VERMILION — Xander Cormier, 6, loved superheroes.
His favorite was Captain America, but since he had already been that for Halloween, he chose to be Superman last Halloween. That led to his little sister, Kali, who followed in his footsteps all the three years of her life, dressing as “Girl Superman.”
So it seemed a fitting tribute to the dark-haired kindergartner to declare a “superhero theme” for his funeral Thursday.
Xander died late Saturday after suffering an acute asthma attack last Thursday just steps inside the door to his family’s home after getting off the school bus. The attack — his parents believe it was caused by a gust of wind carrying pollen — led to fatal anaphylactic shock.
“He had a little wheeze, and I started a breathing treatment, and we were looking through his backpack and then … he wasn’t breathing any more,” said his mom, Emily, 30.
She immediately grabbed his EpiPen, called her husband at work, gathered Xander in her arms and ran to the door, screaming for help. A neighbor came and called 911; Xander’s dad, Jeff, was also calling 911 on his half-mile drive home. He ran in and started chest compressions. Within minutes, police came, then paramedics. There was enough time for Jeff to overhear “It’s not good,” and Xander was loaded in an ambulance, and screaming toward Mercy Medical Center.
His family drove behind.
Kali, who witnessed it all, asked, “Daddy? Xander dead? Can they make him alive?”
It took an hour there before a faint pulse was detected, and he was loaded onto a helicopter bound for Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. By then Xander was being kept alive by machines. The bright boy who picked up the alphabet in sign language by age 3, the extraordinary student who excelled at math and reading, failed doctors’ tests for any brain activity.
“I already knew, but I didn’t want to admit it,” Jeff said. “I knew when I held him. He wasn’t himself any more.”
His parents were given the choice when to disconnect the machines. Late Saturday evening, Jeff climbed into his hospital bed and held his tiny body while Emily sat next to him, one hand holding his and her other resting on his chest.
It was the first time the pair, who had sung him to sleep most of the nights of his life, sang a duet: “I’ll Follow You into the Dark.” It was made popular by the Dresden Dolls, the group that headlined the concert where the couple met in Pennsylvania.
“He held onto the end of the song,” his mom said.
“We felt that last heartbeat,” Jeff said.
And then he was gone, hours before Mother’s Day. Kali wakes up through the night, missing him. She has questions about Minecraft only her brother could answer. His “Poppa,” Emily’s father, Keith McKim, looks at the ground when he mentions “our little man.”
“We used to build Legos together. He’d tell me how to do it,” McKim said.
This is how quickly life changed for the Cormiers: A week ago, Xander chose to stay home when his dad and Kali went to the store because “we don’t get enough Mommy-Xander time.” Last Wednesday, he went to Target with his dad and bought a Star Wars hat he couldn’t wait to wear to school. By Thursday night, Jeff was emailing Xander’s teacher to tell her he wouldn’t be able to chaperone the class field trip to a farm on Friday.
And, as it turns out, Jeff won’t be chaperoning this Friday’s trip to the zoo. As with the farm, Xander had really looked forward to that one, too; he loved the zoo and, in his by-the-book way, wanted to visit the animals in alphabetical order.
Word spread throughout the town through bits and pieces, mostly through Jeff’s articulate and heart-wrenching posts on Facebook. It is how he works through his grief. By Monday, teachers at Vermilion Elementary School were bringing meals. Principal Bonnie Meyer told Xander’s parents there are already plans for a memorial to Xander — possibly a “buddy bench” at the new school where the elementary kids will go this fall.
A “buddy bench” is a bench where kids know they can go sit if they need a friend, and their classmates keep an eye out for those in need. That’s fitting, his dad said. That was one of their goals for the school year — to make friends.
“Well, that was easy for him,” Meyer said. “He was definitely a good buddy.”
Rebecca Lawson, Xander’s teacher, brought an envelope full of cards his classmates had made for him, and a laminated posterboard of messages they wrote. “We would always share the green hammer when we played blocks,” one friend wrote.
Lawson had to break the news to his classmates Monday, explaining that she would be crying because she was sad.
“They were all sharing stories about him, and they had a very acute sense of who he was,” she said. “For such a little guy, he filled a big hole in this world.”
Xander’s death was announced at the school Monday, and a note was sent home to parents explaining his death and offering the services of the school’s counselor, as well as a link to the family’s Go Fund Me account. A friend of Emily’s set up the page to raise money for funeral expenses and to allow Jeff to take time off work. The Cormiers are a single-income family, and Jeff works on commission selling cars at Liberty Ford.
