Kaleb's Christmas wish: A gravestone for his friend

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The friendship of Kaleb Klakulak and Kenneth "K.J." Gross was cut short too soon, but a symbol of their childhood bond someday may be etched in stone.

Kaleb Klakulak, right, visits his best friend Kenneth "K.J." Gross in his room at Children’s Hospital, where K.J. was laid up from January 4 until May 1, when he died from congestive heart failure.

K.J. was diagnosed with leukemia as an infant and endured surgeries throughout his brief life. Sometimes he and Kaleb, pals since second grade, watched TV and played video games in a hospital room instead of at home. But they hung together until the end.

K.J. died of congestive heart failure on May 1. He was 12. His mom says she can't afford a headstone — but Kaleb is working to ensure his buddy's unmarked grave at Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery will bear an epitaph.

When Kaleb recently heard that LaSondra "San" Singleton was having trouble paying for a grave marker, he decided to raise the money by doing odd jobs, collecting pop bottles and soliciting PayPal donations on social media.

The 12-year-old says he hopes to give the headstone to Singleton as a Christmas present.

"I love Ms. San," he said. "I was sad she couldn't afford it. I wanted people to be able to find (K.J.'s grave) when they went to see him."

Two weeks ago, Kaleb's mom, Kristy Hall of Romeo, helped him set up a PayPal account and posted on Facebook: "If you have bottles or odd jobs that Kaleb can do to earn money he would greatly appreciate that.

"I really think this is a great thing for Kaleb to focus on and help him with his healing as well as K.J.'s mom, who misses her baby and has to visit an unmarked grave," Hall wrote.

Kaleb Klakulak rakes leaves in Rochester Hills to raise money for a headstone for his best friend K.J. Singleton, who died of cancer last year.

Donations, deposit bottles and job offers came in, and Kaleb's mom says he's about halfway to his goal of $2,500.

Singleton, who lives in Warren, said she's overwhelmed by the gesture.

"My son’s not here, but (Kaleb) still loves my son enough to (do) this," she said, her eyes watering. "It just speaks volumes to the type of people that they are, and it speaks to the type of person that K.J. was — he impacted people to where they want to do this for him."

When K.J. was hospitalized for the last time in January, Singleton quit her job as a school cafeteria worker so she could sit at his bedside full-time. She returned to work at Madison Heights High School in September, but with five children and a mother with Alzheimer's disease, she says money is tight.

Last week, Kaleb, his mom and stepfather, Jimmy Hall, surprised Singleton with $900 they had raised. The moment was captured on cellphone video: Singleton buried her face in her hands and sobbed before giving Kaleb a long, tight hug.

LaSondra Singleton wipes tears from her eyes as she talks about her son Kenneth Gross Jr. in her Warren home.  Kenneth died at age 12 waiting for a donor heart that failed due to complications from cancer.

Singleton said she cried plenty after K.J. was born.

"We found out at 13 months old that he had leukemia," she said. "He got a bone marrow transplant from his sister. Three-and-a-half years later, he relapsed, and he had to get another bone marrow transplant from an unknown donor.”

When K.J. started second grade at the Macomb Montessori Academy in Warren, he gushed about a new friend he'd made, Singleton said.

"K.J. used to come home every day telling me about Kaleb: ‘Mom, you’ve got to meet Kaleb; you’ve got to meet Kaleb,’" she said. "At the end of the school year, I finally met Kaleb. Then I met his mom, and we all just clicked.

"He and K.J. were so much alike," Singleton said. "They were kindred spirits; they were like brothers. Even their facial features were alike — the glasses and everything."

During healthier and happier days, Kenneth "K.J." Gross, left, hangs out with his best friend Kaleb Klakulak.

Kaleb invited K.J. to Vacation Bible School at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Warren. K.J. enjoyed it, returning regularly for services and other activities, his mom said.

The boys often huddled in front of the TV, thumbs tapping away at their PlayStation controllers as they competed in the virtual WWE ring.

After he had struggled for years with leukemia, in 2015, K.J.’s doctor told him he was cancer-free. But the chemotherapy had taken a toll, and he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. 

Although K.J. was in and out of the hospital for three years with heart problems, he maintained his sunny outlook, his mom said.

