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Milestones

A Proud Letterman Humbled by Life

February 21, 2001|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She saw the jacket draped over a chair the other morning as she was cooking potatoes and eggs. Unexpected feelings, like cold air through an open window, caught her off guard, as often happens to mothers of boys becoming men.

Tammy Burghgraef, 40, of Ontario is easily diverted. Her sentimental ways magnify small moments, reminding her of how different life was five years ago, when her son, Jasen, was a patient at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

There were times when she feared that her only child might never have the chance to experience the milestones of growing up. Yet, suddenly, it seems, he has become a young man, 5 foot 9, 15 years old, wearing his letter jacket to Ontario Christian High School, her alma mater, for the first time.

The jacket is green, the color of spring, with gold trim and white leather sleeves. He earned the letter last spring as one of eight team members who met the requirement of playing in at least half of the team's league matches. At the awards ceremony, Jasen was honored as rookie of the year.

It wasn't until January, however, that his letter and jacket arrived. At first, he was hesitant to wear it, worried that fellow students might ridicule him, contending that true athletic prowess was demonstrated through such sports as football, basketball, baseball. Not golf.

Jasen was 8 when his grandfather started teaching him the game. He took to it immediately. Though he plays other sports for his school, football and basketball among them, it is golf that he loves first and most.

Diagnosed with juvenile-onset diabetes when he was 4 years old, he doesn't remember a time when he didn't have to take insulin shots or track blood-sugar levels. The disease taught him the importance of discipline and consistency, qualities that have served him well in his letter sport.

It was Jasen's consistency, says his coach, Ron Miersma, that was the strongest part of his game. Over nine holes, he almost always finished in the low 40s.

Golf is a relatively new sport at 420-student Ontario Christian, Miersma says, and perhaps that is part of the reason it is not as popular as other sports. To some, usually those who have never played the game, being a good golfer is like being a good stamp collector. What's the big deal?

On the day three weeks ago that Jasen decided he wasn't going to let such impressions bother him, he wore his jacket to school, deciding he had the right to be proud of lettering as a freshman.

"Playing sports is a privilege," he says. "There are a lot of kids who can't play sports. They're sick or they can't see or they don't have arms or legs."

Such wisdom emerges from hard truths. Five years ago when Jasen was hospitalized for four months with aplastic anemia at Loma Linda, he became part of a fraternity of children forced into courage and faith by deadly adversity. He was on the fourth floor, the children's oncology ward, where young hearts battled fiercely for life. They didn't always win.

It's a place where children teach adults that life should not be taken for granted. So as Tammy looked at her son's letter jacket folded carefully over the chair, it made her think about how one can emerge from great depths--and about life's possibilities. Jasen's came in the form of a new medication, which ended the blood transfusions and the need for a bone-marrow transplant. Jasen was able to return home, and he never forgot about the other children and the lessons he learned.

*

They were running late as Tammy drove Jasen to school. When they arrived, Jasen was eager to get to class. "You look sharp," Tammy said, in reference to the jacket. Then she said the words that end all of their goodbyes. "I love you."

Before driving off, she watched him walk away, his name spelled out in gold, swirling letters on the back of the jacket.

His first class was wood shop. Jasen kept the jacket on. From one class to the next, he wore it, finally removing it for lunch and folding it across his lap.

"I didn't want to get it dirty," he says.

Tammy ate lunch that day with a colleague at Swat Fame, a clothing manufacturer in the city of Industry, where she has worked for 12 years. She described how Jasen had worn his jacket for the first time, how proud she felt. How grateful.

No one teased Jasen for wearing his letter jacket. The only comments he received were in praise and admiration. He went home feeling good, something he does not take for granted.

*

To report a milestone, large or small, please email duane.noriyuki@latimes.com.

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