They buried William Norfleet III Monday, but not before the young man known as “JR” had shown more courage in 19 years than most people can muster in a lifetime.
True heroes don't seek recognition; they earn in it showing bravery in the face of adversity. And hardship was Norfleet's companion almost since birth. Afflicted with scoliosis at an early age, lung cancer was discovered during back surgery a few years later. A few years after that, he developed a heart condition that conspired with everything else to take his life nearly four years after doctors expected him to die.
But because he didn't waste those four years, his story is even more inspirational than tragic.
“He would say, 'They think I'm dying with cancer, but I'm living with cancer. I may be sick, but God placed me here to touch people,' ” long time family friend Janice Harrison remembered. And touch them JR did, with a degree of bravery, grace and art that belied his age and infirmity.
In a collection of poems titled “God's Love From Above,” he concludes by stating that “You cannot always choose your challenges, but you can always choose your attitude!” And JR's attitude permeates the book. In “Stop Complaining,” he writes that “People are always complaining, saying life isn't fair. But not realizing their blessings, until they disappear.” In another poem, God answers the inevitable “Why me?” question this way: “I knew that whatever I through at you, you wouldn't give up. You would make it through. I have a reason for everything I do for you. So a better question would be:
“Why not you?”
God's reason in this case, grandmother Beverly Elkins said, was so that JR's response to his own problems and mortality could inspire others to cope with theirs.
“When he first heard (of his cancer) he was kind of down. But JR had accepted Christ at an early age and I told him that God uses us all. He was bored, wanted to be an inspiration and likes to draw so he said, 'I'm going to write a book.' ”
And so “Captain Chemo” was born, modeled after Dr. Dennis O'Brien, a pediatric oncologist at Lutheran Children's Hospital..
Norfleet wrote and drew the comic book in 2012, hoping its story of a doctor-turned-superhero's interplanetary search for a cure for cancer would give other young people the courage to fight the disease. It was ultimately published with the help of friends (in black and white so kids could color it) and distributed in some schools and elsewhere, catching the attention of a NewsChannel 15 reporter two years ago.
And that report in turn caught the attention of John Weicker, who retired last year after 22 years as the Fort Wayne Community Schools' security director – a difficult job that Weicker said at times had him asking, “Why me, Lord?”
After seeing WANE's story, Weicker wrote Norfleet a letter: “It is very important for me that you know with all certainty that I feel that JR Norfleet's being alive at this particular time has helped me a great deal in deciding not to give up – never give up on fighting for what I believe to be important for kids.”
And in a separate letter to a friend in Indianapolis, Weicker concluded with what would be a fitting epitaph.
“When I think of (Norfleet), and then I think of so many others I have seen who have their health and all they can do is blame their circumstances for the reason they choose to throw away their lives, it just makes me sick.”
Family members share Weicker's appreciation for JR's ability to do so much, for so many, in so short a time.
“I look at life differently now. He made me a better person,” said sister Norreka Elkins, 23.
“He helped me get through some stuff. He opened my eyes,” said younger brother Jason Elkins, 17.
But it would be a shame if JR's bravery overshadowed his humanity. Confined to a wheel chair, forced to wear an oxygen tube, a mere 80 pounds or so, he hardly appeared heroic.
And that is precisely why what he did is so remarkable.
As JR told NewsChannel 15, “Through all the bad stuff I've been through, I'm still positive. Never let anybody tell you you can't do something. The only person who can put limits on you is God. Never give up, and keep the faith.”
And because he kept that faith until the end, Beverly Elkins said, JR's pain is gone, his body healed, and the young man who once feared death was able to assure brother Jason, “I'm not afraid anymore.”
Perhaps his example will allow others to say the same.