"He was always smiling. He could tell if you were going through something, and he’d come up to you and say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” she said.

But K.J.'s condition worsened. He needed a heart transplant. On Jan. 7, he was admitted to Children's Hospital in Detroit for the last time. 

A family photo shows Kenneth Gross Jr.,  who died at age 12 waiting for a donor heart that failed due to complications from cancer.

"Before he went in, we knew it was going to be long-term," Singleton said. "I moved in there with him.”

K.J. had two leaky heart valves, so as he waited for a donor heart, doctors implanted an HVAD pump in his left ventricle. It was futile.

"After he had the device put in, everything they expected to happen, the opposite happened," Singleton said. "The device was not helping him."

K.J. was depressed, so his doctor bent the rules to allow Kaleb to visit him, Hall said.

"Kaleb was too young to go into the ICU, but the doctor made an exception ... because he thought K.J. needed his best friend,” she said. “They would paint together, and play video games together. K.J. was intubated, so he wasn’t able to speak. But they would communicate. It was pretty amazing to watch."

Most Wednesdays, K.J. tuned into live video streams of services at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church.

"K.J. loved to sing, so when he was able to, he'd sing along," Singleton said.

Kaleb Klakulak wears a dog tags in memory  best friend K.J. Singleton, who died of cancer last year. Klakulak is raising money for a headstone.

One morning, with his health rapidly deteriorating, K.J. woke up at 6:30 and wrote out a request to his mom.

"He was intubated, but he was able to communicate on a whiteboard what he wanted to do," she said. "He loved doing art in the hospital, so he wrote, ‘I want to paint.’ We painted all day; he painted something for everybody that he loved. Then he slept for three days. I believe that was his way of giving something to everybody he loved, because he knew it was getting close."

Singleton said she finally asked her son an agonizing question: Did he want to stay on life support?

"I told him the decision was his — as long as continued to want to fight for the heart, I’d be there for him," she said. "I would’ve loved to keep him here forever, but I told him if at any point he got tired, just to tell me and we’d stop. I kept asking him: 'You still want to fight? You still want your heart, K.J.?' He’d say yes.

"Right before he passed, I asked him if he wanted his heart, and he didn’t answer. He just looked at me. I knew that he was tired. He mouthed to me that he couldn’t breathe. They already had the ventilator at the highest setting. He had to be put back on dialysis, and he was bleeding out. And I knew that it was just time."

LaSondra Singleton holds a photo of her son Kenneth Gross Jr. while standing in front of a tree that was decorated in her son's honor at her Warren home.

Hall said she got the bad news as she prepared to take Kaleb for his weekly hospital visit.

"It was a Tuesday, our usual day to go visit K.J., and I texted his mom and said, ‘so is our little buddy ready for a visit today?’ Sometimes if he wasn’t feeling well, we’d make it for the next day.

"She called me right away, so I knew something was wrong," Hall said. "And she asked me to bring Kaleb to come say goodbye, because they were going to take him off life support.”

Hall and Kaleb went to the hospital and went into K.J.'s room. "He was alive but not conscious," she said.

Kaleb couldn't bear to watch his friend die, so Hall took him to a waiting room.

"After he had passed and San had some time alone with him we were able to go in the room and see him," Hall said. "He was tube free. He was a beautiful angel. It was the first time in months we got to see just him.

"We left and Kaleb began throwing up from a migraine," Hall said. "This was his first experience with the death of anyone close to him."

Singleton said her son “went peacefully. He was ready to go ... God wanted him back."

Kaleb Klakulak wears a dog tag in memory  of his best friend K.J. Singleton, who died of cancer last year.

After his funeral at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist, K.J. was buried in a family plot at Elmwood Cemetery. Soon, Kaleb hopes, the gravesite will bear a marker.

Singleton said Kaleb and his family are helping her deal with losing K.J.

"They’re amazing people,” she said. “When you just think that the world is in such a bad place, and everybody is so angry, and there’s so much hatred ... they make you think of things differently."

Kaleb said he'll cherish his favorite memory of K.J.:

"I kept hiding and scaring him," he said. "He laughed a lot."

To donate to K.J.'s headstone fund, visithttps://paypal.me/pools/c/89LivOFYJR.


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN