But cancer is never predictable; it’s especially unpredictable with teenagers, whose bodies are at the peak of their health. So while the doctors are delivering the grim news to Killian’s parents, and while his parents call friends and family, his body manages a miraculous rally, expelling the tumor on its own. As it turns out, Killian will be leaving the hospital, though his doctors are far from optimistic. There are no more options—he has been through countless experimental trials in the past year, none of them pleasant, none of them successful—and from here on out he will be under hospice care. If he makes it to Christmas, his parents are told, he will be lucky.
“Killian,” his doctor says to him a few days later, “you understand something very serious has happened, right?”
“How much do you want to know about it?”
“Nothing,” Killian replies, his standard response to such questions over the years. “I don’t want to know anything.”
During the two weeks Killian spends in the hospital recovering, he meanders around the corridors in his scrubs playing his uke for other patients. At one point he finds himself thinking back to the moment during his uke lesson with Ralph, just two days earlier, now seemingly a lifetime away. He has an idea. “I want to record with Ralph,” he tells his mother, “but I don’t want to do it with friends.” Smiling, but serious, he adds, “I want to play with famous people.”
Killian is very specific about his intentions. He wants to put together an album that raises money for Hope & Heroes, the integrative-therapy program at Columbia Presbyterian, and a relatively new field in cancer treatment. Integrative therapy, which includes everything from diet to acupuncture to massage, is about keeping the patient not just alive but comfortable and in control. Killian’s parents joke that he chose this cause because his integrative therapists happen to all be beautiful young women.
“I thought I was on a kind of playdate, right? Then Killian starts playing, and I was like, Oh, really? The kid was totally schooling me.”
While still hospitalized, Killian puts together a dream list of musicians he’d like to work with, focusing on those who spend time in the Catskills. E-mails are sent, calls made, favors asked. He wants to make the record a love letter to the idyllic, eclectic swath of America where he’s lived the past few years. As the responses come in, however, the project shapes up to be far more ambitious than anyone first imagined. Among those who sign on are Dr. John, the legendary New Orleans songwriter; Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band; Kate Pierson of the B-52s; the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian; and Todd Rundgren. Ralph agrees to put off all other work in the studio. Killian, meanwhile, compiles a list of songs that, in some way or another, are connected in his mind to integrative therapy. He sees “Scratch My Back,” by renowned bluesman Slim Harpo, as a reference to massage; “Express Yourself,” the funk classic, is chosen to give props to the Cancer Dancers, a group that reaches out to sick children through dance. “Kiss” he deems “one of the greatest love songs ever written,” love being perhaps the best integrative therapy around. Topping his “dream list” of collaborators is David Bowie, with whom Killian imagines recording a uke version of “Starman.”
On November 12, 2008, Killian returns home from the hospital and goes to work, spending as much time at Ralph’s studio as his health allows. Merely leaving the house entails a painful procedure, his mother spending over an hour bandaging his face. To manage the now constant pain, he is on a thrice-daily regimen of medications: Dilaudid, steroids, methadone, and “fentanyl pops”—lollipops coated in an opiate. As a result, Killian is often drowsy, half there, and frustrated by his limitations. On good days, he can work for a few hours; on bad days, he can’t leave the house. The day after he returns from the hospital, he goes in to record “Blue Skies,” by Irving Berlin, but has to stop because of the pain the headphones cause him. Though he never talks about the gravity of his situation, everyone around him is gripped by a palpable sense of urgency, the unspoken question hovering around the project being: Can it be completed while Killian is still alive?
Wearing a gray-and-blue pullover, a pair of black jeans, and his favorite pair of laceless Pumas, Killian stands in front of the microphone, singing Elvis’s “If I Can Dream”: “If I can dream of a warmer sun / Where hope keeps shining for everyone / Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear.” Killian has to be careful not to touch the microphone with his face—just grazing it causes unbearable pain. Killian can’t even wear headphones, which means he has to rely primarily on his memory of the song, as opposed to being able to clearly hear the piano track he’s singing against. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that the tumors in his mouth and throat are growing faster now. Barbara realizes that it won’t be long before her son can no longer sing. “And while I can think, while I can talk / While I can stand, while I can walk, while I can dream, please let my dream come true right now.”