rock City Road, impish grins on their faces and cheap metallic cans of shaving cream in hand. Then chaos: shaving cream shooting into the air, covering the streets, slathered and slapped on bodies, rendering all costumes unrecognizable, obsolete.
Among those looking forward to this bit of community-sanctioned madness is a 15-year-old boy named Killian Mansfield, lanky, sardonic, inquisitive-looking. Like many teenagers, Killian is drawn to music—his iPod is stocked to capacity with everything from hip-hop to esoteric jazz—though unlike most teenagers he has long displayed a precocity when it comes to making music. He spent his early years living in the city, first in West Harlem, then in an 800-square-foot co-op in Riverdale. Back then, his mother, Barbara, worked as an arts fund-raiser, and his father, Phil, now a photographer, was a tour guide. Killian attended violin recitals at the Manhattan School of Music and began playing himself at age 3, first violin, then fiddle, and has more recently turned his attention to one of music’s more eccentric instruments: the ukulele. The instrument’s limitations—its peculiar size, its strange open-tuning combinations—are, for Killian, its strengths. He likes to play unexpected songs on the uke: stadium anthems, blues, funk, alternative rock. Always carrying his neon-orange uke case, he has become known in the area as something of a teenage troubadour, often jamming with local musicians who quickly forget that he is still, technically speaking, a kid.
Arriving in Woodstock, on Halloween night, Killian immediately leaps into the fray. He has lately developed an ironic fixation on all things Chuck Norris, and tonight he is dressed as the kung-fu master circa 1985: army boots, a denim vest tightly buttoned over a spandex muscle suit, and a fuzzy glue-on strawberry-blond beard. Within five minutes, however, he is covered in shaving cream and having an awesome time … until his parents, standing on the sidewalk, see him emerge from the crowd, a distraught look on his face. He is calm—Killian is nearly always calm—but something is clearly wrong. His hand is gripping a spot just behind his left ear.
“We have to go,” Killian tells his mother and father, when he finds them. “It’s bleeding.”
It is a tumor, one that Killian keeps hidden with his long, sandy brown hair. He was diagnosed with cancer at age 11, a rare form called synovial sarcoma, made up of cells that invade muscle and bone tissue. After an awful year of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as two major surgeries in which a piece of his jaw was removed, he seemed to beat it. Around that time, his family moved to West Shokan, a picturesque hamlet twenty minutes north of Woodstock located along the Ashokan Reservoir. They lived out of a general store they operated off Route 28A, an old-fashioned little place with rickety tables and an antique icebox. “We really just came out here on a whim,” says Barbara. “In a way, I hoped that if we left the city, the cancer wouldn’t come back.” For two years it didn’t. Then, in 2007, a scan revealed tumors in Killian’s mouth and throat.
The day before Halloween, Killian was at his weekly uke lesson with Ralph Legnini, a family friend who has a recording studio on his property: a cozy space heated by an electric stove. Ralph got to know the Mansfields through the general store, which they were forced to give up shortly after Killian’s cancer returned. Too many bills, too much to think about. Still, the store had had a profound effect on the community—bringing together everyone from Times-reading weekenders to local deer hunters—and everyone now does whatever they can to help the Mansfields. Ralph had been particularly impressed by Killian’s bluesy version of Prince’s “Kiss.” He added his own progressions, tweaking the song in places, and his voice had a beguiling depth and maturity: The kid sounded like somebody who had lived a long, complicated life but not let go of his innocence. For kicks, they recorded the track. “If you ever want to record anything else,” Ralph told Killian, “just let me know.” It was a casual offer. Ralph envisioned Killian coming by with friends his age, goofing off, going home, nothing more.
A couple of days after Halloween, the Mansfield family is in an ambulance bound for the city, speeding down Route 87. The tumor has not stopped bleeding. This is abnormal. Killian is writhing in a pain he has described as throbbing, needling, electric, knifelike … Killian has always been an articulate guy, but this … this is a pain that defies his ability to describe it. He says, more than once, that he thinks he is going to die. After an excruciating wait in the emergency room at Columbia Presbyterian, Killian is taken into surgery for an embolization. The goal is to cut off the blood flow to the tumor. But when the doctors emerge, they tell Killian’s parents that the operation is unsuccessful. Killian, they say, will not be leaving the hospital.