Years after losing cancer battle, a scholarship to honor Jimmy

Jimmy Koslosky in a 1999 photo taken at the Illinois State Fair. Soon after, Jimmy was diagnosed with leukemia. (Credit: Koslosky family courtesy)
Jimmy Koslosky in a 1999 photo taken at the Illinois State Fair. Soon after, Jimmy was diagnosed with leukemia. (Credit: Koslosky family, courtesy)

The Southold High School Class of 2015 will receive their diplomas Saturday.

One by one, the 73 students will hear their names called before tossing their caps and heading out into the next chapter of their lives.

This is a story about the one member of the class who won’t be on hand to hear his name called: Jimmy Koslosky, who would have been the 74th graduate.

Jimmy was two weeks away from his third birthday when he lost a seventh-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia on March 31, 2000. To honor him on the day he would have completed high school, his parents, Jim and Tina Koslosky of Southold, set up the Jimmy Koslosky Memorial Scholarship. The $1,000 award, funded through the sale of development rights at Ms. Koslosky’s four generations old family farm on Route 48, will go to one of 20 students who entered an essay contest. This is the only year the scholarship will be given.

“This would have been his class,” Ms. Koslosky said. “It wasn’t until we started this process that we realized we already knew so many of these kids who would have been Jimmy’s classmates and would have been his friends.”

Since he was diagnosed at such a young age and forced to spend the final months of his life in either a hospital bed or away from other children, Jimmy never had the opportunity to make friends, his mother said. So the Kosloskys focused the contest on the people he did know and love: family.

Students were asked to write about how siblings (or, for only children, other relatives) shaped who they are or guided them through triumph and struggle.

Jimmy was the second of four Koslosky children, born two years after big sister Sam. Their mother learned she was pregnant with a second son, Jack, soon after Jimmy was diagnosed, and a second daughter, Caroline, arrived a few years later.

Jimmy and Sam sure did get along, causing a little mischief any chance they got, pulling pranks like taking the decorations off the Christmas tree when mom and dad weren’t looking.

Their grandmother, Carol Koslosky, said they were inseparable; Sam wanted to hold the bottle any time Jimmy was fed.

“She didn’t go anywhere without him,” Carol said. “I can still picture them together in the back of the van in their car seats.”

The “dynamic duo,” as their mother called them, both loved to stop on their way home from church at a farm on Albertson Lane, where they’d feed the horses. Then they’d head to Country Corner Cafe for a family meal.

“He was such a sweet, cute and innocent little boy,” recalled Country Corner owner Kelly Hunstein, who helped organize a fundraiser for the family after Jimmy fell ill.

Jimmy was all smiles when the family took a trip to Illinois in the summer of 1999. They visited family and the Illinois State Fair, where they attended a country music concert. But soon after the trip, the Kosloskys noticed Jimmy wasn’t feeling well. The first doctor they saw diagnosed him with an ear infection, starting off a series of misdiagnoses.

“He was so crabby, so cranky and we couldn’t understand why,” his grandmother said. “It snowballed from there.”

It wasn’t until the fifth doctor the family visited that blood work was recommended. While a normal white blood cell count would be about 8,000, Jimmy’s was over 100,000 and rising.

He’d end up spending a month at Stony Brook University Medical Center, where he’d fill his time in between treatments watching “Toy Story” and “Blue’s Clues” and getting to know the hospital staff — the closest thing to friends he’d ever know. Jimmy became so close to Curtis Ellis, a custodian at the hospital, that the man ended up as a pallbearer at his funeral.

The Kosloskys say they believe things happen for a reason, but they’ll never understand why Jimmy was taken from them so soon.

“I try to no longer ask what it would be like if Jimmy were still alive,” Tina said. “God laughs at you when you tell him your plans.”

