In 2005, Jason and Jennifer Russo had their first son—a dark-haired, deep-brown-eyed little boy with a big smile. From the beginning, Jace was an energetic adventurer, a bright, outgoing, impetuous child excited to taste and experience life.
Two and a half years later, the Russos had another boy. Sweet, quiet and affectionate, Jonathan had lighter hair than his brother’s and beautiful hazel-brown eyes. Jonathan was happiest when he was with his family; at any given moment, you could find him in his mother’s arms holding a Thomas the Train toy in one hand and an Oreo® cookie in the other.
Where Jace was the lead explorer, his younger brother was the consummate sidekick, and the two were inseparable friends as well as brothers. If Jonathan wasn’t shadowing his mother while she worked in the kitchen, he was playing with trains with his older brother or following him and his school friends around the house. Though Jonathan’s amiable personality made him a natural friend to everyone, he saved his deepest loyalties for Jace.
At one point, Jace enrolled in an age-4-and-up karate class. After a year of watching his brother, Jonathan asked to do karate as well. On March 3rd, 2011, the instructor gave his permission, and Jonathan excitedly stepped on the mat for the first time. He grinned proudly as he followed the practice routine next to his brother, and Jason and Jen smiled to each other as they watched their boys together on the mat.
The Russos were happy, but financial constraints sometimes made life stressful. To keep their family budget from imploding, Jason worked overtime. And when the state gave him (and most other state employees) a pay cut in January 2011, Jason worked even more until it seemed as if work was all he ever did.
“Some days Jason would leave in the morning before our boys got up,” Jen says, “and then he’d come home after they were in bed.”
In January 2011, two of Jen’s elementary school friends, Brooke Paulin and Melissa Markiewicz, reconnected with her and told her about Melaleuca. Jen enrolled, though Jason wasn’t enamored with the idea at first.
“He told me it was okay, ‘as long as it doesn’t cost us any more money,’” Jen remembers.
After sampling the products, Jen knew she couldn’t just keep Melaleuca to herself. In February 2011, she enrolled a dozen or so customers, advanced to Director II and started her Melaleuca business.
A few weeks later, the day after Jonathan was granted his wish at Jace’s karate class, Jason and Jen awoke at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of their youngest son crying. From when he was 18 months old, Jonathan had experienced a series of overwhelming headaches. But the doctors’ diagnoses were always “allergies” or “anxiety,” and the remedies never seemed to relieve the pain.
On this day in March, Jonathan’s excruciating headache lasted from when he woke up until well into the late afternoon. When even medications couldn’t dull the pain, Jason and Jen decided to take him to the emergency room at a children’s hospital.
“I think the doctor could see how concerned we were, so he ordered a CAT scan,” Jen says. “When the doctor came to the waiting room with the radiologist, they told us Jonathan had a mass in his brain. It was a craniopharyngioma brain tumor—not a cancerous one—that had formed while he was in the womb. It was literally a one-in-a-million thing.”
After a short stay in the hospital and many MRIs, the Russos went home to wait for surgery, which was scheduled nine long days later. At that time, Mardi Gras celebrations were kicking into gear outside the Russos’ suburban New Orleans home, and inside, Jason and Jen could hardly sleep. Knowing their worries could consume them, they resolved not to read about Jonathan’s condition or the surgery online; they’d simply trust the medical professionals and pray for the best result.
The weekend before the surgery, the Russos decided to deflate their family’s anxiety. They took their boys to the zoo, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, a St. Patrick’s Day parade and a family get-together with relatives to unwind just before surgery day.
“Jonathan was in rare form,” Jen says. “He wasn’t in pain and he wasn’t shy. He was so happy to play with his brother and cousins.”
On Monday morning, March 14th, the Russos arrived at the hospital ready to get the operation over with. Hugs, kisses and reassurances preceded silent goodbyes as a sedated Jonathan was carried into the surgery room.
“As Jason and I walked into the waiting room, an overwhelming feeling came over me,” Jen says. “I knew we’d done everything we could. I knew at that moment we’d left our son in God’s hands.”
For the first couple of hours, a nurse provided Jason and Jen with regular progress reports. But then the updates suddenly stopped. After what seemed like an eternity, Jen called down to the surgery room to ask how things were going.
“Everything is fine,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “We’ll give you details later.”
But when the details came, Jen and Jason learned things were anything but fine. Jonathan’s tumor, they learned, had sat on the artery that carried blood to his brain. When the tumor was removed, Jonathan bled profusely, and the lack of blood to his brain caused a stroke. The little personality they’d said goodbye to in the anesthesia room had slipped through the surgeon’s fingers and was gone.
“And basically,” Jen says, “our whole world fell apart in that waiting room.”
In the ICU after the surgery, Jen gently caressed her son and found him still reacting to her touch. But as the hours wore on, that reaction faded as the life seemed to drain out of Jonathan’s body.
Jonathan died on March 16th, and Jason and Jen left the hospital feeling as if a hole had been bored through their hearts. But they knew another challenge was waiting for them at home: they needed to somehow tell Jace.
Before Jason and Jen even stepped out of their car, Jace ran out the door.
“Where is he?” he demanded. “Where’s my brother?”
They went in the house and sat him down on the sofa. Again, Jace asked, “Where’s Jonathan?”
“He’s in heaven,” came the choked reply, and with it, 5-year-old Jace, understanding his parents, collapsed in tears.
Wounded and grief-stricken, the Russos huddled together that evening, weeping, holding one another and clutching tightly to what remained of their family.
Days later, Jen would find herself in Jonathan’s room, his clothing still hanging in the closet and his toys still on the shelves. Lying down in his bed—“the closest I could be to him”—Jen could almost feel Jonathan hugging her with his little arms or pressing his soft cheeks against hers.
“Sometimes I hear other moms complain or get frustrated when their children yell ‘mommy, mommy, mommy’ over and over again,” Jen says. “I think to myself, ‘I’d give anything to have my son call for me again.’
“Before all of this, somone gave me a quote that didn’t mean much to me at the time: ‘Enjoy the little things, for someday they may become the big things.’”
Hope for the Future
When they finally combed through their mail after returning from the hospital, the Russos found an envelope from Melaleuca—Jen’s first Melaleuca check for $1,220. They set it aside while they grieved and endured Jonathan’s heart-rending funeral. But by the end of the month, that Melaleuca check had taken new meaning.
“Jason hadn’t worked at all that month,” Jen remembers. “He was paid leave time but he didn’t earn any overtime. Later, we realized that we couldn’t have paid our bills if it weren’t for that check from Melaleuca.”
After crunching their family finances, Jason saw something in Melaleuca he hadn’t seen before: an opportunity to spend more time at home and less time on the job. Overnight, Jason went from being unsure about his wife’s new business to leading her presentations. They worked together with a new purpose—putting an end to Jason’s overtime hours.
In June 2011, still grieving, the Russos found a new ray of joy: Jen discovered she was pregnant and this time with a girl.
“Jason’s family hadn’t had a daughter born in 61 years,” Jen says. “We were both in awe when we left the doctor’s office. We got on the elevator, and a few minutes later, I asked, ‘Did you push a button?’ Jason said, ‘No, I figured we’d just ride this elevator until we figure out how to raise a girl.’”
By September, the Russos’ Melaleuca check had grown to $4,302, enough for Jason to clock his last hour of overtime and giving them the opportunity to spend a lot more time together.
“Last May, we took Jace to see the real Thomas the Train in Alabama—a vacation we plan to retake every year in remembrance of Jonathan,” Jen says, “Then, in November, we took Jace to Walt Disney World.”
In January, Jen gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Juliana has dark hair, Jonathan’s captivating eyes and a big smile just like her brothers. Already, Jace is protective of his little sister.
Jen says the pain of losing a child has never faded or eased, and never will. But if there’s a consolation to what they suffered last year, it’s that they’ve realized how precious and valuable family time really is.
“When we lost Jonathan, we decided we’re not going to wait to live our lives anymore,” Jen says. “We’ve learned that if there’s something you want to do with your children, don’t wait. Just do it, because life really can change in the blink of an eye … After all, family is what matters most.”