(Patrick Tehan / Mercury News)
Sy Sherman stays so close to his father these days that when a nurse from Lucile Packard Children's Hospital calls, Sy hears her voice coming through the line. The 9-year-old boy waits nervously, leaning into his father, until the conversation ends.
"You got scared, huh?" his father, Matt Sherman, asks after a recent phone call.
Rarely, it seems, is a call from the hospital routine. At least six times in the last eight months, they've gotten word that Sy's platelets are low, that he needs to be rushed by ambulance from his home in Salinas to the Palo Alto hospital for a blood transfusion.
The boy is suffering from a rare form of liver cancer that had spread to his lungs by the time he was diagnosed in February. He was given eight months to live and prescribed a regimen of six chemotherapy treatments. Sy has not only eclipsed that life expectancy, but his little body has been able to handle 11 rounds of chemo. Still, the treatment is starting to damage his kidneys.
"They're saying there isn't anything else we can do for him," Sherman said, "but we're not going to give up."
He hopes a story about his son might reach someone who has a novel treatment, an answer, a miracle. Sherman's not a religious man and rarely has taken his son to church. But over the course of his illness, Sy has appeared to embark on a spiritual journey of his own. He sees things that startle the family. He asks surprising questions.
In the hospital room late one night, while his father slept in a chair next to him, Sy asked a visitor, "How do you pray?"
'My little shadow'
Through it all, his father has remained strong by his side. Since Sy's parents divorced when he was just four, he's been living with his father. His mother lives in Manteca with her three younger children. She sees him as often as she can and talks to him frequently on the phone.
To Matt Sherman, his only child is "pretty much my best friend, my little shadow."
He dreams that they can go back to the way things were, when Sy had a head full of dark hair and he outgrew clothes instead of the other way around. They used to spend weekends, just the two of them, at car shows from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. They love hot rods and lowriders. These days, when Sy feels well enough, they ride bikes to the park. On others, they stay inside and play with Legos.
Sherman, 35, who grew up in Santa Clara and has family there, had to quit his job as a repairman at an auto body shop in order to keep up with Sy's numerous appointments and weeklong hospital stays. On the days Sy is able to go to school once or twice on a good week Sherman needs to be nearby in case he spikes a fever.
On his own, Sherman has called cancer researchers across the country, including at Yale University and Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center, "to see if there is something Stanford can't give us," Sherman said. "They say, 'We're following your son's story.' They are researching him to help others. I think that's awesome, I want to help others, too. But this is my worst nightmare."
The father and son are not going it alone. Sherman's 29-year-old sister, Rachel Sherman, a Santa Clara University graduate and softball coach at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, has hosted fundraisers. She keeps friends and family updated with regular blog posts about Sy's condition at www.sy-story.blogspot.com.
"He's still totally goofy, outgoing," she said. "I don't think he understands the extent of it all."
She's not only proud of Sy, but proud of her brother. "He's never cried in front of Sy, but I know he's dying inside."
Sy is being treated at Packard Children's Hospital by Dr. Arun Rangaswami and nurse practitioner Tara Sotto.
Sotto helps manage his chemotherapy cycles every three or four weeks, his daily feeds and injections at home, his labs twice a week, his complications and infections, and his scans.
"All of us here didn't think he'd be able to be here this far," Sotto said. But there's something special about him that seems to help him going. "He's always been like a grown man in a little person's body. He's held himself so maturely for a 9-year-old. He's been frustrated, but overall, he's been amazing."
The close bond with his father helps, Sotto said. "The way the dad handles the situation is the reason Sy handles it so well. That rubs off on Sy."
A guardian angel?
Sherman's girlfriend of nearly five years, Veronica Amaya, has also been a steadying force. They met online. Sherman's profile was covered with photos of Sy. "That made me think he's got to be a good guy," she said. "It's just him and his son."
She worries about them both, now. "They are inseparable."
She's also spent many nights at the hospital with the two of them, staying up late when Sherman falls asleep. She vividly remembers one night earlier this year, at about 1 a.m., when Sy started to cry. Amaya held his hand.
"I don't know why this is happening to me," Sy said. That's when he asked her how to pray.
"How do you pray?" she asked back, surprised at the question.
"Yeah," he said, "I see somebody when I close my eyes."
"Maybe it's God you see," she said. "Maybe it's an angel looking over you."
"I think so," Sy said, "but how do I pray to him?"
In the dark of the hospital room, lit only by the TV, she showed him how to hold his hands together.
"You just talk to him," she said, "and tell him whatever you want."
So this little boy, with an old man's soul and the spirit of a child, clasped his hands together.
Then he bowed his head, she said, and started to pray.
HOW TO HELP
Wish Book readers can help Sy Sherman's family. Each donation of $50 will help purchase gas cards and restaurant gift cards for Matt for his trips from Salinas to the hospital in Palo Alto. Sy loves to choose video games at GameStop and Target; donations of $30 will buy him some new ones. Each donation of $25 will allow Jacob's Heart Children's Cancer Support Services to help other families whose children have cancer; and will help the Rosario Zepeda Foundation in San Mateo County, which provides support to low-income families and has helped Sy's family.
HOW TO HELP
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