An 18-year-old senior, fighting an aggressive form of cancer, donned a cap and gown in Houston for his own surprise graduation ceremony. Matthew Menara may not get to join his classmates when Western Hills High School in Fort Worth holds its official ceremony in June.
The diagnosis for Matthew came last Dec. 7. Their own "personal day of infamy," his dad called it.
"The germ cell tumor was over his lungs, chest, heart,” Kelly Menara said. “You see these things on TV. But when it really happens to you and your family, it's hard.”
After Dallas doctors found another tumor in his brain, Matthew's parents drove him 200 miles to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where doctors used a gamma knife procedure.
This week, doctors are harvesting stem cells from Matthew that will be reintroduced into his system after aggressive chemotherapy. Aggressive treatments that, even if successful, could keep him in Houston for several weeks or months.
"And every conversation I've had with mom or dad has always been college, college, college. Are we on track for graduation?” said his school counselor Cari Bounds. “And he needs to graduate."
So last Saturday, his counselor, assistant principal and some of his teachers hit the road. And on a gray stormy day in Houston, as the rain began to fall at a Galleria-area hotel, a hotel conference room took the place of a high school stadium stage.
They surprised Matthew with a Western Hills green cap and gown, his high school diploma (each provided months early by the vendors due to ship graduation supplies for the remainder of the 2017 class), and even an official graduation program printed especially for the occasion. They played “Pomp and Circumstance” on a laptop computer and even offered a chance for Matthew to give his cap a celebratory toss into the air.
"Today we announce the graduating senior of Western Hills High School class of 2017, Matthew Menara,” they said as teachers and Matthew’s extended family broke into applause.
"The kid has worked this hard, he's really struggled. It's no sweat off our backs to do this. It’s just something we felt was right to do for him,” said Western Hills Assistant Principal Richard Brown.
And as they offered a prayer for Matthew as part of the graduation ceremony, his mom talked of her prayers and her hopes too -- that the graduation is just the start of a promising future.
"It hurts, here,” Marlyn Menara said, placing her hand over her heart. “That's all I want for my son."
"Truly amazing. It shows that people really do care. That there's a lot of good people out there in the world,” Kelly Menara said.
"I hope God will bless them, everything, what they've done for my son,” Marlyn Menara said.
"It was nice. I didn't expect it,” Matthew Menara said in his hotel room after the ceremony.
Thursday, he returns to MD Anderson to begin a high-dose chemotherapy regimen.
"I have my good and my bad days. I just try to fight through it every day."
He hopes to make it to that June graduation back in Fort Worth in person. His counselor hopes for that too, and something else.
"My biggest hope and prayer is that this is all in vain,” Cari Bounds said. “That Matthew would respond to the treatment and that he would be able to walk with the rest of his class. And that this all would have been a big waste of time."
"But if that doesn't happen, then he will have the memory and his parents will have pictures," she added. "If it just gives them one last memory to hold onto, then what's a day? What's a four-hour drive? It's all been worth it."
The last song they played on that laptop computer in the hotel conference room was "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang.
Then the Menaras and the Western Hills family prayed that a full celebration awaits. And that after Matthew’s chemo, they can all enjoy what the turning of a graduation tassel symbolizes -- saying goodbye to the past and looking forward to a promising future.
A future this newest high school graduate hopes is also waiting for him.
If you would like to help the Menara family in this fight, a GoFundMe account has been established by a relative to help pay for medical expenses.