Like everyone else in the community, Jeff said, his bosses have been accommodating: The owner of his dealership donated $1,000 to the account. And, he said, he’s “apparently sold several cars” in the past few days — previous customers or new ones who asked that the commission be given to him.
The Cormiers repeatedly have said how humbled they are by the overwhelming support they have received. They describe themselves as private, “stick-to-ourselves people” since their move to Vermilion two years ago. Jeff grew up in Massachusetts, and Emily in Pennsylvania.
Most of Emily’s siblings have already been to town, performing missions of mercy: Removing Xander’s shoes from the living room, where he left them when he walked in Thursday. Taking his car seat out of the family car.
His body will be cremated so the family “can take him with us” if they ever move again, Jeff said.
His parents live in the twilight between “your worst nightmare, times 10” and preparing for Thursday’s funeral, Jeff said. Those attending are welcome to wear superhero costumes in Xander’s honor. His GoFundMe page is dedicated to “Super Xander.” Plans for superhero days at his school and the middle school in town are being discussed. Sunday night, his dad bought all the Disney Infinity figures Xander had wanted. They are all displayed on a shelf in the small living room, surrounding a tiny votive candle holder with the imprint of a flower — Xander’s fingerprints in paint.
It was one of the Mother’s Day gifts he had made for Emily. The other was a laminated paper with a picture of himself holding a heart, a flowerpot with “flowers” painted by dipping his hand and fingers into paint, and a poem:
“I’ve made some flowers With my finger and thumb So you’ll have these memories For all the years to come” Under it is, “Love, Xander.”
Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or [email protected]
POSTED 6:55 PM, MAY 13, 2015, BY MATT WRIGHT AND SUZANNE STRATFORD, UPDATED AT 10:31PM, MAY 13, 2015
VERMILION, Ohio – The Vermilion community is mourning the death of 6-year-old Xander Cormier, who died after suffering an asthma attack. His family thinks pollen may be to blame.
Xander was a kindergartner at Vermilion Elementary School who loved reading and science experiments, and, more than anything, his family said Xander loved superheroes. The school held “superhero day” Tuesday in Xander’s honor. Students and staff wore superhero clothing.
Xander had just arrived home from the school bus stop Thursday when his family said he started wheezing. His mother, Emily, grabbed Xander’s inhaler and tried an epi-pen, but he went limp. Xander was taken to a local hospital where a nurse detected a faint pulse, and then flown to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, but he was unresponsive to tests for brain activity. He was removed from machines and passed away Sunday.
Jeff Cormier, Xander’s father, said his son had a history of asthma and allergies, which they had been treating. However, Xander had never before had any episodes that were as serious. Cormier said he feels a gust of wind carrying pollen may have sparked the asthma attack. Pollen was a trigger for Xander’s asthma.
The Vermilion community rallied to support the family. Beanie’s Laundry, located just down the street from the Cormiers’ home, posted a sign out front saying “Xander is our super hero.” A Go Fund Me account established to help pay funeral and medical expenses had raised nearly $20,000 by Tuesday evening.
Cormier said the family is incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support, but nothing can make up for just five more minutes with Xander. A superhero-themed funeral service is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday at Riddle Funeral Home in Vermilion.
Xander’s kindergarten teacher, Rebecca Lawson says the loss has been incredibly upsetting for both students and staff at Vermillion Elementary School.
“They’re all processing the loss and really missing Xander in all sorts of different ways,” said Lawson.
Along with the “superhero day” professionals at the school have been talking with students and allowing them to talk about their feelings and what the loss means to them.
“One of the things the kids continually said is what a good friend he was,” said Lawson, “And that was so true for Xander he would go out of his way if there was anybody in need.”
Every teacher who knew Xander said that he was an “exceptional child” who was not only kind but “brilliant academically” with aspirations of becoming an inventor.
Educators and administrators are already talking about getting a “buddy bench” at the school to honor Xander’s memory because he was always a buddy to everyone; especially children who didn’t have many friends.
Lolita McDavid, M.D., with University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital said a severe asthma attack can cause lung spasms that may result in cardiac arrest. She said it can happen quickly, leading to death.
“Asthma is a serious, serious disease. It’s the most common chronic disease in childhood and we’re seeing more and more of it,” McDavid said. “You have to know what your triggers are.”
McDavid said she recommends parents see an asthma specialist who can develop a plan and prescribe control and rescue medications.