Jimmy and Sama Koslosky play in a snowstorm in February 1999. It was the only time Jimmy ever had the chance to play in the snow, his mother said. (Credit: Koslosky family, courtesy)
Jimmy and Sama Koslosky play in a snowstorm in February 1999. It was the only time Jimmy ever had the chance to play in the snow, his mother said. (Credit: Koslosky family, courtesy)

Two of the other Koslosky children, Sam and Jack, also had health problems at an early age. Sam was born three weeks early with hydrops fetalis and her mother said she nearly didn’t make it through her first day. At six months, Jack developed a tumor on his forehead; thankfully it was benign.

Soon after Jimmy got sick, Ms. Koslosky left her job as a physical therapist to be with him. Her husband, who works in information technology, took a leave of absence. The couple rotated with their parents to make sure that at all times someone was with Jimmy, who didn’t quite understand why he was in the hospital, undergoing chemotherapy.

“I’ve been a bad boy,” he once told his mother.

“Why would you say that?” she asked.

“Because I’m here,” he said.

To help Jimmy better understand his situation, the Kosloskys taught him about “The Peanut Butter Prince,” a play about a young prince who doesn’t want to grow up, which Tina’s parents wrote for North Fork Community Theatre. They played him a recording of one performance and, in one scene, the prince’s father tells him he must get bigger, find himself a princess and slay a dragon.

“For Jimmy, the dragon was cancer,” Tina said.

Toward the end of his short life, Jimmy’s parents were looking ahead as doctors searched for a bone marrow donor. They hoped that by summertime, the transplant would be completed and the rest of 2000 would be about a challenging recovery.

Jimmy’s spirits remained high throughout the ordeal.

Carol remembers sneaking him outside — the doctors knew what they were doing, but to Jimmy they were sneaking — to play tetherball. And he’d have a giant smile on his face every time he was pushed around in his wagon.

He eventually returned home where he was, as best he could, living the life of a happy kid. In February 2000, he asked the Make a Wish Foundation for a trip to Disneyland, but never made it.

On the evening of March 30, Jimmy was lying on his bed in his pajamas when his mother overheard him talking.

“I’m not ready to go yet,” he said.

He didn’t answer when she asked who he was talking to but 15 years later she has a pretty good idea.

“Someone came to get him,” she said.

The Kosloskys rushed to Stony Brook University Medical Center , where Jimmy was in and out of consciousness for several hours before finally dying in his mother’s arms early the next morning.

“He was just such a beautiful little boy,” Carol said. “To this day, I can’t believe he’s gone.”

The Kosloskys marvel at the support they received from the Southold community throughout Jimmy’s ordeal and the warmth even distant neighbors and strangers showed them in the days following his death.

As the funeral procession made its way to St. Patrick’s Cemetery, the farmer on Albertson Lane let his horses out one last time for Jimmy and stood with his hat held over his heart.

Left at his graveside in the days that followed was a basket of daffodils with an anonymous card that read: “You can be sure there are no dragons in heaven.”

“I still don’t know who left that for us,” Tina said. “But it was beautiful.”

Without the generosity of the community, she said, she doesn’t know what might have happened to her. That’s why the family so badly wanted to pay it forward on what would have been a special day in Jimmy’s life.

Selecting the scholarship winner was a difficult process for the Kosloskys. Out of 73 class members, 20 entered the contest. A family friend, Kate Panetta, whited out all the applicants’ names so the selection would be anonymous.

Jim and Tina first narrowed the list down to four students and then two, but still agonized over the final decision.

Many of the essays were heartfelt, the Kosloskys said. One applicant was a leukemia survivor herself. Another wrote that, looking at Jimmy’s photograph, he knew they would have been friends. One girl said that learning about Jimmy will make her treat her younger brother with more kindness.

“Years ago, the community helped us when we needed it,” Mr. Koslosky said. “To mark the day that would have been his high school graduation day, we are fortunate enough to help out a graduating student.”

On Saturday, Jimmy’s name won’t be called between the names of Heather Koscinch and Alexandra Lasot, two graduating seniors. But thanks to the announcement of the scholarship winner, the name Jimmy Koslosky will still be called from the podium that afternoon. It will be followed by the name of another of Jimmy’s classmates, the one who will receive a $1,000 gift from him and his family.

“I’m just hoping I can keep it together,” Tina said, wiping tears from her eyes.

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