Throughout a difficult and painful fight with brain cancer for nearly two years, 9-year-old Brandon Dominguez never gave up, never stopped fighting, and never lost hope that he could overcome the impossible.
Almost those who knew him best established a memorial to carry his memory and indomitable spirit forward for future generations of students at his former school, Greenbrook Elementary. Staff, students, and parents came together with Brandon's family last weekend for a service placing a memorial bench and two red bushes, Brandon's favorite color, outside the school on what would've been Brandon's tenth birthday.
"Brandon's at peace now, but he's still remembered by this community," said Greenbrook Principal Patricia Holliday. "He touched a lot of people. We want everyone to remember him as a happy boy. He loved red, so the bushes we planted for him will turn red in the spring."
Brandon's death in June came after a long and hard road filled with steps forward and backward with his prognosis, throughout the course of heavy chemotherapy treatment.
In September 2010, Brandon suffered a seizure and a tumor was discovered, which required him to have brain surgery. A few months later he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Soon thereafter, Brandon began chemotherapy treatments at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, five times a week for five months.
"I just cried and cried for a very long time," Brandon's mother Sharol said in an interview with Patch last year. "We don't get cancer in my family. I don't understand how he got it. It just doesn't happen. We hardly ever got sick."
Throughout difficult treatment and painful side effects, Brandon remained determined and upbeat as he fought hard against a relentless disease. After months and months of chemotherapy, Brandon's original tumor shrank by 92 percent of its original size. But the odds were never in his favor.
In November last year, a new inoperable tumor was discovered on the stem of Brandon's brain. The tumor largely impaired vision in his right eye and made movement on the right side of his body difficult. But even when faced with insurmountable odds, Brandon still fought on.
"When the doctor told us I thought why is this happening, I don't understand," Sharol said. "But Brandon looked at me and said 'don't worry mom. I'm going to fight this tumor just like I fought the other one and we're going to be fine."
During a visit with Patch in the fall of 2011, even as he was limited in his movement and his eye was swollen shut, Brandon maintained a huge smile on his face.
"When I think of his life, I'm truly blessed to have gotten to know this kid," said South Brunswick Board of Education member Dan Boyle in an interview shortly after Brandon's death in June. "I told him that we as adults can learn a little bit about how to deal with adversity by how he dealt with this and smiled as he took it on."
Since that heartbreaking day, Holliday said the school has been looking for an uplifting way to honor his memory. The most appropriate time fell on Dec. 2, Brandon's birthday. The Greenbrook PTO donated the bushes, while the bench and plaque was donated by the 2011 class of Greenbrook fifth-graders.
"We sang together and told stories about Brandon that captured his sense of fun and play," Holliday said. "Some of the teachers read reflections on their memories of him. The kids in the fourth grade, Brandon's classmates, wrote messages to his family. The kids who knew him best wrote poignant memories of him. We tried to celebrate his life, but for some of the kids raising the topic made them sad again and made them miss him that much more.
"They miss being around him, but they know they helped keep Brandon happy during the last year of his life."
Still, at the end of the day, Brandon's smile and resilience conveyed a message of hope to young and old alike, especially those lucky enough to have met the special young child.
"The faculty created a ceremony for him that was in step with his spirit," Holliday said. "It was somewhat solemn, filled with moments of laughter and tears."
With a memorial and what will be two vibrant red bushes once spring is in bloom, Holliday said she hopes future generations of students are able to grasp just what Brandon meant to so many in the township.
"He was a fighter who was convinced he was going to beat cancer and who would do anything he could to do that," Holliday said. "He reminds us to always be hopeful. That hopefulness is who Brandon was."