Even at just 10 years old, Elijah Aschbrenner knew how to command a room. The cancer patient knew how to create smiles, win hearts, and most importantly of all, out-live and out-best the finest doctor estimates.
Too fittingly it feels, I found out he passed away late Tuesday night while I was looking at my texts Wednesday morning as I walked out of my own oncologist's office.
Becky always has a smile and a kind word, is always so optimistic. So was Elijah throughout his often brutal battle. So was his little brother Sam, who has been a fantastic source of strength for them all. They exuded all the love and optimism you could possibly will upon a group given the toughest existence imaginable.
Very unfortunately, we knew this outcome for Elijah. Yet Becky and her large and loyal crew outside Charlotte, North Carolina, continued to pray for a miracle while simultaneously wishing for peace and comfort for her sweet son -- an exemplary example of living in the moment.
WWE wrestling superstar Titus O'Neil changed an airline flight to visit Elijah this summer, and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton surprised him at a very early block party to celebrate the 10-year-old's favorite holiday, Halloween.
Martin Truex Jr. and his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex -- who is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer -- have lent Elijah and his family planes for doctor appointments and shoulders to lean on in between.
He joked back in October that all the good will from so many made selecting a favorite driver "a minor problem because they are all so good to me."
On Wednesday, Pollex tweeted "Go outside today and bask in the sunlight w/a loved one, help others by doing a kind deed, tell someone you love them. ... do it for Elijah."
I spoke with Elijah a month ago for a column I wrote about him for NASCAR.com. I knew his story would inspire and encourage. I also wanted him to have a chance to read it, knowing what an inspiration he had become to so many. To me.
But you don't have to have cancer to appreciate Elijah's large attitude and bigger spirit.
I even received notes from others who had interaction with the same rare and fatal version of childhood cancer, Epithelioid Sarcoma that Elijah so bravely battled. Just having the name printed apparently helps that cause, and I know Elijah would want that at the very least.
When I spoke with Elijah a little over a month ago, his voice was much softer than I remembered from our first meeting in May at the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation's "Catwalk for a Cause" pediatric cancer fundraiser in Mooresville, North Carolina.
At that event Elijah was the rock star and everyone else merely his very-willing cheerleaders. He carried that unmistakable vibe -- and brightly dyed hair -- throughout his cancer battle and even into the deep, dark days of recent weeks when his mom was buoyed because he was still reactive to his favorite show, "Wheel of Fortune."
Despite all Elijah was going through he made it hard for you to be sad because he was so joyful despite all the pain and fear of the unknown.
When I interviewed him for that October story, I made a point of not crying while speaking with him -- even though as a mom and cancer patient myself it often proved difficult.
When we last spoke weeks ago, he was still upbeat and still inspiring. He offered all sorts of wisdom, sounding much older than his 10 years.
I asked him what advice he had for me and others: "Keep fighting and ... breathe.''
His mom shared that Elijah also had advice for her -- in addition to allowing a maximum of only three minutes of crying.
"There have been many days when my faith is down and I'm scared and worried and he'll look at me and say, 'Mama, we're going to get through this,' " Hughes recalled. "Never once has his faith been in question. A few months ago, he coined the phrase, 'Faith and believing are your cure.'
"And he really means it."
We all owe Elijah gratitude for his inspiration, his strength, his grace and a smile and happiness that should be remembered and cherished.
We will keep fighting for you, Elijah.